Distraction is the enemy of productivity

distraction – noun – A thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else. (source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Assuming that we want ourselves and our teams to be concentrating on something productive we need to minimise distractions in the workplace.

Some people are no doubt better at filtering out distractions than others and some distractions are easier to filter out than others.

For many the most distracting thing in the workplace is email. There are some simple techniques for limiting the power of email to distract. Turn off all the notifications; or even switch off the email client altogether and turn it on periodically to catch up. You don’t need to reply to that email within minutes of receiving it and anyone who expects you to respond to email that quickly doesn’t have your best interests at heart.

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The IT within an Actuarial Consultancy

I discuss the challenges the company’s IT department faces, the importance of the Cloud and the awareness the Board should have towards technology and its risks with Knowledge Peers.

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Leading Empty Desks

Yesterday afternoon I took part in a panel discussion on “Leading Empty Desks” at Knowledge Peers Exchange 2013 Event.

The discussion was led by Giri Tharmananthar of Microsoft who started the discussion with an engaging talk based around Dave Coplin‘s book – “Business Reimagined” and talk – “Re-imagining work”.

@dcoplin: "Nearly 80% of UK workers think a productive day in the office is clearing email :-( "

I found the discussion interesting and hope the attendees found it useful too.

The key take-aways for me were:


If you are considering allowing employees complete flexibility in how, where and when they work, then you need to do so in an environment of complete openness and trust. You might think that the most important element is employer’s trusting employees to do the work. Actually that’s not as big an issue as employee to employee trust. We want people to work collaboratively and to do that they need to trust each other and know they can rely on their colleagues to get things done, even when they can’t see them working. Openness is really important – knowing who’s working on what and how to get hold of them and when to get hold of them.

In order for this to work productivity and performance need to be outcome based, not process based.

I think the goal has to be to have a policy which treats all employees equally. The challenge is that some employees will abuse that trust and how you deal with that? Dealing with it by changing the policies and bringing everyone back to the office as Yahoo! have publically done recently is one answer. Another approach is to have a very active policy of getting rid of the people who aren’t performing. This can be difficult to achieve without creating a culture of fear. We do need to have the right policies in place to ensure that those that don’t deliver are dealt with so that others don’t feel they are carrying team members who aren’t pulling their own weight. This isn’t really any different to what should happen in an office based team, but is likely to be a more acute need in a virtual team.

I came across the concept of “Working Out Loud” as a way of being open and doing social to ensure the virtual team stay in touch and connected.

Amorphous Boundaries

We used to be able to easily define the edges of our IT networks and the edges of our organisations. Typically they extended only as far as the office walls and the leased lines we used to interconnect our offices. We extended the edges through VPNs to people’s homes but in today’s hyper-connected world with smart phones, tablets, BYOD and cloud services like DropBox, Sky drive and Google docs who can honestly say they know where all their company’s information resides?

I think it is important for us to grapple with these issues and give our employees the best tools so that they can collaborate and be productive without raising the hackles of our compliance and risk teams.

If we don’t enable our employees to work productively with the best tools they will work around the corporate policies and create a “shadow IT” where we have no control or visibility.

Do Offices Still Make Sense?

I think there are a lot of places where offices still make sense. I love using my tablet and my smartphone when I’m out and about, but when I have a lengthy report to compile or need to analyse our IT budget in excel I need a desk with a computer with a keyboard and mouse – and the best environment for that is an office. I do have an office and a desk at home and I do sometimes work from there, but I have 4 children ranging in age from 1 to 9 so my home office is rarely distraction free. Sometimes it works, but I often get more done when I am working alongside other people who have also gone to sit at a desk to get their heads down and do some work – in the office.

It is nice to have the flexibility to work anytime, anywhere and with any device. But, I suspect I am far from alone in being someone who is most productive when in the office.

Is Email Broken?

Email itself isn’t broken, but we are using it in ways where it isn’t the best tool for the job and this is leading to email overload. We are still using email to send attachments to one another rather than using collaboration tools. We are still using email to send announcements and gather information which can be done better with more open social platforms – like Yammer, SharePoint, Twitter and huddle.

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communication – noun – the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium. (source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Seth Godin

Seth Godin
(source: Wikipedia)

As leaders, communication is a key tool in the toolbox. Not every leader will be the archetypal charismatic communicator, but every leader needs to understand how to communicate well, what to communicate and what method of communication to use.

