Posts

If you put down that hammer, I promise I won’t shout

If you’re stuck in one typical way of doing things or only have one way of looking at things, how do you change?

Doing some group coaching recently with the board of a successful company that faces some big changes in its market. Unless they shift direction slightly, they’ve seen that they may not have a business at all in the space of just a few years!


So you can maybe understand why I wanted to shout at one director who was being amazingly intransigent and who seemed utterly and stubbornly unable to approach things through anything other than their usual way of looking at them. A person who was actually being part of the problem, if not even its cause, rather than part of the solution.


In the end I decided not to shout at them. I have tried this in the past; sometimes it’s worked and sometimes not. In this case I didn’t feel that shouting would help at all because the cause of this director’s intransigence is that old case of:

If your only tool is a hammer, after a while everything starts to look like a nail

And I’m pretty certain that this person knows they’re being stubborn and sticking to one, out-dated point of view and one inappropriate way of dealing with things.

It made me curious.

What if that was me, stuck there facing a difficult and uncertain future, wielding the wrong kind of tool but unable to put it down?

How do you get out of that? How do you help yourself to discover new ways of looking at things? How do you investigate new tools; different approaches for dealing with thorny problems?

There are two reasons why people, having metaphorically picked-up a hammer, are so reluctant to put it down and take fresh approaches:

  1. Habit
  2. Fear

Habit, because it works. This is why we develop habits. It’s terribly wasteful of energy and slow to do things in a new way every time. If you don’t have to think about it too much and it pretty much always works, why do it any differently? You’ve developed a skill, so use it. The trouble is of course that we become ossified, stuck within the boundaries of that way of doing it, even if that isn’t the best way. If we’re really skilled with a hammer, we can even bash a screw into place!

Instead of that skill being something that facilitates our achievements, it starts to define what and how we can achieve.

Fear, because it’s nature’s way of helping us to survive. Don’t think, there isn’t time. There’s a threat right here. Stick to what you know and apply that now. Attack, run, hide; fight, flight or freeze – stick to whichever of those you’re good at. It takes a brave person to say “Hold on, maybe we should take a fresh approach to this threat. Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture here, or I’m stuck in one way of doing things and that isn’t helping.”


Really we need to practice these things before there’s a crisis. Learn new tools before they’re needed. Get used to taking a different perspective even when we don’t need to, when our usual way of looking at things is enough. Make space for curiosity for curiosity’s sake.


Some simple stuff about beginning to shift habits for you to try out yourself:

  • If you regularly commute, when was the last time you took a different route home, just to see what that was like?
  • Where do you usually holiday (same place or different places?) and how much exploring do you do when you’re there?
  • What type of entertainments do you prefer – and how much do you switch those around?
  • What working habits have you not changed in the last two, five or even ten years?
  • Are you sitting in the same desk, facing the same way today that you were this time last month or last year?
  • When did you last visit an art gallery? And when did you last visit an art gallery to deliberately see art that you don’t ‘get’?

And the same applies to fear. Fear hijacks our brain and gets us into that fight, flight or freeze straightjacket. When we’re in there, it’s hard to get out.

So we need to practice and become familiar with our fears in advance:

  • What are you afraid of?
  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What are your deepest concerns about your business?
  • What do you not want people to find out about your own perceived inadequacies?
  • What can’t you let go of?

The more familiar we can become with our fears, the less power they have over us. The more flexible we can be with our habits, they more they become skills to help us, and not shackles to bind us.


Please let me know in the comments below, or by tweeting me @nickrobcoach, what you’re finding out about your own habits and fear, and how you’ve developed flexibility of approach.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Capability – Part 2

Why you should be worried if people in your business are saying “I don’t know how…” – and what to do about it

This is the second in a brief two-part series about Capability at work. 

Part one (click here) explored what kind of approaches you can take if you want to help individuals to change their behaviours or to be more capable. In this second part, I look at why you should really sit-up and pay attention if you’re hearing a lot of “I don’t know hows” in your business and what’s needed if you want everyone to feel more capable.

If your business is not capable of doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and of doing that better than your competition, there’s trouble ahead!

