The humble leader – humility as a strength in leadership

In an earlier blog, I spoke about quiet leadership and I’d like to continue that one with a few ideas around humility in leadership.   Far from being a weakness, humility can be a great strength in leadership.

A leader who displays humility is approachable.  Approachable people are trusted – and if people trust you, they tell you things. It’s difficult to lead an organisation when your staff are frightened to tell you what’s really happening and soft soap you to save their own skins or withhold some parts of the truth to protect themselves from you.  I’ll guarantee you that if you play the tough leader, you won’t know the half of what’s happening in your organisation.  People will take action and make decisions without your knowledge or blessing, crossing their fingers that they have done the right thing, because it seems safer than approaching you to discuss their ideas.  They would rather take the risk of getting something wrong than having to face you to effectively ask permission when you have erected walls around yourself.  If you don’t know your own organisation, it’s difficult to imagine how you can lead it effectively.

A leader who displays humility engenders loyalty.  If those around you know they can talk to you and have an adult conversation with you, they will demonstrate a great deal more loyalty to you.  If your failure to display humility is perceived as arrogance, they will talk about you behind your back, plot against you and, at worst, work against you.  Disloyalty and demotivation go hand in hand and demotivated people throw lots of energy into being unhappily emotional at the expense of being cheerfully productive.

A leader who displays humility stretches others.  Tell someone who reports to you that you have an idea which you would like to bounce around with them.  They’ll be flattered, motivated and eager to help.  Now you may already know the answer to the problem you’re presenting but this doesn’t matter – the very act of involving the other person shows you trust them, it involves them in the kind of decision making which is part of your working life and it motivates them to want to help.  Above all it stretches their thinking in ways in which their day job may not.

If you involve others in your decision making, then you are effectively starting your succession plan.  It pays for any ambitious leader to have others snapping at their heels, hungry for their job just as you, if you are genuinely ambitious, are snapping at someone else’s.  Now if you are only it for yourself, you won’t care about developing others to take your position when you move up a rung because your focus is solely on you, rather than the organisation.  If you have a real interest in the organisation, then succession planning is part of your responsibility – to ensure that as you move up the ranks, so there is someone behind already trained to slot into the role which you vacate.

You can’t be humble all the time.  Sometimes you have to make tough decisions, be directive and simply get on with things.  But a selective display of humility now and then will do wonders for your credibility and motivate those around you to do even better.

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

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

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Quiet leadership

I was heartened in a recent LinkedIn discussion to see that I was not alone in thinking that charisma is not a necessary quality in leadership.  Leadership books have romanticised the notion of leadership to the point at which corporate leaders have become a breed apart, looking down on their organisations from a lofty perch with a clear view in every direction.  Their very presence turns heads.  They walk into a room and see only themselves reflected in the eyes of their admirers.  They are, in short, latter day narcissists.

In my experience of working with a vast number of private and public sector organisations, real leadership isn’t at all like that. The best leaders quietly get on with leading.  They are not in it for personal glory, instead having a real desire to see their organisations succeed. They realise that the organisation is simply a group of people temporarily working under the same banner and that if they develop good relationships with their people, they’ll probably do well.

The big noises in leadership are self-promoters, great at their own PR and often using their current organisation as a stepping stone to the next.  They have little interest in leaving anything behind, and abundant interest in what they can take out of an organisation.

And the sad thing is that for many years we’ve believed their hype. We’ve bought their autobiographies and “how I did it good” books and believed that this is what leadership is all about.  Worse still, we’ve tried out their ideas without first thinking about their relevance to our own organisations.

Behind the scenes, this has caused some damage.  Many leaders today hold up the celebrity leaders as role models and berate themselves when they find it difficult to emulate them.  At times they appear to imitate their heroes, rather than looking inside and asking “who am I and what do I have to offer?”

So, throw away your ‘I’m-a-leader-please-worship-me’ books and spend a little time reflecting on what’s good about you, what you can do and what, given some support and encouragement, you may be able to do in the future, and you’ll start to see nice things happen.  You may not get a round of applause as you walk into a room; you may not be the most charismatic person on the block;  but you will be you.

