Top-team and Board development and effectiveness

Nick Robinson Executive Coaching - Kindness at Work

Working Kindness

Why aren’t we more kind at work, when kindness really helps?

I write this at the end of a busy month, which has given me another great opportunity to ask people about one of my current themes: kindness.

The reason I’ve been asking about kindness is down to my previous month’s coaching work. This was absolutely packed with situations where I couldn’t help thinking that maybe just a little bit of kindness would have dealt with everything even before I’d arrived!

There’s variety in my work and so it’s good that I also get to work with people in some very successful businesses and organisations where kindness is a way of doing things. In fact, some of the most successful leaders I know are very good indeed at doing kindness and I can’t help feeling that in the long-run, there’s probably a high correlation between the two.

I know there’s an emotional side to this. The sort of world I want to live in and to leave for my son, is driven by kindness. I want there to be room to care for and raise-up others to their full potential. And for me, there’s also a really practical side. I love being able to do things well, and doing them well also means doing them effectively – with efficacy, efficiency and gracefulness. If I genuinely thought that being unkind was more effective in the long run than being kind, I’d probably give it a go! But I just don’t see it. What I do see is opportunity wasted, potential unused and crucial errors being allowed.

Human beings are practically hard-wired to both take care of themselves and to take care of each other because of our evolution as social animals. The basic tools to be kind to each other, and the practical reasons for doing so, are already available to us. So, if we’re not being kind, there must be a reason. And, if there’s a reason, there’s also got to be a way to create the right conditions for more kindness.

Here’s my thoughts so far.

Unchecked self-criticsim vs. useful Purpose

In my experience as a coach, people who are critical of others in a damaging rather than useful way are often unconsciously highly-critical of themselves. With that going on in the back of their minds it’s very hard to be supportive of others. Contrast that with the joy of being around someone who has a genuine sense of Purpose, something meaningful to work on and who will carry you along in their enthusiasm.

Self-doubts and limiting beliefs vs. Connection

Some people let the self-doubts, the “I can’t”s and the “It never works for me”s, take over the focus of their attention. This self-limiting place is one where there’s no spare energy, time or resources to be kind to others. It’s a place where kindness looks dangerous, like a zero-sum game of winners and losers. They say that you become the average of the people you spend time with and it seems true to me that having quality time Connected with people who don’t think like that is a great enabler of kindness

Cultural Norms vs. Opportunities to Serve & Nurture

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to having more kindness at work is “the way things are done around here”. Just like individuals, organisations have an unconscious set of stories, beliefs and self-criticisms. Left unchecked, Cultural Norms can become very damaging to an organisation’s ability to make the most of its people. As an antidote, creating Opportunities to Serve and Nurture, as many companies are doing with community and volunteering initiatives, is a great way to remind us just how uplifting it is to be kind and caring for others.

Unhealthy Habits vs. Resilience

Setting aside the false criticisms and limiting beliefs, it is probably true that, in the short-term, kindness comes at a cost. Time, money, effort and attention may all be involved. If somebody has habits that don’t help them to be resourceful, that make them unhealthy physically and emotionally, they may well find that the ‘cost’ of being kind is too high for them. What I’ve found is that the most Resilient people are also often the kindest. They work on themselves and that helps them be resourceful enough to help others. If you want to be kinder to others, start with being healthily kind to yourself. As they say,

You can’t pour from an empty cup

Fear vs. Choice

Fear is a very useful mechanism, designed to keep us safe and ensure our survival. People sometimes regard themselves as weak or wrong for being afraid, or for acting badly when they experience fear. When I’m with clients, I celebrate fear as another signal about something important. We can’t not have any fear; it’s part of our whole brain and body system. And without fear, there’s no courage either.

What we need are more behavioural strategies for dealing with our experience of fear. Instead of freezing like a rabbit-in-the-headlights, or lashing-out in fight mode, or running away in flight from our fear, we need Choices about how to behave.

This is especially true in businesses and organisations, which are themselves social systems and quite like the circumstances of our evolution as social animals. What makes us successful in those circumstances is co-operation with others. To co-operate well, we need more and better choices about how we behave. And one of the most important behavioural strategies is kindness.

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Informal Team Alignment Exercise

Is your business the “winningest” team?
Fun wordplay to help your team stay aligned

This is a fun exercise to try when your team is working well together and you’d like to keep the momentum going, or for when you need to lighten to the mood a little.

