A baker’s dozen of valid and practical leadership actions – part 2

Bakers Dozen Part 2

Following my two earlier articles about Northern Power Women’s excellent report, “Levelling Up by Powering On”, here is the second half of my baker’s dozen of foundational principles that I continuously rely on in my work with leaders across a broad demographic spectrum. 

My first article in this series concludes with a model that highlights the need for concepts to possess rigorous research underpinnings and to be practical. It is vital these can be implemented. It may not necessarily be easy to do this. However, through diligent endeavour they can be learnt, understood, practised, and competence deepened by ongoing coaching.  Combined, rather than any one in isolation, these faculties represent the hallmarks of great leadership. 

When exercised, these principles deliver a humane, compassionate, and purposeful style of leadership.  This imbues organisations, large and small, for and not for profit, with a fit and healthy climate.  Employee engagement and well-being will rise, the customer and citizen experience will improve, the environment will be protected – the triple bottom line is maximised. 

The sustainable outcome is that we won’t just level up, we shall power forward into a new and better community.

Feedback is a gift – please give frequently!

Performance and development reviews

A great many leaders regard annual appraisals as pointless, including one of NPW’s major supporters, EY. They belong to another age.  Far more effective is a constant and consistent stream of feedback, which should flow not just down but upwards and laterally as well. 

Feedback should be specific and timely – hence the reason annual appraisals do not work.  Professional sports stars don’t wait until the end of the season for feedback, they seek it continuously.  Feedback can, of course, be both positive as well as constructive and developmental.  However, simply telling someone they are wonderful or useless is, well, useless.

In the recent furore about Priti Patel’s alleged bullying, one point of critical information has been lost in the acres of news coverage.  It appears Patel was given no feedback about her behaviour. 

Being “BBF” is not necessarily an advantageous work relationship, consider Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes playing for Liverpool in the 1970s – they despised each other.  Being the honest, critical friend is – the candour of such conversations that occur pays dividends to both friends. 

Great leaders are not made of blotting paper that merely absorbs feedback; they act upon it because they recognise that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.  A leader may feel they are not being overly firm with an individual, yet a hidden vulnerability may make them feel exposed or threatened.  Often, it is not what is said, it is how.  No doubt, there are sentences I use in my writing and speaking that rankle and irritate some readers.  They are born of my innate clumsiness and biases. 

If used as a cudgel, it isn’t feedback.  Its only success will be to entrench views and polarise attitudes.  President Eisenhower remarked, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head; that’s assault, not leadership.”  I was told by a senior police officer that he considered my late father who had been his manager on several occasions to be “… the best effing bastard I ever worked for”.  Dad spent considerable time talking to his police officers helping them to grow and develop, see point 2 in my previous article. 

Can NPW create a new cadre of BFBs; surely our world has had enough of FBs and their abominable, soul-crushing attitudes and behaviours?

Assessing performance and values

Figure (1)

In recent interviews with Reed Hastings, Netflix’s founder, he talks about expecting his team to fight to keep people.  Ideally, no one should fight to keep a person from the top-left quadrant of Figure (1).  That sets unacceptable precedents about “anything goes so long as the results are achieved”.  Looking across numerous corporate and political scandals, it appears to occur far too frequently.

Biases have long tangled roots

That we remain riddled with biases disappoints me.  One recent cause of my disappointment is Nadiya Hussain’s remark in an interview not long after she won Bake Off, “I would love to do something where my kids can see that Mum is out there and she can do it. That might teach them that they can take chances, they can be brave, and they can have their own adventure too”. Fabulous.  She then went on to say, “My eldest says, ‘We’re from Bangladesh. So that makes us Bangladeshi.’ My middle child says, ‘I follow Islam, so I am Muslim.’  My youngest child [then 5 – are you ready for this?], ‘I am from earth. So, I am human.’” 