And once you stop emulating others and discover what you’re all about, life just gets better.

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

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

Specialists? No thanks, we just want generalists.

Now, here’s a thing.  Once upon a time, we used to hunt out specialists, often put them through fairly rigorous tests and then really value their specialisms within our companies.  Now we hunt out specialists and, within minutes of their arrival in our companies, hand them a competency framework and tell them that they will be appraised on all ten areas.  

And here’s a second thing.  Most organisations, according to the CIPD, either have a competency framework or are planning to introduce one, and either create it in-house or in-house with the help of external consultants.  What they produce is more than 80% generic.  So they have probably wasted enormous amounts of money developing something which they could have found on the internet in seconds and adapted in an hour to appear to relate to their own organisations.

So now we have specialists who aren’t allowed to specialise, working to competency frameworks which are so generalised that most companies are using almost the same one.  Is it me or is there something deeply flawed in the logic here?

Take a look around your organisation, pick anyone at random and try to remember what made you want to hire them at the outset.  If it was anything more than their decorative appearance, then probably they had something of real value to offer.  To what extent have you capitalised on their strengths, encouraged them to develop those strengths, shown recognition of their ability?  Or did you simply hand them a competency framework and tell them to report back at the next appraisal.

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

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

What’s new, pussycat?

The music industry was for some time in denial of the simple idea that fewer people are now interested in buying CDs if they can download tracks from the internet instead. They were late entrants into a field which could have netted them huge profits sooner, had they been prepared to accept that their business model was no longer working.  Instead, they made themselves unpopular by decrying piracy as people illicitly downloaded tracks from rogue file sharing websites, whilst lacking the foresight to set up something similar themselves.  Some years ago, Microsoft were late entrants into web-based society, not initially seeing the potential uses of the internet in their business.  Now we see cloud computing (itself simply a newly rehashed version of the old idea of workstations and file servers) threatening to replace desktop copies of application software and desktop data storage.

A great question for every business, regardless of size, is “Is my business model sustainable?”  If you continue to do what you have been doing to date, will your business survive?  Is there any danger that you have buried your head in the sand, ostrich-like, hoping that some new fad or fashion which might affect you will go away?  Is there something new on the horizon which could actually present you with a real opportunity.

The old PEST analysis model may seem hackneyed but it still has relevance.  In its latest incarnation, as a STEEPLE model, it can be even more useful if only as a checklist of the areas to which you need to pay attention to ensure that you are, as far as possible, predicting what may hit your business from the outside so you are prepared to manage it from the inside.

STEEPLE stands for:

  • Social
  • Technological
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Political
  • Legal
  • Ethical

The last word, “ethical,” is the new kid on the block and is not going to go away.  Whether you like it or not, corporate social responsibility isn’t just a flavour of the month and needs some attention now. It’s worth spending some time with your colleagues brainstorming everything you can think of which falls under each of these headings and  assessing the likely impact on your organisation.  Don’t worry unduly about sorting out your brainstormed ideas into neat categories; there’s lots of overlap between the STEEPLE categories and it’s purely there to kickstart your thinking.

When you’ve listed everything which may affect you, give it a weighting according to the level of risk it poses, assess when it may hit your business and consider the level of urgency you may need to apply in managing it.  Be searingly honest in your assessment of risk.

Now you have your weighted, risk-assessed list, revisit your strategy and judge whether you need to refine it to accommodate the findings of your STEEPLE analysis.  Remember that strategy is dynamic and at least viscose if not entirely fluid.

Now you can sleep a little easier, knowing that you have made the first steps towards embracing what’s new and what you can’t or shouldn’t avoid.  The next steps can be exciting, because they give you an opportunity to look at your business afresh and gauge with a little more certainty what you have to do to make it work and keep it working.