“The less people know, the more they yell.”
Seth Godin

Leaders need to understand the communication culture of the organisation and seek to foster a positive and open communication culture that tries to improve on the current position.

I suspect that in every organisation there is a group who complain about the organisation’s internal communications. Communication issues are often a classic case of being someone else’s problem. Those at the top blame those in the middle for not communicating up or down effectively. Those in the middle blame those above them for not telling them anything and those below them for not listening. Those at the bottom may well be the least dissatisfied with communication, but they do know that, if there is a problem, it’s not their fault!

As a leader, one has both the power and the responsibility to effect change in the organisation or team. Whether or not we think the current communication issues are our fault, it is our responsibility to do something about it.

Ultimately, everything one of our team members complains about is down to us as leaders. We may choose to do nothing about the issue, choosing to live with the issue or complaint can be a valid tactic. If that is your chosen course of action, at least be honest about it, recognise your position and explain it publicly. If your team feel they have been listened to they will be happier to go with you.

The worst tactic is that of the ostrich. Not addressing issues or complaints and putting your head in the sand hoping it will go away is, with few exceptions, bound to fail. Hopefully this is self evident without further exposition.

I think this tells us that if there are complaints or resentment about the communication in our organisation or team, then we need to do something about it. Other types of issue, you may choose not to do anything about, but at least you should acknowledge the issue and explain why the status quo is the strategy you are sticking with. In the case of communication issues, acknowledging the issue is communicating and can be the start of a change for the better.

When I started work, a leader thinking about communicating a message to the whole organisation had fewer options. They could call a company meeting or a series of small meetings to communicate the message face to face, or they could write a memo which would be printed out and distributed for all to read. These are clearly not very efficient ways of communicating compared to today’s cornucopia of communication channels. The one benefit they did bring was to make the communicator stop and think about what they were communicating and how to get their message across in the most effective way. The cost of communication acted as a natural barrier to unnecessary communication and also made the communicator think long and hard about the content and delivery of the message.

In today’s hyper-connected world the marginal cost of communication to the sender is effectively zero and this has led to very low quality and high quantity communications – as our spam-filters loudly testify. Many people complain about receiving too much e-mail. This equation of marginal cost fails to count the hidden cost to our organisations of these unnecessary messages. Unnecessary communication is costing our organisations and teams time and money.

Email overload is such a common complaint nowadays that it almost goes without saying. There are some good strategies for dealing with this from the reader’s perspective which I may write about in the future, but the responsibility for effective communication lies mainly with the sender. I have a number of bullet points that I think about when drafting email communications to try and ensure my emails are well received:

  • Consider your audience.
  • Is email the right tool for the job?
  • Use a relevant and descriptive subject line.
  • Could you do more to answer the question yourself?
  • Review your email before hitting send.
  • Be clear about what action is required.
  • If you can respond to a message quickly, do so.
  • Turn off desktop alerts.
  • Use the email expiry and importance options.

Please let me know in the comments what your strategy is for effective communication in your organisation. I’d also love to hear about any good tips you have for helping emails to be relevant, get the message across and not become a burden to the reader.

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P1240274-smallIt has been a while since I posted here. I have been a little busy. We moved back into our house last November after a big renovation project – a few weeks later than originally planned – just in time for the birth of our fourth baby on 5 December. Since then the family, home, work and church commitments have kept me rather too busy to continue blogging here.

I’m not going to promise that I won’t still be too busy to post regularly – after all, this blog is to help me organise my thoughts around leadership and learning. To the extent that anyone else benefits from my ramblings I am glad, but if I fail to get back on a more regular schedule, I guess that’s my lookout.

It is coming up to a year since I went on the Ashridge Leadership Workshop and I have done a good deal of continued learning since. Some of this I hope to share over the coming weeks and months. I have a number of topic ideas and part-written posts stored up in Evernote so the ideas are definitely there if not the finished articles. “Perfection is the enemy of good” as they say and I suspect I may need to just start getting it done and stop worrying so much about the editing and polishing.

A good deal of my continued learning has been through podcasts and I thought I’d share some of the resources I’ve enjoyed listening to:

  • I enjoyed listening to “Seth Godin’s Startup School” which I think has a lot in it for business leaders and entrepreneurs who aren’t in the startup phase – which is obviously its primary focus.
  • Michael Hyatt’s podcast “This Is Your Life” is interesting too. Some of the content isn’t directly relevant but a lot of it is really good.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any podcasts or other resources that you find particularly helpful for your learning about leadership.