My 14 year old son is mad about American Football at the moment, so we’re learning lots of new team sport strategies and techniques and the jargon that goes with them. My favourite piece of American Football jargon so far, has been the term “winningest“, which the OED defines as follows:

Winningest
adj, North American, informal:

Having achieved the most success in competition:

‘the winningest team in pro-football history’

I did a lot of my early coach training in the US and I’m a big fan of how North Americans don’t let formal grammar get in the way of clear, concise and even fun communication. So I’ve been using this approach recently in my work with top teams and boards, to help them think about what kind of team they are. It also helps with getting more creativity and risk-taking, as it’s a subtly-rule-breaking exercise.

I usually start by introducing the term winningest and then ask them to take some other words they like and make similarly informal terms out of them that help describe who they are as a team.

Start with an “…ing” word and just add “est” to play along. Don’t worry about which part of speech your word is (because that’s kind of the point here). For example:

  • Amazingest – we’re the team that makes you go wow
  • Challengingest – we just don’t back down
  • Encouragingest – every one of us is a born cheerleader
  • Energisingest – you’ll never feel tired on this team
  • Fulfillingest – simply the most rewarding team to be part of
  • Surprisingest – we really love new ideas
  • Workingest – we try harder.

If your team was an “…est”, what kind of est would it be?


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Using Emotional Intelligence (EQ) to Review your Year

How to review your performance this year using Emotional Intelligence (EQ) to help personal growth and get better results

If you’re about to review your performance over the last year or so, you could try doing so through an Emotional Intelligence (or EQ) lens.

EQ is one of my favourite ways of looking at how well I’m doing, because it suits a behavioural approach (my actions and their impact).  It supports a deeper understand of what drives those actions and what does or doesn’t make them effective in my interactions with others. Plus, there’s research to show that high levels of EQ are correlated with individual success and performance in a work context.

Although definitions vary, in my view you could regard Emotional Intelligence as the ability to be aware of and manage our own feelings and emotions, to be aware of and able to influence other people and to balance behaviours which benefit us individually with those that benefit the team and organisation.

If you want to have a go at reviewing your own performance in EQ terms over the year, click-on and download the blank spider chart at the top of this article and then score yourself on the following seven elements. These come from one of my preferred models of EQ, established by two British authors from Henley Management College in their book Making sense of emotional intelligence.

Score yourself from 0 – 10 and then mark it in the chart. See my example below if you’re unfamiliar with this kind of spider chart.

How well do you feel you did during the last year?

  1. Self-Awareness
    The awareness of your own feelings and the ability to recognise and manage these.
  2. Emotional Resilience
    The ability to perform well and consistently in a range of situations and when under pressure.
  3. Motivation
    The drive and energy which you have to achieve results, balance short and long-term goals and pursue your goals in the face of challenge and rejection.
  4. Interpersonal Sensitivity
    The ability to be aware of the needs and feelings of others and to use this awareness effectively in interacting with them and arriving at decisions impacting on them.
  5. Influence
    The ability to persuade others to change their viewpoints on a problem, issue or decision.
  6. Intuitiveness
    The ability to use insight and interaction to arrive at and implement decisions when faced with ambiguous or incomplete information.
  7. Conscientiousness and Integrity
    The ability to display commitment to a course of action in the face of challenge, to act consistently and in line with understood ethical requirements.

Here’s my own; got some work to do on actually seeing stuff through to completion and being more considerate of how my actions affect others.

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Team Performance Using DRIL

The 4-step approach to great team performance: Design, Rehearse, Implement, Learn

I’m often surprised by how much of an expectation people set for themselves about being able to do stuff exactly right, first time. It happens a lot in business; even with professionals who’ve spent years acquiring expert knowledge in their subject. In other walks of life – the arts, the military, for example – there’s a much more progressive attitude to practising things before being expected to get them right.

And the area where people seem to have the highest expectations without putting in preparation is about how teams perform. Great teams don’t just happen – they are created and nurtured.

Here’s my DRIL – the four steps for getting really great performance out of teams:

  1. Design – what is it you want to achieve and how, together, will you go about it?
  2. Rehearse – practise it; walk it through in your minds or on the whiteboard;
  3. Implement – if you can hold-off implementation long enough to have done Design and Rehearse, then it can be done fast and with conviction, often saving time;
  4. Learn – you’d think that learning from what worked and what didn’t would be old news by now. It isn’t – maybe because a great team is never done learning.

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Strategic Management

What to do if your board or top-team is not looking at the critical success factors that your business needs to tackle

It’s easy for boards and top-teams to get caught-up in the routine of managing the business and even in the routine of managing the board agenda! My experience has been that if you give people the opportunity to examine the right issues and some structure to do it with, they’ll usually be more than ready to do so.