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

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

Every time it snows, let’s blame someone…

Around this time last year, Britain’s press was seized by a hysterical urge to print the word “snow”. It appeared in every newspaper headline and was the main story in every TV and radio news report. Why? Not because it was snowing, but because it was someone’s fault.

Now it wasn’t  the first time it had ever snowed in the UK, nor would it be  the last. But we were running out of salt and grit and we had to blame someone. We could blame the local councils for not planning ahead. We could blame the Meteorological Office for not predicting the extent of the snow. We could blame the national government because…they exist.

At the heart of all this is a real social problem. No longer can we accept that accidents happen, that there are sometimes exceptional circumstances, that someone made a mistake, that something just went wrong. Instead we have to point accusing fingers and seek out culprits.

The same trend is becoming prevalent in business. Accidents are now incidents. Mistakes are “critical.” People need to be punished.

Somewhere deep down I think we may be losing touch with our humanity, forgetting that humans are – well – human, and that sometimes things just do go wrong. For every second we point the accusing finger at others we are neglecting to offer support, sympathy, help and constructive advice.

There’s a lovely psychological term to describe our behaviour: “false attribution error.” When we make a mistake we know all the circumstances which led to it and, although others don’t have that level of circumstantial detail, we want them to make allowances for what we have done. When others make a mistake, we don’t allow for all those circumstances and simply blame them for the results of their mistakes.

So, ladies and gentlemen, when it’s snowing, it’s, erm, snowing. The main roads are clear and with a little caution we can navigate the side roads which are not. And do you know what? The snow looks beautiful.

We work all over the world providing management and leadership development. We’d love to hear from you.

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

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

Why would anyone follow you?

In my leadership workshops I sometimes ask delegates to define ‘leadership’ on the grounds that if we are going to spend the next day or two exploring the concept, it’s useful to start with a common, agreed definition.

Their definitions are often lengthy, quite tortuous and overcomplicated.  To me, the definition is very straightforward: Leaders have followers (and good leaders have willing followers).  If you do or say anything which inspires people to follow you, you’re leading.  Leadership has little or nothing to do with position or title and a lot to do with behaviour.  I spent several years as a school governor and watched 11 year old children who had more authority in the classroom than their teachers – other pupils were drawn, like magnets to them, hanging on their every word and copying their behaviour.

Everything that you do and say as a leader gives permission to your team to do and say the same things.  If you come into the office looking like hell on earth because you spent a night on the town then you’ve just told your team it’s ok to look like this.  If you shout and bully your team, then it’s ok for your team to do the same.

So now, why would anyone follow you?  Don’t hide behind a title, because that doesn’t make you a leader.  Don’t hide behind value statements,because nobody can see your values.  All they see is how you behave.  Here are some question to ponder:

  • What kind of behaviours are you demonstrating which you would want other to follow?
  • What do others think of you?  (When did you last ask them?  Would you want to hear the answers?)
  • Do you know what impression you are creating for other people?
  • Is there a match between what you believe you are exuding from the inside out and what people are seeing looking from the outside in?
  •  And really importantly, do you care?

The media/book/big personality cult of leadership has been quite damaging to real leadership. The best leaders are also good managers, in touch with their business and the people within the business.  Cult leaders are removed from the day to day operations of their businesses, making a big noise but divorced from operational practicalities. Real leaders don’t have to have planet-sized egos and enough charisma to fill a football stadium; instead, they need to have an ear to the ground, talk to people, demonstrate quite naturally to others the standards of behaviour they expect and get on with the job.

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback.

To discuss leadership and management development, behavioural 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 is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Meetings. Plain and simple.

According to the Ayers report , vol 1, issue 11 (http://bit.ly/b740t1), 25 million meetings take place daily in corporate America and around half that time is wasted.  Given that the UK population is 20% of the US population, that probably means that 5 million meetings take place in the UK each day.

If the average meeting is, say, one hour, that’s 12.5 million hours of wasted time in the US and 2.5 million hours of wasted time in the UK.

It has been said that, in the UK, you could take your annual salary, add £8,000, strike off the last three figures and divide by two to determine the hourly cost to your employer of employing you.  You can probably work out a similar formula for your own country.