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following – noun – a body of supporters or admirers. (source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan
(source: Wikipedia)

Leadership is not something bestowed on you from on high, it is something you only have by virtue of your followers and followers can be easily lost.

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
Ronald Reagan

It is a common misconception that leadership is something which is acquired by virtue of a promotion or by dint of having a particular role within the organisation. Whilst it is true that some roles require leadership qualities as part of the role, it is not the case that those qualities are present in everyone fulfilling a leadership role or that the result of appointment to such a role is automatically good leadership.

Being a leader implies that you have followers. It is followers that bestow leadership on an individual. It is true that, contractually, a leader’s direct reports may be required to follow (particularly evident in the military), however, followers who aren’t following willingly and enthusiastically will not be giving of their best and when push comes to shove may not be there to deliver.

A leader should first strive to be someone others can follow and to invest in relationships with followers. In this context, followers are not just your direct reports, but also your peers and those above you. Good relationships with those sideways and above you in the organisation chart are evidence of someone with good leadership potential. If those around you listen and act on your ideas then you are leading even if you have not been given the formal authority. Who is it more natural to promote and give that formal authority to than someone who is already demonstrating their potential to lead.

Sometimes someone other than the appointed team leader is actually leading the team more than the appointed leader. If a team has a lack of good leadership there will be a leadership vacuum and whoever is investing most in the relationships and gaining the respect of the team will be fulfilling leadership functions as an unofficial substitute, often outside the formal work structures or environment, often without wanting to undermine the appointed leaders, but unwilling to see the team fall apart.

To be a good leader, you need to be someone others can follow.

Be a good follower

Demonstrate good followership by being a good follower yourself. Set an example for others to follow. If you are undermining those in the organisation above you or if you have a generally cynical attitude to the goals or management of your organisation, then don’t be surprised if those beneath you are seeking to undermine you or are cynical about your leadership of them.

Even if you are at the top of the organisation, be sure to set a good example and to avoid cynicism.

This is not to say you shouldn’t challenge the organisation, your leaders or management. But, when you do so, do it in the appropriate forum at the appropriate time and avoid doing it in public or in a way that undermines others’ authority. When you challenge, be prepared to accept that you can’t always be right, to accept the disagreement if it can’t be resolved and to then back the organisation’s stance fully.

If you can’t accept an alternative strategy, stop and think about why not. You need to resolve this conflict if you want to continue fulfilling a leadership role in your organisation. It may be that the organisation’s strategy is at odds with a deeply held personal value. If this is the case, you may not be able to resolve the issue in which case it may be time to move on. If not, is it your pride that is getting in the way? Once the organisation’s strategy is set and you have had the opportunity to challenge, it is time to get behind the strategy and make it the right strategy through your actions and the actions of your team.

Adopt an attitude of realistic optimism. This will be attractive and believable to potential followers and will encourage them to adopt a similar attitude.

Be consistent and authentic

Followers are hard won and easily lost.

If you are seeking to be someone to follow, then you should be consistent in your attitudes, relationships and objectives. Obviously, goals will change from time to time. These changes need to be carefully communicated so you retain the respect of your team and do not come across as fickle.

You need to understand your own purpose and the organisation’s strategy and how these are aligned and help your team understand how they fit into that strategy and their purpose in driving the organisation forward.

Does your organisation have values which are consistent with your own values? Hopefully if you are in a leadership position in your organisation you can answer with a very definite yes. If not, you are likely to have some internal conflict and this will affect your attitude and demeanour and will make it harder for people to follow you.

If your values are in alignment with those of the organisation and your goals are aligned with theirs, you can be authentic in your leadership. An authentic individual will be more attractive to followers than someone seen as just acting out a role.

Build respectful relationships

Lasting relationships need to be built on a firm foundation of trust, openness and mutual respect. If you listen to your team, respect them and empower them. You will then start to get the best out of them. They in turn will appreciate and reciprocate that respect. Those you support to be their very best will in turn become your most ardent supporters.

Be someone who inspires others and helps them to get the best out of themselves.