This beautiful, child’s view of a unifying, cohesive humanity matches one expressed by a marvellous group of street performers I watched in Boston a couple of years ago, “Let’s not be divided by colour, creed, religion, gender, sexuality, race. There is only one race. The human race.”

What do adults do in their interactions with children to cause biases take root?  Biases exist in the hearts and minds of even the most woke advocate of intersectionality.  Two hours of “unconscious bias” training will not neuter bias. The work of Leon Festinger concerning “cognitive dissonance” merits reading. First change behaviour, gain confidence and comfort in these new practices. Biased attitudes will start to change.  

Well-choreographed feedback is the only effective means by which you can express feelings in a waythat stimulates psychologically safe learning and understanding.  Wider application of “truth and reconciliation” processes can start to draw together the most polarised of opinions.  An article on Strategy and Business’s website by Adam Grant, “Building a culture of learning at work: How leaders can create the psychological safety for people to constantly rethink what’s possible”, talks about a process called Mean Reviews. This won Melinda Gates’s approval when she actively took part in her Foundation’s adoption of the process.

And if we all smiled as beamingly bright as South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu who helped introduce truth and reconciliation after the overthrow of apartheid, what a wonderful world it would be. 

Beware of ambition in isolation

Ambition and ability must go hand-in-hand

One of my favourite pieces of psychometric data appears in a Saville report.  It contrasts ambition and ability.  You need both, not one or the other.  Gabby Parry is the firm’s excellent CEO, see https://www.linkedin.com/in/gabby-parry-b56032a/.

Those with an egregious ambition that strays into conceit and arrogance coupled to minimal ability appear to captivate so many of us.  Often, they are not experts in their field either as say, Apple’s people are, see “How Apple Is Organized for Innovation (hbr.org)“.

In his book and Harvard Business Review article, Jim Collins identifies the concept of Level 5 leadership, i.e., possessing humility and fierce resolve.  Also, check out “The Management Shift” by Vlatka Hlupic that outlines another 5-tier approach to leadership (Vlatka is now a Professor at Hult Ashridge Business School).  He followed it up with a slimmer text entitled, “How the Mighty Fall”. This cites hubris as the first step towards downfall.

Susan Cain’s marvellous book “Quiet” highlights another of my late mother’s favourite sayings, “Empty vessels make the most noise”.  Remember Aesop’s fable, the brash, braggadocio of the wind fails to get the man to remove his raincoat.  It is the quiet, calm, understated, persistent warmth of the sun that does so. 

Review and refine / ask why five times

The over ambitious often fail to stop, review, and learn.  They pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and charge again.  The conceit of their irresistible force fails to shift the immoveable object – they do not appreciate you cannot make silk purses from sows’ ears. 

Chris Argyris’s and Peter Senge’s work about double-loop learning and learning organisations respectively demonstrates the absolute value in taking time out to reflect on the causalities of outcomes.  What was done well, what wasn’t?  How can more of the former become common practice, what development will prevent recurrence of the behaviours that led to late delivery, budget overrun, lax adherence to specification. 

Here we stray into the territory of efficiency and effectiveness.  Doing more with less does not always add value because quality may suffer.  Efficiency concerns getting more for less, colloquially termed “sweating the assets”.  I hate referring to people as assets.  Their skills and competences are assets, they themselves are human beings.  Making your assets sweat does nothing but offend the sense of smell.

To use the hackneyed strap-line of the Quality movement, i.e. “doing more right first time every time,” does add value. The customer experience is better – the “returns’ desk” is redundant. The employee experience is better because no one has to sort out someone else’s cock-up or have a customer chew-off their ear.

All errors generate a “cost of re-work”, which s Toyota’s famous moniker. Even they are not faultless. Remember the spate of vehicle recalls the firm were compelled to make a few years ago. The cost of re-work arising from fault-prone processes is likely to reflect a lack of employee involvement in the original design.  Involvement is a key dimension of organisational climate Involving employees’ in setting purpose and direction, devising strategy and operational practices is a sure fire way to meet their needs. Do you want to calculate the cost of your employees feeling disengaged? Go to https://www.anevenbetterplacetowork.com/people-problem-cost-calculator/.