So, if you earn £20,000 p.a., you cost your company £14 an hour just to turn up each day.  Assuming that your colleagues earn around the same as you, multiply half the length of a meeting in hours by the number of people there by £14 and that’s how much time you just wasted.

The figures may be open to question, but the fact that we waste an inordinate amount of time in meetings isn’t.  In many of my training courses I ask delegates what is the biggest waste of time in their working life and they say “meetings”.  When I ask what they do to change the way they conduct meetings, they blush and shuffle their paperwork.  So although they realise that they are wasting huge amounts of time in meetings, they continue to institutionalise the very behaviours which they condemn.

Here are some ideas to make your meetings more effective:

  1. Ensure that every meeting has a purpose.  If that purpose, traditionally, has been to share information, then think about other channels you could use.  Often I hear complaints that if we distribute information by e-mail or put it on Lotus notes, nobody reads it.  That’s a different issue.  Think again about the relevance of the information to its target audience, the frequency of communication, the level of interactivity in the communication, the complexity, the style in which it’s written and the level of “push” and “pull” in the communication.  If you truly believe that the information is important and nobody is reading it, then you have a management issue.  What you don’t have is a meeting issue.  Information passing can be achieved through many better means than meetings
  2. Gauge the responses of regular participants to regular meetings.  If they lack energy, arrive late, make excuses not to come, then you need to do something to enliven them or cancel the meetings.  Don’t blame the participants – the meetings in their present form simply don’t work.
  3. Cancel the regular meeting. If you have a Monday meeting every week, it’s probably because you’ve always had a Monday meeting every week.  Try abandoning it for a couple of weeks and see if it makes a difference to anyone.  Shift it to different days each week.
  4. Rotate the chairmanship.  Let each person who regularly attends your meetings (if you insist on a regular meeting) chair the meeting.  This tends to bring a fresh perspective to the meeting and each meeting feels different and new – as a result, it becomes more purposeful
  5. Make sure the meetings are chaired properly and appropriately.  A good Chair draws out quiet people who look like they have an interesting contribution to make and limits the length of contribution from the more vocal people.  In a meeting, everyone’s equal except the chairman.  If the chairman is the bombastic, noisy one, make representations to remove or change the chairman (or rotate the chairmanship, as above).
  6. Don’t ever allow AOB on the agenda.  Meetings should have a purpose.  Any other business is not purposeful.  If participants haven’t told the chair in advance what they want on the agenda, then their topics don’t belong on the agenda.  AOB is usually a chance for those with their own ‘hobbyhorses’ to hijack the meeting and talk about things which are not relevant to the theme of the meeting
  7.  Stick to your agenda.
  8. If some of the meeting is irrelevant to some of the participants, just invite them to the relevant parts.  (This will only work well if you are all in the same premises. )  Call them as you are approaching the topics to which they can contribute
  9. Prepare people for the meeting.  Let them know what’s expected of them, what they need to read or prepare and how long you expect them to speak on their own topics.
  10. Ring round before a meeting to check that everyone who says they are going to come really will come.  If key people can’t make it, cancel the meeting and let everyone know the reason.
  11. Only invite people with something to contribute.  If certain people don’t contribute to the meeting, don’t invite them again.  Don’t ever invite people simply for fear of offending them.  If they ask why they haven’t been invited to a meeting, ask them what they consider their contribution to be.  If it’s simply to be informed, tell them you’ll send the action points later.
  12. Be prepared to introduce new people to a regular meeting (if you insist on having a regular meeting – see point 3, above).  New people bring fresh blood and ideas and break the rituals which dog your regular meetings.
  13. Dispense with minutes and produce action points.  One of the jobs of a good meeting secretary or chairman is to chase people after the event (or before the next meeting) is to check on people’s progress in taking action.
  14. Check with people before a meeting whether or not they have prepared the appropriate topics.  If they haven’t, cancel the invitation or tell them that they won’t be needed on this occasion.
  15. Try holding your meetings standing up.  They’ll tend to be very focused and purposeful.
  16. Find out from your regular meeting-goers what would improve the meetings.  If the ideas seem reasonable, implement them
  17. Make your meetings as green as possible.  Don’t ask anyone to travel if they can join the meeting via an audio or video link.   Travelling time is wasted time, it’s not green and it’s unproductive.