Don’t seek authority

Telling your boss that you can’t get team members to do what you ask and that a promotion would give you the authority, in my view, is a mistake. What you are demonstrating is that your team do not follow you, that you do not have the full respect of team members or that you haven’t invested sufficiently in the relationships in your team. Does your boss want to give you authority if you haven’t invested in those relationships and developed them so that when you speak others listen? When others are already starting to view you as their leader and to follow you the promotions and formal authority will surely follow.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t be ambitious, you absolutely should. But your ambition shouldn’t be to seek leadership positions for the sake of authority and power. Such ambition is unappealing and will not encourage followership. You may be seen to be fighting for power with your team. Be ambitious for achieving your goals and the goals of the organisation and for your own personal and professional development. Empower your team and encourage them to be their best. Your ambition will be taken as an example to follow, make sure you role model the right behaviours.

“Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”
Barbara Kellerman

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focus – noun – the centre of interest or activity. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
(source: Wikipedia)

Being effective in relationships and meetings takes concentrated effort and focus on the individuals we are interacting with in the moment.

“Concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short in all management of human affairs.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Multi-tasking humans are largely mythical. We can do something physical, or something that has become instinctive through practise at the same time as something mental, but we can’t do more than one thing that requires our full cognitive attention at once. Hopefully this is self-evident. If something requires our conscious thought and attention, we won’t be fully productive if our attention is also elsewhere.

Our brains are like a single CPU with an interrupt based context switching algorithm. Each time we try to work on something new our brains have to swap in the context and memories from another part of our brains and move the current working set to temporary storage. Our memories though are much more complex than simple computer memory. Almost limitlessly expandable our memories are truly amazing. However, retrieving information from them is often difficult and unreliable. Our short term memory is quickly emptied and the long term store harder to access. This has a very definite and real cost when we are constantly switching between two or more tasks or conversations.

Some people may be more adept at task switching than others, but even for those who are really good at task switching, there will still be a cost to attempting to multi-task. Improving our short term memory is a good way to improve our ability to task switch successfully.

A good way to improve our short term memory is to improve our focus and to try to stop the subconscious task switching we are doing. Like many things, being able to truly concentrate takes practise. If we regularly operate on many tasks at once and practise task switching, I think we are actively damaging our focus and ability to truly concentrate. We could be unwittingly training our brains down a path toward attention deficit.

There are many ways in which we organise our lives today which are making us less productive than I think we could be.

Email and instant messaging applications alert us the second a message arrives. There is an expectation that we respond quickly. Turn off the visual prompts and sounds alerting you to new messages and check your email consciously on a schedule that is right for you. Typically, about 40 minutes is as long as we can sustain concentrated effort on one thing before our minds start to wander. You may find that a longer or shorter interval works better for you. Experiment to find what works. Build in natural breaks at about this frequency and check your emails then. Sign out of your instant messaging applications when you need to focus your attention on getting things done. Turn off your mobile phone, switch your phone to voice mail. Obviously as a leader there are times when you need to be contactable. Build this time into your schedule. I don’t think you should let all your time be subject to constant interruption though.

I think the real danger to leaders is that this pattern of interrupted work and task switching could lead to a lack of focus in our interactions with our teams. In our interactions and relationships with people I think it is critical that we focus all our attention in the moment and on the individuals before us. If we want to motivate and inspire I think we can only do this by building strong relationships with our teams and this requires focus in the moment. A discussion with a distracted leader is very demotivating and also likely to lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding.

More and more I am seeing people take their BlackBerrys and other smart phones into meetings. Ostensibly to check their messages during the meeting. I think many of us are becoming addicted to checking email and staying in contact. Do we want to give the impression that our emails are more important than the people we are meeting with? Hopefully the answer to that is a resounding YES. In which case, turn it off or leave it behind. I have to confess that this is something I have been guilty of. I have though come to the realisation that this is disrespectful to those I am meeting with, it is also making me less effective at those meetings. If I don’t need to listen to part of a meeting, then I shouldn’t be there. The presence of someone who is not focussed on the goals of the meeting will be distracting to the others present and detrimental to the meeting.

When we are at home, I think we should make sure we are focussed on the people there. Give them 100% of our attention and give work 100% of our attention when we are at work. If we need to work in the evenings, or to catch up on something, that’s OK, I just think it’s better if we are open about this and carve out some dedicated time for this purpose. During this time, be totally focussed on the work so we can complete it as effectively, efficiently and quickly as we can and get back to our family time and then give them 100%. Don’t try and get some work done while our spouse is telling us about their day. They will feel under-valued and ignored and our work will also be poor quality as our minds struggle to switch between the two contexts. Don’t check work mail while being with our families. Make sure they get some time where they have all of our attention, where we are not thinking about problems at work. As well as helping us improve our focus, this will help ground us, remind us why we do what we do and improve our personal resilience as leaders.