As a working definition, a Critical Success Factor (CSF) is anything that is vital for your strategy to be successful. You can think of a CSF as a make or break issue – hence “critical”.  One relatively easy way to identify some of your CSFs is to ask the question: “Why would a customer choose us instead of a competitor?


Just occasionally, there are two factors which can unconsciously create resistance to taking the right amount and quality of time for your board or top-team to properly examine the factors that make your business successful. Those are:

  1. without necessarily admitting it to themselves or to each other, directors are aware that something important is not going right
  1. the organization is very busy but not outstandingly successful financially and there’s an “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentally getting in the way of doing it better.

If that’s the case in your business, you’ll need to act as a catalyst and influencer so that the right people will give these issues their conscious attention. If you’re the boss, that’s relatively easy to do and it may be you’ve just not had the time or process to think about it before. If you’re not the boss, you’ll need to start building alliances and setting out the case for change, so that the Critical Success Factors for your business can be managed properly.

If you want to get a head-start identifying your CSFs, try downloading my area-analysis grid by clicking on the picture at the top of this article. This grid is also a great process to use at a board awayday session. Try sticking a big grid on the wall or the floor and then populating it with Post-its.

 

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Stepping-down as a Business Owner

Top 5 tips for when you own the business but are ready to step back from its day to day running

One of the most frequent times that a medium-sized business will seek out the help of a coach is right at that point when the people who own the business are thinking of stepping-down from its day-to-day management. I’m reminded of the times when business people I know have described the “big gambles” they’ve needed to take to be successful. There’s several such big gambles including: starting-up in the first place, employing your first team of staff, buying or committing to big new premises, expanding to new markets, and many others. One person I know described them each as “an opportunity to bet your house”! Of course, each of those is also something to celebrate and I often suggest that clients regard the decision to step back from the day-to-day running of their business as (just) another opportunity to ‘bet your house’ and something to celebrate!

When I’ve seen this process be successful, here are some of the factors that I reckon were involved in making it work:

1. Start with the end in mind

What do you want to achieve by stepping-back from the day-to-day running of your business? It could be any number of things: from a desire to work less yourself, through to a deep understanding that the business now needs somebody else to take it to the next level.

Imagine a flourishing future scenario, say ten years after you handed over the reins. What positive changes would you want to have seen happen in those ten years; for you personally, for the other owners and for the business itself?

2. Incremental vs Big Bang?

I’ve seen people take both of these options. The ‘Big Bang’ approach is to do the whole stepping-back thing in one go. For example, put a professional management team in place, look for a buy-out/in – any option that gets you and your fellow owners out of the door straight away. The incremental approach is to plan out a sequence of changes that will get the owners out of the business gradually, perhaps starting with the appointment of a professional managing director or even an ops director.

The most important thing is to match the option with your (and the other owners’) style. Look back at those times in the past when you were successful. Did you take a big-bang or an incremental approach?

I believe this is largely a question of personality traits, so you (or someone close to you) should be able to see the patterns in your behaviour. Make sure you play to your strengths.

3 Get the right people on the bus

Experience suggests that this is the time to be really fussy about the person or team you appoint. You’ll have spent a large part of your life building this business, so make sure you carefully consider who you need and invest in them accordingly. Make sure you decide on your Big Bang vs Incremental approach first, and go through the other points outlined here, before you decide on the right kind of person. Building a business is a bit like raising a child. You wouldn’t hand over your child to be looked after by the first/cheapest person you met, would you?

4. Do the Strategic Analysis

There are plenty of tools and techniques to help look at just why your business has been successful. My belief is that it’s essential that you know what has made it work, before you think about handing it over to anyone. Very often, it’s those unconscious factors, the difference that makes the difference, that have led to your success.

It can be a mistake to assume that because you did what came naturally and made your business work, that someone else will also instinctively understand and be able to continue delivering that. Do the strategic analysis, understand at a conscious level what makes your business successful and make sure that you design processes and put in place the right people and other assets to continue that.

5. Step back, but not off

One final thing that makes the whole stepping-back process work well for the owners of a business is to not feel that you have to step-back (or abdicate) entirely. If you have a continued ownership stake, it’s right that you can also (maybe even should also…) continue to have some say in the direction of the business.