Just recently, a couple of client organisations who are in the first stages of becoming more effective and more competitive have mentioned that a few of their people are saying that they, “Don’t know how… (to do what’s required of them).”

This is both a good thing to hear – because it shows that (a) you’re listening and (b) people feel able to tell you – and also the last thing you’d want to be hearing! How can your strategy be a good one, if it’s not based on already having (or rapidly acquiring) a competitive advantage of some kind? How can you execute a great strategy, if key people don’t know how to do what you need of them?

As well as developing individuals – see part one of this series – what might you need to be doing to develop a deeper sense of capability right across your organisation?

Here’s a couple of pointers based on my experience. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list, but should be a good springboard for your own investigations:

  • Are you strategic enough about acquiring and developing Capability? Specifically:
    • how clear are you about the core competencies (related bundles of skills) that set your business apart from the rest?
    • are these core competencies made known, valued, rewarded and measured?
  • Do you promote Curiosity across the organisation? Curiosity about what makes your business tick is a precursor to improved capability. Instead of hearing people say “I don’t know how,” you want to have them saying “I wonder if this would work…?”
  • Building on that, is it OK for people NOT to know stuff? Organisations often reward people (in the widest sense of ‘reward’) for their expertise and knowledge and also often unknowingly punish those who don’t know. Make it OK for people to risk NOT knowing and you open the door for them to learn stuff you’d never have dreamed of.

The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.

Confucius

Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers


Capability – Part 1

Why teaching new skills isn’t enough by itself to make people more capable or to generate new behaviours at work

This is part one of a two-part article looking at the topic of Capability at work.

This first part explores what kind of approaches you can take if you want to help individuals to change their behaviours or to be more capable. In part two, I look at why you should really sit-up and pay attention if you’re hearing a lot of “I don’t know hows” in your business and what’s needed if you want everyone to feel more capable.


When I was about ten or eleven years old I discovered the fantastic “Teach Yourself…” book series in our local library. This series has been going since the 1930s and was originally published in distinctive yellow or blue and yellow dust jackets. They covered a really wide range of subjects, from practical stuff like brick-laying through to economics, calculus and even Esperanto, which I once spent a whole summer playing around with.

Take a look at this collector’s website for some great information about the series and its various imprints.

When I discovered those books, it felt like something clicked inside me.
If you come from the kind of background I did, your horizons can sometimes seem a little limited, the options constrained, some choices perhaps already made for you. But I thought that here in these books was one of the main gateways to the world – knowledge and the capability that it imparts – made plain and accessible to anyone who wanted it.


It’s maybe no surprise then that one of my favourite aspects of my coaching work is around the level of Capability.

In the kind of coaching I do, I lay out those ‘levels’ like this:

1EnvironmentRefers to the Where and the When of whatever you’re doing and reveals what external constraints you might be operating under.
2BehavioursRefers to the What it is that you’re doing and reveals itself in your actions. 
3CapabilitiesRefers to How you go about doing things and reveals what approaches you might take now or in the future.
4Beliefs and ValuesRefers to the Why behind what you’re doing and reveals your motivations and self-imposed limits. 
5IdentityAnswers questions about and establishes Who you are. It’s both revealed by and satisfied by the missions you might undertake.
6ConnectionAnswers questions about your Vision or Higher Purpose – that is, in the larger system of which you’re part, it addresses for who and towards what cause your actions are directed.

For now, it’s important to realise that there’s a hierarchy to the levels as I’ve set them out above. For example, I’m often asked to coach people around operating more effective Behaviours at work, either as a team member or a leader, or often both. You can see from the table, that Behaviours are at level two. However, in order to operate new Behaviours, people usually need new approaches, new ways of going about things – and those new approaches require new Capabilities, a level three aspect!

It’s quite usual to have to explore two, three or even more levels deeper whenever any significant kind of change is required. New Behaviours (level two) usually need new Capabilities (level three), and acquiring new Capabilities often needs a shift in self-imposed limits and a rediscovery of motivations – a level four Beliefs and Values shift. And a really significant shift in those self-imposed limits, or a re-alignment or rediscovery of motivations, often requires a long hard look at just who we really are – right down at level five, Identity.