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belief – noun – trust, faith, or confidence in (someone or something). (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow
(source: Wikipedia)

Belief can be empowering or it can be limiting. Often our beliefs are self-fulfilling. One person’s belief that something is impossible will prevent them from achieving it. Another’s belief that the very same thing is possible will enable them to achieve it.

“To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable, we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful.”
Edward R. Murrow

There are three different ways in which I want to explore how belief is important to leadership:

  • Belief in your goals
  • Self-belief
  • Belief in your team’s abilities

Belief in your goals

In order to be a leader in your organisation you need to believe in the goals and values of the organisation.

For more on being aligned with and believing in your organisation’s values see yesterday’s post: Purpose.

If you want to be a credible leader you need to be able to be authentically enthusiastic about your objectives. If you don’t believe the organisation’s goals are achievable, you won’t be able to plausibly communicate your team’s objectives to them. The alternative is that there will be a disconnect between the goals of the organisation and those of your team. The end result will be people paying lip-service to the organisational objectives while the leadership team lose credibility. Your goals need to be believable.

Does this mean your objectives should not be challenging or even audacious? Absolutely not, just make sure they are within the bounds of believability. If you can’t look yourself in the mirror and believe in the goals, maybe you’ve gone past stretch-targets and into the realms of make believe. In fact, big, audacious goals are much more likely to inspire your teams than easily achievable goals. I think this may be one of the real keys to great leadership: to pitch the organisation’s goals at that tipping point between inspiration and fantasy.

In my opinion, Steve Jobs’ true genius was his ability to know how to inspire his teams by setting a standard for their products and innovation beyond what the competition had imagined achievable without going beyond what his teams could actually achieve. I think that one of Steve’s mistakes at NeXT was setting their goals too high, leading to overrunning and also making the products unaffordable. He also misjudged the market. Clearly lessons he had learnt well by the time of his second stint at Apple’s helm.

Another great example of an audacious yet believable goal was JFK’s decision made in 1961 that the USA would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This must have seemed barely credible to many, with the US falling behind in the space race. To the teams at NASA, who understood that this was an engineering challenge and that the technology was well understood, the goal would still have been audacious, challenging and inspiring, but, crucially, it would not have been unbelievable fantasy.

As a leader you should have realistic optimism about your objectives. Optimism is important, but so is keeping it real.


A leader needs a healthy self-belief. I am not here talking about an unshakeable arrogance – that is a route to the dark side of leadership. Good leaders need to balance their self-belief with humility and also know their limits. Don’t let self-belief become overconfidence or arrogance.

Know yourself, know what you are good at and believe in your own abilities.

Without self-belief, your conviction in the organisation’s objectives will feel hollow. You will not be able to inspire your team to believe in those big, audacious goals.

Without self-belief, your conviction in your team’s abilities will also feel hollow. How will you get your team to believe they can outperform if you don’t believe in yourself?

Without self-belief, when times get tough, you will find it hard to be resilient, to keep going and to keep focussed on your goals.

Great leaders all have self-belief. Is self-belief innate or can it be learnt or acquired? Maybe some people do have a natural tendency toward greater self-belief. I suspect though that this is more nurture than nature. Our early experiences, successes, failures and the encouragement or lack of it from those around us, our parents and teachers, will have shaped our self-belief. If you lack self-belief, you can work on this. Build positive feedback into your daily routine – for yourself and for your team. Find a mentor to help you identify your strengths and build self-confidence.

Belief in your team’s abilities

As a leader, you are responsible for your team’s motivation. You need to inspire them and get them to believe in their own abilities. You can be a great source of positive feedback to your team, building their self-confidence, helping them to believe they can outperform, helping them believe they can achieve more than they thought possible.

If you don’t believe in your team’s abilities, they will live up to your low expectations. If you believe they can outperform, they will do their best to prove you right – so long as they believe in you.

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purpose – noun –  a person’s sense of resolve or determination. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke
(source: Wikipedia)

A purposeful leader is determined, resilient and easy to follow. A good leader needs a definite and deliberate purpose. Following leaders without a real purpose sounds like the blind leading the blind.