You can design whatever arrangement you want, so long as you’ve done steps 1-4 above. Perhaps you’ll decide to restrict your involvement to one of appointing the right people and guiding the strategic direction of the business. Or perhaps you’ll become a kind of ‘ambassadorial’ figure, representing the business to the wider world but not doing anything else. It may be that you become ‘just’ a shareholder, with rights that are exercised only at an AGM. Just make sure that you consciously co-design the relationships and arrangements you’ll have with the people you hand over to. And if you notice that it’s not working – change it

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Coherent Teams

12 questions to answer when one important member of your team is not adapting to change or isn’t wholeheartedly on board

  1. Have you told them directly about what seems to be going on?
  2. Are they perhaps acting as the “unconscious voice of the system” – either as a safety valve that shows there is pressure in your organisation, or a warning signal that you’ve missed something significant?
  3. Is it really just them or, if you pay careful attention, are others also doing this?
  4. Is this a behavioural pattern for them that also occurs in other places and situations?
  5. Do you really need them to be any different?
  6. If the answer to 5 is “Yes”, have you actually asked them to change?
  7. If they were to change, what’s in it for them?
  8. What strengths and positive personal qualities do they have that they might apply in this situation (but aren’t currently applying)?
  9. What might they be afraid of (consciously or unconsciously), that is keeping them out of sync with your team?
  10. Can you adjust the circumstances in some way to better accommodate their preferred ways of doing things?
  11. Have you discussed this, in a ‘safe’ way, with the whole team present?
  12. What other support have you offered them to help adapt and/or get fully onboard?

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Motivating Teams and Businesses

How to re-energise your team and rediscover momentum

Over the last couple of years I’ve worked with several teams, businesses and organisations who felt that they’d become stuck and had lost a large part of the passion and hunger for what they do. As a result, they were grinding along, with every step seeming to cost a huge amount of effort, losing out on opportunities and not really addressing the problems they were facing.

I’ve used the tools and techniques described here to help the top teams in those organisations and businesses to re-energise themselves and find their own momentum to carry them along.

It’s Not Just About Strategy

Some people will tell you that, in those grinding circumstances, your organisation, team or business needs to re-asses its strategic priorities. And I think there’s sometimes some truth in that. BUT – you’ve got to do one or two other things first. Otherwise, when that strategic re-assessment is required, that also just becomes another ineffective part of the soulless grind.

It’s Not Just About ‘Why’

There’s also been a lot of interest recently in Finding Your ‘Why’.
People say, “Always start with your why” – Why did you go into that business, in that segment? – Why does your organisation or your particular team exist?

And this is a good exercise to do when you already have momentum and want to have a coherent marketing message. In fact, the WHY is one of the most powerful marketing messages there is. BUT – my experience has been, when it comes to re-energising your own business and finding that momentum that will carry your team forwards, asking “Why” can stop you dead in your tracks.

It Can Be a Virtuous Circle

I don’t know about you, but I started doing what I do because I felt I might be able to become good at it. Along the way, I had to overcome quite a few obstacles. And as I started to get better at doing it, I liked it more and more. I believe this virtuous circle is the key to re-energising your team and finding momentum, and it’s the one I’ve used successfully with those teams and businesses over the last couple of years.


At its simplest, I think people enjoy doing what they’re good at and that this enjoyment carries them over any obstacles to becoming even better at it. And that overcoming those obstacles is itself a way of getting even better.

Motivating Teams and Businesses


If you want to re-energise your team, business or organisation, and find the momentum to carry them forward, you need to remind people how they’ve already lived this virtuous circle.

I’ve used lots of different tools and techniques to do this. First, because I like experimenting, finding out what works. And second, because I like to take an approach that is tailored specifically to a particular team or business, so that it is really effective and is just for them and they can own it as theirs.

Tools, Techniques and Guiding Principles

Amongst these tools and techniques, there are three guiding principles that I think should always be present:

1. Time

It’s so easy when you’re in the busy day-to-day of running things to forget your story. We tend to focus on what needs to come next and forget to look back, at what’s already happened. As Bob Marley sang:

If you know your history, then you will know where you’re comin’ from…

I’ll always include some way of representing the journey of that team and business from the past through the present. And along the way they’ll also get a chance to remember what they had to overcome to get there and what they had to become good at doing.

There are many different ways to anchor that journey over time, so that the exercise can breathe some life into their experience, but the best ways usually seem to…

2. Play to Their Strengths

For example, if this is a team who are good at thinking in logical steps, I’ll use a ‘spatial anchoring’ technique, marking the timeline of their business along the floor and re-tracing their steps from the past to the present. If they’re a team who listens well, I might have different members represent key points along the timeline, and tell the story of that point as the group moves along. I’ve asked video production companies to make a visual vignettes of their business’s journey. One organisation I visited used bright colours and diagrams everywhere, so I asked them to colour-code and map-out the obstacles they’d had to overcome and the things they’d enjoyed along the way. Another business, good at summarising and explaining to each other, were asked to peg out cards to an impromptu washing-line, each card briefly describing their experiences over the 15 years since their business was founded.