If you reduce your cost of re-work by a quarter, a third, half, by how much will your cashflow improve? How much time could you release to innovate, enhance your customer experience, develop your people?

The two phrases in the sub-heading to this section have their origins in Disney and Ritz-Carlton Hotels.  I love the childlike nature of “ask why 5 times”.  Reviving the inquisitive five-year old child in us may expose all sorts of ineffective practices in our organisations.  As leaders, we must not be the parent scalding the child for asking the questions.  We should encourage them. We will all learn and grow as a result.

Ambition masquerading as persistence 

Over persistence with the same tactic can become an exercise in headbutting a wall, all you get is a headache.  Or, the rock rolls back and squashes you.

Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, provides another good example of how so many words describing people’s qualities have two sides.  Nitesh Gor’s “The Dharma of Capitalism” illustrates the two sides of passion. Perseverance sometimes mutates into stubbornness, obstinacy, or belligerence, none of which are admirable qualities.  Perseverance that combines tenacity with cognitive agility provides a powerfully effective behavioural contribution.  Tenacity by itself risks dying in ditches over small matters.  Overt flexibility may render you too will o’ the wispish. 

I caution that while single themed books such as Dweck’s and Duckworth’s add valuable constructive detail, there is a slim threshold between that positive attribute and the negativity of pedantry.  Effective leadership which nurtures and sustains healthy climates require holistic approaches. There is no single shot immunisation thatacts as a panacea.  Very often these turn out to be placebos. 

As my late mother frequently said, “Everything in moderation.”  This is preferable to acting like Spinal Tap’s amplifier that is calibrated up to eleven.  The Hogan inventory of personality questionnaires reports on “derailers”, i.e., having too much of a certain personality attribute.  What are your derailers?  Do you know?  If so, how do you manage their propensity to manifest themselves in your behaviours?

Motivation – forget Maslow, please!

Maslow nestles with Myers Briggs in the populist quadrant of the Anderson, Herriot model.  Surely any talk of self-actualisation is at odds with the UK’s inability to provide a healthy diet and effective education to its children? 

I see much merit in reviving motivational theories such as Frederick Herzberg’s.  This distinguishes between the hygiene factors that when absent dissatisfy people in the workplace yet do not satisfy when present, and the motivational factors that do satisfy when present but do not demotivate when absent.   

One of the biggest motivators is access tohigh quality, effective learning and development. With so many employers criticising education for not providing “work-ready” employees, it has never been more essential.  Yes, those leaving our didactic education systems can regurgitate what they have memorised, but their social capital is underinvested, their emotional intelligence is poor, their creativity and problem solving have been starved. 

The Northern Power Women homeland lost one of its most impressive sons last year in the death of Sir Ken Robinson.  His views of education and the service it should be providing should not be interred with him.  Their realisation should form his legacy; again, an ambition NPW should seize because the network possesses the requisite skills and competences. 

Extrinsic motivation

We all bathe in the fetid pool of extrinsic motivation particularly regarding executive remuneration.  When running Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone said in an interview in the Sunday Times that pay was the only yardstick by which managers could compare themselves.  From Bagehot’s column in The Economist’s Christmas 2020 edition, in homage to the great Dickens invention, the unctuous Uriah Heep, he says, “Chief executives claim that they are ever-so-humble ‘team leaders’. Actually, they are creaming off an unprecedented share of corporate cash.”

Professional advisory firms draft contracts that approve paying extravagant bonuses for achieving only half the objetives rather than exceeding all of them. In the largest organisations, a key target is the share-price. CEOs and their accomplices manipulate this through share buy-backs rather than genuine business prowess. Some of these firms are involved with NPW. Is their presence comparable to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remark about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”

Also, surely we need to stop the “football manager” merry-go-round of re-appointment after sacking for failure – remember how Iceland sacked its bankers after the financial crisis of 2008?  Elton John’s “I’m still standing” would be a good theme tune for many bankers in the US and UK. 