“Leadership is understanding people and involving them to help you do a job. That takes all of the good characteristics, like integrity, dedication of purpose, selflessness, knowledge, skill, implacability, as well as determination not to accept failure.”
Admiral Arleigh A. Burke

Purpose is not only knowing what you are doing, but also why you are doing it. This goes deep. It requires you to think about your own personal values and ambitions. Do your values coincide with those of your organisation. If not, can you genuinely say that your purpose is consistent with that of the organisation? Are you genuinely committed to helping the organisation achieve its aims?

Why are you a leader in your organisation?

Leadership is not a position of authority bestowed on you as a result of the status of your role; it is gradually accumulated as followers decide that you are someone worth following. This is the difference between authority being given to you as a result of status within the organisation and the far more powerful authority you cultivate by developing relationships and having people in the organisation listen to what you say – your followers. Knowing not only what you are trying to achieve, but also why you are trying to achieve it will make you a much more authentic and believable leader and so much more likely to have followers who are with you for the long haul.

Having a good understanding of your purpose will help you be resilient in times of stress.

In a personal resilience questionnaire I completed as part of the Ashridge Leadership Workshop I did not score as strongly on purpose as I did in other areas measured. Whilst I am slightly sceptical about the accuracy of this sort of questionnaire, it did tally with other challenges I was looking at on the course. So I decided to have a good think about my purpose.

First I thought about my values and how these coincided with those of the organisation I work for. Fortunately, the business I am a part of thought about its values a few years ago and defined a set of values which I can totally get behind.

Next I thought about myself and my long term goals both within work and outside. I concluded that my fundamental motivations were to be true to my faith in all I do and to provide love and support to my family. My Christian faith teaches that we should work hard and make time for our relationships outside work.

I then thought about what I wanted to achieve in work and how I could achieve that and came up with the following:

  • To provide leadership and passion within the organisation.
  • To support and challenge my teams to help them be the very best they can be.
  • To develop a reputation for reliability, integrity and delivering results.

Obviously these are high level, long-term and intangible to some extent. The challenge is then to translate these into short-term behaviours that achieve the purpose.

Do you have a definite and deliberate purpose in your leadership?

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Support and Challenge

supportive – adjective – providing encouragement or emotional help. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)
challenging – adjective – testing one’s abilities; demanding. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Bill Gates

Bill Gates
(source: Microsoft)

As leaders we should seek to motivate and empower our followers by providing them with the right balance of support and challenge to motivate them to outperform and be the best they can be. Demonstrate your belief in their abilities, give them the support they need and they will do their best to justify your faith.

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
Bill Gates

The name of this site – Support and Challenge – was inspired by some learning review sessions we did on the Ashridge Leadership Workshop. The idea behind the reviews was to have a discussion with 2 other attendees to review the day’s learning, to identify key messages for us as individuals and to think about how we might put that into practise in our own environments. The discussions were to be both supportive and challenging.

Support and Challenge Grid

Support and Challenge

A conversation which is neither supportive nor challenging is not worth having. This could be described as apathetic communication. Without the support and challenge there is no real engagement, no caring, no motivation, no energy and ultimately no point.

A conversation in which there is lots of challenge but no support is going to be a highly stressful situation. This could be described as aggressive communication. Highly challenging situations which are not supportive will lead to individuals feeling criticised and becoming defensive. This will not be motivating for all but the strongest, most self-resilient people. It also demonstrates a lack of care. At a surface level, it might look like you are engaged because you are challenging. But if you are not being supportive, the impression you will give is that you are not fully invested in the outcomes. If you are truly interested in the outcome then you will not only be challenging, but also supportive and will be prepared to invest your own, time, energy and commitment.

A conversation which is supportive, but not challenging might be a very nice conversation to have, but it won’t move anything forward or bring about any change. This could be described as comforting communication. Highly supportive situations which are not challenging will lead to individuals feeling good but also feeling like they have done enough and don’t need to do any more, or even that there is no opportunity for them to progress. Indeed, paradoxically, such a conversation could leave them feeling like you don’t have confidence in them – even though you are being fully supportive, you can come across as not interested in the individual as you are not presenting them with any challenges.

A conversation which is both supportive and challenging should be one in which all parties are fully engaged. This could be described as active and committed communication. Individuals who are challenged, but feel supported at the same time will feel motivated to achieve. They know there are opportunities to improve and also feel that you are invested in the outcome. Challenging in a supportive way give the individual confidence that you have faith in their abilities and motivates them to be their best.