Once you’ve got the timeline represented in some way, with a good recollection of the obstacles they’ve had to overcome and the things they’ve become good at doing, you need to make sure there is…

3. Space for the Future

I don’t know about you, but I want room to grow into. I want to know that there is space and potential in my future. Not too much space, because I don’t want to be rattling around not knowing where to go, but enough space to house my ambitions.

I think teams and businesses are the same. The people that breathe life into those teams and businesses unconsciously need to see, feel and understand that there is a supporting structure that has enough space for an enjoyable future.
This is the key to the second part of what you’re trying to achieve – as well as re-energising them, you need keep them going. To create momentum to carry this team into the future.

Whatever technique you’ve used to represent their journey so far, make sure that it can also extend easily and spaciously into the future. So, for example, if you use the ‘spatial anchoring’ technique described above, make sure there’s also room along the floor to include the future without cramming it into a corner.


Recreate that virtuous circle for your team, business or organisation. Help them to re-live the overcoming of obstacles that got to where you are now, to reconnect with the things you’ve become good at along the way. If you can do that, then I think you are most of the way there to re-energising and rediscovering that enjoyment. If you can do it in a way which deploys those three principles of: Time, Playing to your Strengths and creating Space for the Future, then I believe you will also find the momentum you want.


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Systems Science and Decision-making

The Descartes school of getting your board to painlessly make decisions

Clients sometimes say things to me like:

“We’ve been around and around on this issue and still haven’t made a decision that everybody is happy with”;    Or

“Even though I thought we’d decided this months ago, the same issue keeps coming up again and again”.

What is happening that smart, experienced people can get stuck in this cycle? Why do key decisions seem to take forever or get revisited again and again without making progress?

The answer (or a part of it, anyway) is that a top-team or a board of directors is a kind of system – by which we mean:

A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.

The 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes had some interesting things to say about systems and how to work with them. He used the example of a clock, saying that you can’t take one piece out of a complex system like a clock and expect to easily identify the role of either that individual piece or (most importantly) the functioning of the whole clock.

Similarly, if you are one of the pieces in a system, it’s extremely difficult to either:

  • identify where and why that system may not be working so well; or
  • influence the wider system to change.

If you’re a member of the top-team or board, or an employee of it, you’re already plugged-into that system. This is why an external change agent often seems to have a much easier time influencing the board to make changes.


Here are some of my tips, from a systems point of view, for getting a board or a top-team to address an issue or make a decision that has previously been postponed or keeps being revisited. Whilst they’re not directly attributable to Descartes, I’m sure he’d have approved – especially if Post-Its had been around when he was doing his Cogito ergo sum stuff!

1 Don’t do any work on it at all, until all the stakeholders can be present – otherwise you’re not addressing the whole system

2 Recognise that, by and large, most systems are in a state of “homeostasis” – they will work to maintain a balanced and relatively stable equilibrium amongst their component elements (you can see this most easily in biological systems). Changes of any kind, and the decisions to initiate change, are almost an anathema to a functioning system

3Use the power of the system to introduce desire for the decision – most simply, I often just ask the group to list why they would and wouldn’t actually want to make the decision (as opposed to asking what decision they want to make)

4Design some kind of decision-making process that has people up on their feet and moving around. As this is likely to be the opposite of how they usually do things it will (a) counter some of that homeostasis; (b) make it harder to be passively resistant and (c) introduce some dynamism

5Use plenty of Post-its and other tricks to help make people’s thoughts visible and shared with others. Nothing keeps a decision coming back again and again more than somebody feeling that they haven’t aired their view or had it heard

6Discuss the decision-making process upfront, especially around not making a decision or having to revisit it – What do we do if we don’t arrive at a decision? How we will respond if we’re still addressing this in three month’s time? How will we include dissent if it only arises later on? I don’t think the answers to these questions get any easier by asking them upfront, but experience suggests that these issues are then less likely to be a problem

7Talk to an experienced facilitator about your processes. If you want them to actually help at your meetings, then you’ll need somebody who is able to build a good working relationship with your board as a whole and with the individuals, and who is also able to keep their independence and not become too much of a part of your system.


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Team Alignment

Six surprisingly simple things to check if your team isn’t all pulling together


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