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.

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Outdated thinking – managing younger people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.

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.

Nothing new under the sun – business books and deforestation

Around 11,000 new business books are published every year.  Many of them promise to turn you into a leader, manager or entrepreneur and make you rich.  I have a number of deep suspicions about these books and am fascinated to know how you feel.  Here we go:

1. They say nothing new – simply because there are no new things to say

2. Many of them remain half read on your bookshelves.  You got the idea in the first couple of chapters and didn’t need to read the rest to discover what they were about
3.  They had little effect on your working practices
4. They had little effect on your productivity
5. They haven’t made you rich
6. They seemed to repeat things that you had read before
7. The better ones were simply rehashed common sense
8. You read some of them and thought “well, that’s obvious”
9. You read some of them and thought “I already know that”
10. You read some of them and thought “I could have written that
11. You still buy more…
One of the bestselling business books of all time was Stephen Covey’s 1989 publication, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It sold over 15 million copies and was published in 38 languages; it remained on the New York Times bestseller lists for 250 weeks. I have carried out a straw poll among friends, colleagues and clients.  Almost all had heard of it, most had at some point acquired a copy of it, and almost none of them had read it from cover to cover.   Like all the other business books, it sat on their shelves, partially read and made little real difference to their lives.  I am reminded of the people who put on track suits because it makes them feel fitter.  Equally, having a good array of business books on your shelves or on your Kindle probably makes you feel you are ahead of the game.
Just as self-help books don’t help unless you choose to do something, business books won’t change your life unless you apply what they suggest, and given that most of them are repeating what others suggest anyway, why not pick one you believe you will enjoy, read it from cover to cover and then start to practise what it suggests.  Then write to me in a year’s time and tell me if it made a difference.
Meanwhile, I have a crime novel to finish.

To request a business needs analysis, 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

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

All about choice

I love the word ‘choice.’  It’s one of my favourite words in the English language.  I see choice like a dog – it needs to be taken out and exercised.  Sadly, it often lies in a corner, unwatered, unfed and neglected.

One day, some years ago, I was driving along a motorway in the UK and the traffic came to a standstill.  I tuned in to the local radio station which told me that, because of an accident further down the road, there was now a 35 mile traffic jam which would take at least an hour to clear.  I had some time in hand, called the client I was going to see to check that it would be ok for me to arrive late and decided to have a sleep.  I turned on some gentle music, tipped back the seat and thought that when it was time to move the driver behind me would sound his horn. I wouldn’t treat it as a rebuke, but as a signal that the traffic was moving again.

I was beginning to doze off and heard a caterwauling outside.  A man was standing on the wheel arch of his 4-wheel drive car shouting and swearing at the traffic to get out of his way, because he was in a hurry.

The man was in his mid-thirties.  I suspect that the stress of living may prevent him reaching forty.  This was a man who had seriously misfiled the traffic jam in his mental filing cabinet.

In any situation, there are three choices – what can we control or be in control of, what can we influence and what simply belongs in the it’s so drawer?  In the case of the traffic jam, the screaming man had filed it firmly in the control drawer.  It belonged in the it’s so drawer.

The one thing we can control in any situation is how we react, as long as we have developed the self-discipline to make a choice, rather than simply reacting. That’s not to suggest that we completely suppress our natural emotions; we are not automatons, and we have every right to feel stressed, upset, angry in certain situations.  What we need to do is choose the most appropriate display of behaviour according to the situation.

In any new or stressful situation, think about the outcome you may achieve by choosing different behaviours.  Will you or others feel better if you take one course of action, worse if you take another?

There are two types of choice – free choice and bounded choice.  We can’t have completely free choice because, inevitably, there are social, moral, ethical and other constraints on our behaviour.  On the other hand, the boundaries which we believe restrain us are much looser than we may imagine.  We often constrain ourselves with our self-limiting beliefs then blame the world for restricting our freedom of choice.

So, feed your choice, water it, take it for a walk and feel that hugely liberating sense as you exercise it.

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.  Take a look, too, at www.davidcotton.co.uk.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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


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.

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.

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.