Do you have the right balance between support and challenge in your one-to-ones, reviews and retrospectives? Do you foster a supportive and challenging culture in your organisation?

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learning – noun –  the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy
(source: Wikipedia)

If you want to get better at a thing, then you need to study it, to reflect on it and to take conscious action to bring about change. The process of learning is fundamental to leadership.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
John F. Kennedy

Personal study is fundamental to learning. If we want to learn, improve and see that reflected in real change in the workplace then we need to take learning seriously. Personal study is most effective when it is active rather than passive. Things we read can wash over us or might have an impact at the time, but as time goes by the impact seems less significant, the message gets diluted, becomes less clear and can eventually be forgotten altogether. To really learn something we need the concepts to become embedded in our long term memory. To do this we need to related it to other concepts to reinforce it. This requires active revision and relearning; going back and reflecting on the same material at another time and from another place.

This is what I hope to achieve through this website. I am not an expert on leadership. In fact I am just starting out on my conscious journey of learning, even though I do have some years of subconscious learning through experience and reflection. My objective is to use this site to document my study and to share it with anyone who is minded to accompany me on my journey. I have always found that I learn something much more deeply if I have to explain it to someone else. I hope that organising my thoughts into articles for this site, engaging and learning from those minded to leave comments will be a part of my learning journey.

I have been leading IT teams at work for about a decade. In the early days I was very much just doing what came naturally and imitating leadership styles I had witnessed in others. I probably got as much wrong as right, but hopefully I learnt from the experiences.

Experiential learning is an important way to learn. It is more likely to bring about long-lasting change. However, by necessity it takes time and is often hard won. Experiential learning without any grounding in the theory of leadership could also lead one down the wrong path.

Studies on animals have shown that positive feedback driven by random rewards can lead to more ingrained behaviour than that driven by deterministic (particularly those of B.F. Skinner). Combine this with the fundamental attribution error, whereby success is wrongly attributed to a behaviour of the individual rather than a circumstance outside the control of the individual, and this can lead to subconscious reinforcement of behaviours which the individual fully believes reap positive rewards when in fact they don’t.

We need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of repeating behaviours that appeared to work in the past if those behaviours were not actually responsible for the positive outcomes. I think part of the solution for this is to get an objective perspective on our leadership performance. Reflect on what went well; be realistic. How much was really down to your own opinion and how much down to circumstance or the contributions of others? Seek objective views from others.

In agile software development (though not unique to that field) there is a practice known as retrospectives. Encourage your teams to use retrospectives so they get used to the process of reflecting back and looking for ways to improve the performance of the team going forward.

360° feedback is also a really useful tool for getting another perspective. Don’t be tempted to implement feedback mechanisms for your teams then ignore their feedback on yourself. Value feedback from your followers as precious gems. Honest feedback is priceless and if you don’t consider it and act on it, the well will dry up and you will get nothing more than empty platitudes in the future.

The feedback that you most want to dismiss is the feedback you should consider most deeply. It is all too tempting when someone gives us feedback we don’t like to find excuses or reasons why they have misunderstood. When the feedback makes us angry it is usually because they have hit the nail on the head and we don’t want to accept our own weaknesses. Treasure the feedback which makes you angry and brings a flush to your face. Don’t act on it quickly. Wait till you are calm, then consider it carefully. Try to understand their point of view. Understand why it made you feel the way you do. Reflect on why it has got under your skin.

We can also learn from mentors, teachers and those experienced in the field. Don’t rely on just one teacher or mentor though. You don’t want to become a leader in someone else’s mould. You need to be true to yourself and become an authentic leader in your own style. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, it was tempting to think I should emulate Steve Jobs in his leadership style to get the best out of my teams. However I am definitely not Steve Jobs. This would have been a big mistake. If I had started to be as demanding and unforgiving as Steve is depicted, my teams would not have responded in the way I wanted. That doesn’t mean I can take nothing from his example to benefit me though. His single-minded focus on quality and his belief in his team’s ability to achieve are excellent qualities we can all incorporate in our own leadership without fear of destroying our teams or our own credibility.

These are my initial thoughts on learning about leadership and why this site exists. I am sure I will return to this topic at some point in the future. I hope you get something out of visiting here and I wish you well on your own learning journey.

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