Why has the sense of a vocational profession evaporated? So many senior managers across the public sector appear to be the engine driver of a personally lucrative “gravy train”  Do these roles no longer concern the ideal of service?  Have the requirements set out in the 1995 Nolan Report, “The Seven Principles of Public Life”, faded into obscurity?

A 2018 study from Purdue University used much wider data from the Gallup World Poll and found that the ideal income point for individuals is $95,000 for life satisfaction and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being. When people earned more than $105,000, their happiness levels decreased. From https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/26/how-your-salary-and-the-way-you-spend-money-affect-your-happiness.html#:~:text=But%20more%20recently%2C%20a%202018,%24105%2C000%2C%20their%20happiness%20levels%20decreased.

At the height of Thatcherism and Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney”, veteran ex-Labour MP Dennis Skinner said he could not imagine why anyone would wish to earn more than £30k a year.  This is worth about £67.5k now, or $90k, uncannily near that stated in the CNBC article. 

Isn’t it refreshing when you read of a business owner or leader who treats their employees fairly, so that everyone shares in success and blame is owned at the top of the organisation rather than pushed downwards?

Alfie Kohn’s 1993 book about rewards was prescient and requires a re-read.

Motivation and power

Like Herzberg, David McClelland’s work on power merits revisiting.  Those leaders motivated by personalised power are far removed from Robert Greenleaf’s ideal of servant-leadership.  They are in it for themselves, they have closed ears and don’t welcome feedback.  They are modern-day incarnations of Hans Christian Anderson’s butt naked emperor or empress.  The old saw applies, “People join their organisations, but leave because of leaders’ atrocious behaviours.” 

Leaders driven by socialised power are far more engaging and collaborative.  In the current vernacular, they will more readily reveal some of their vulnerabilities, i.e., they show the humility side of Jim Collins’s Level 5 leadership.  They are also willing and able to listen to everyone in their organisation.  Accordingly, feedback flows upwards more freely because people sense pyschological safety rather than threat. Willingly contributing supplementary thoughts and ideas helps strengthen the likelihood of realising their vision.  Indeed, through such engagement, ownership of the vision transfers from the C-suite to the entire organisation.    

Creativity is cognitive, innovation is physical

Creativity occurs through cognitive functionality – the brain conceives ideas.   Doing something with those ideas is innovation, it demands activity and endeavour.  Buddha said, “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.” French novelist Andre Malraux remarked, “Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk – and to act.”

Neither creativity or innovation depend solely on “change the world”, radical thoughts and concepts.  Both can be incremental.  For 75 years, the German economy has thrived on “incremental innovation”.  Brand new does not always trump improvement, although there are those instances of the horse carriage manufacturer striving to compete through continued product enhancement against the emerging innovation of Ford in the early 1900s. 

As most western economies face the biggest wall of national indebtedness since the Second World War and the 2008 financial collapse, how might responding to Pete Seeger’s challenge shown in my previous article inspire an even bigger wave of creativity and innovation?  How might this fire-up economic growth, create social cohesion rather than division, and cease ongoing environmental harm?  Which leaders are brave enough to answer Seeger’s challenge and embark in a new direction. Do not forget Nokia once made wellington boots before they made phones and, more recently, changed tack again to make servers!

When considering and trialling new approaches through prototyping and piloting, remember this wise counsel, “You can wreck the prototype, but you must never kill the pilot.” 

Being ready for all eventualities

I mentioned “calculated risk” in the previous point.  Planning is a worthwhile and necessary organisational activity.  Producing a weighty tome of a corporate plan is far less so.  As Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.”  And every organisation has been punched hard by Covid-19 because of inadequate planning and preparation. 