Finally, imagine that it’s your money being spent on the meeting.  Would you choose to spend it this way?  Would you allow such a waste of time and money? What would you do to make your meetings work?

We work all over the world providing management and leadership development. We’d love to hear from you.

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

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

I don’t like your tie…values in business

Once upon a time, I asked the CEO of a large organisation what was most important to him at work.  He answered “values.”  I asked him to say more and he explained that his values pervaded everything that the organisation did, that they were the foundation of the entire enterprise.  He said that chief amongst them was honesty, and that he encouraged honesty in everything.  I said “I don’t like your tie and it doesn’t match your shirt.”  “How dare you!” he said, and I explained that somewhere in a parallel universe, someone had been talking to me about honesty…”  Honesty, in his mind, gave him permission to say what he wanted to others in his business, but did not confer on them the right to speak honestly to him.  (By the way, it was a perfectly nice, matching tie and shirt, but you get the idea.)

Values have little place at work because they are personal things.  I’d go further and say that, at some level, trying to label values can almost trivialise them; we don’t really have adequate names for whatever these things are that drive us at a deeper level.  But because they are personal they can’t, ergo, be corporate.  If company leaders tell me what my values should be they are denying me my personal values.  Of course, they are not really talking about values – they are talking about behaviours.  I think it’s perfectly all right for a company to insist on reasonable standards of behaviour, but not to dress them up as values.

Consider this:  Take twenty people and ask them for their core values.  They will give you words like “trustworthiness”, “integrity” and “honesty”.  Ask them to define “integrity” and they’ll give you twenty different definitions, none of them wrong, all of them personal.  So if we all define it differently, a company can’t claim it as a corporate value because everyone will interpret it differently.  Values, as I said, are personal.

The only thing we can see in others is their behaviours.  I can’t see your values, but I can see what you do and hear what you say and that’s what counts for me at work.

Worse still, a company, having declared its corporate values, will often neglect to translate them into anything practical, so they remain an abstract statement in company documentation.  And the moment they do translate them, they have to explain them in terms of behaviours, which brings us full circle.

So there’s no place for corporate values.  If a value is personal, the company can’t own it.  If we all interpret them differently, we don’t know what they mean anyway.  If we can’ see them, they serve no purpose.

What we’re left with is behaviours.  And now we have something we can discuss quite rationally.

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

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

New year, new directions – defining your business strategy

Some years ago I was asked by the Board of Directors of an SME to help them to more effectively deliver their strategy. I hope it doesn’t take a trained consultant to work out that my first question was “What’s your strategy?”

To a man (they were all men) they pointed to the Finance Director and said “Ask him!”

The FD blushed a deep scarlet, pondered and then had a lightbulb moment.

“Reduce our cost base by 3% and double our margins over the next, erm… three years.”

His colleagues applauded.

I repeated that I had asked them for their strategy, not their financial targets.

Over the years, I’ve found that the same confusion exists pretty much everywhere. Strategy is sexy stuff, talked about constantly in Boardrooms and yet little understood.

Without a clear strategy, a business has no direction. Without direction, everyone becomes task focused and silo-based. It becomes fairly easy to tell the organisations with no strategy. Just go to a board meeting. Typically, as one person gives their monthly report, the others are hastily scribbling theirs. There is little point in listening to the person speaking, because nothing they say has any direct bearing on your own functional area. 80% and more of the meeting looks backwards instead of forwards. If you have no direction, discussion of the future has no framework or structure.

So, why not start the new year by reviewing your strategy?

We can help you with our 1-day Strategy Review or 2-day Strategy Programme.

Call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Meanwhile, happy new year!

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