As adults, we too quickly shed formative learning.  Another instance in which Scouts and Guides are innovators is visible in their motto “to be prepared”.  The Guides explain this as follows, “It means Guides are ready to cope with anything that might come their way.”  

Many luminaries from the late Steven Hawking to Bill Gates predicted a global pandemic was imminent, yet insufficient thought was given to how to tackle this significant risk.  Clearly, far too many organisations have been entired ill-prepared.  Behaviourally, what has occurred during the pandemic does not reflect a lack of Strategic Thinking, which many commentators regard as the critical thinking competence for senior leaders.  It is not, it is a threshold requirement.  The distinguishing cognitive behaviour is Forward Thinking, i.e., identifying all the “What if?” scenarios, how likely they are, their impact, and how best they can be mitigated.  Without this, Strategic Thinking is akin to leaping before looking. 

The parable book “Here Be Dragons”, by Gill Ringland with Patricia Lustig and Rob Phaal, outlines many useful tools and techniques to employ not just to answer the “what if” questions but to pose them.

Strategy is not doing next year’s budget and structure still follows it

Strategy, tactics, and operations reflect different timescales.  I find this distinction made by historian and broadcaster Dan Snow about D-day helpful.  D-day was but a tactic to achieve the strategy of defeating the Nazis in Europe.  The construction of the Mulberry Harbours was an operation to enable men to get ashore in Normandy to achieve the tactic of creating a sizeable beachhead.  Is your claim to be developing strategy genuine or, like a Mulberry Harbour, floating at sea?  Strategy without tactics is a daydream, tactics without strategy can be a nightmare.  There should be clearly visible connective tissue between the organisational strategy and individual performance contracts.  If there isn’t, they will not be aligned.  People may start pulling in different directions.

Understanding these distinctions, particularly the timeline to complete different activities, is vital.  Is this set out clearly as a requirement in job descriptions?  Do recruitment and selection activities explore applicants’ ability to consider and work to different time durations?   

Structurally, Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 work about the forming, storming, norming, performing, and unforming stages of teams within an organisational team remains valid.  All Agile teams, however ephemeral, demonstrate their passage through the stages.   

Consider a skein of geese in flight.  The flock rotates the bird at the apex of the V-formation.  A leader may go back to the edge of the V from where it encourages the new leader, i.e., it “honks” from behind”.  Do you honk constructively or caw like a ravenous crow picking away at roadkill?

Job descriptions should be concise and precise rather than facsimiles of War and Peace

Garbage in, garbage out.  When a role is poorly specified, the consequence is no square hole is defined into which a half-way effective recruitment and selection process can find a peg that fits reasonably well.  Peter Drucker reckoned only one-third of executive appointments worked as hoped for.  That “cost of re-work” is eye-watering.  

I recall a role profile for the Director of Patient Experience at a hospital in southern England.  The word “patient” appeared on the front page then in the header of each subsequent page but not in the body of the narrative until page 11!  What was that role’s purpose?  Indeed, if in any role description the line of sight to the customer, client, or ultimate end-user of the product or service is not clear, why does it exist? 

I suggest writing the purpose of a role as a Tweet – the original length, not the longer version now permissible.  Set between six and ten cornerstone objectives.  And, if you are leading a team of people, do not put the objective concerning their performance and development last.  It should be first – see my first point in my previous article about what leaders do!  By focusing on your accountability to raise their performance and grow their talent, all the other objectives be they sales, administering HR policy, keeping the lights on, stimulating innovation, balancing the books etc. will fall into line.

All the approaches mentioned in this and my previous essay can be blended together in various combinations according to the underlying context. The crucial ones relate to human behaviour. Success arises from recruiting against those specified values-based behaviours and not sacrificing standards. In so doing, as leaders we can justifiably join in the chorus of Pete Seegar’s song, “We shall overcome.”

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