This is why, as we’ll explore more in the subsequent article, you’ve got to address cultural aspects around values and ways of doing things, as well as individual motivations and limiting beliefs in order to have more capable people in your business. Just trying to teach them new skills or sending them on a management training course may not always work!


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Getting input and buy-in to key decisions and changes

Seven things your team needs to hear you say if you really want their input and buy-in to decisions and changes

If you’re a good leader and you’ve got an important decision or change coming-up and you want to get people’s buy-in and make sure that all the angles are considered, you’ll ask people what they think about it.

But are you aware that there are some really strong reasons why people can’t or won’t actually tell you what they think and how they feel about a forthcoming change or decision?

Here are seven of the most significant reasons why people can’t or won’t say what they think. And what they need to hear from you as their leader to help:

1. They’re a natural introvert
And you’ve maybe asked them to participate in an open forum of some kind. If you want to get the best input from this person and have them get on-board with the decision, you’ll need to offer them the chance to give you feedback privately, or even in writing.

2. They’re a creative soul, or somebody who likes to tinker with stuff.
They may not know what they think about something until they’ve had a chance to play with it, maybe even ‘touch’ it in some way. Don’t ask these people abstract questions about a possible unknown future. Give them something concrete to play around with or experiment on – and then get their feedback and buy-in.

3. Their preferred communication ‘channel’ may not be the same as yours. You’ve probably heard about this stuff before – people need to either visually See a product or an idea, or they need to Hear an oral presentation, or they need to Do something (see 2, above), or they need to Read something. Make sure you either cover all the bases or, ideally, match your channels to the individuals concerned. Also, try to ‘hear’ what’s being communicated back to you, no matter which channel is being used.

4. They might be someone who operates an extreme ‘away-from’ motivation.
Away-from people find it easier to express negatives, or to foresee problems. Sometimes it’s hard to get these people to tell you what they want or what they prefer, so you need to be prepared to listen carefully to what they don’t want – which for those people is more important. Expressing doubts and concerns is possibly their way of getting on-board with you, so don’t dismiss or worry about that – just make sure you’re telling them that’s OK and that you’re hearing them.

5. They’re someone who’s got great instincts but lacks the ability to express them in a formal setting. I like working with instinct. I think of it as the sum of millions and millions of unconscious data points combined with years of deep experience. We ignore people’s instincts at our peril. But we’re also in a data-driven environment, managing our KPIs and making sure our decisions are supported by evidence. At times, it can be hard to stick your hand up in a board meeting and say that your gut is trying to tell you something vague. Good leaders make sure that people’s instincts are also heard. Tell your team you want to hear about their gut feelings. Coach them on how to express this kind of thing.

6. They’re ‘processors’.
That is, they prefer to mull something over and think about it before expressing an opinion, or even before they understand it or know what they feel about it. These people need time and space to process and they need to hear from their leader that it’s OK, even valuable, to take time to think about stuff.

7. I’ve saved the hardest one for last. People generally operate a set of ‘criteria’ that they use to test whether any decision or change is good, bad or something else. The trouble for leaders is that these criteria are mostly unconscious – people don’t know they’re doing this kind of testing. What you see instead – and what they feel – is the result of that unconscious testing expressed as an emotion of some kind.
There is one easy way to deal with this stuff, and that’s to make sure that your decision-making and change-feedback processes all include some specific work on just what those criteria might be – but it takes time. If I’m facilitating group decision-making or getting input to a change-management programme, I’ll do two things. First, make the criteria by which the business will judge the decision or change as explicit as possible (stuff like profit, timescales, quality etc will come in here). Second, I’ll ask people to evaluate it for themselves using a whole load of other potential criteria which are much more personal to them (will it affect their status, quality of life, prospects etc), and to do this privately. Only when they’ve consciously been through these things can you be sure you’ll get some buy-in and have considered all the issues.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Fear and Difficult Behaviour – full handout to download

The Four Directions of Fear and how they lead to Difficult Behaviour at Work

Click the image above and then right-click it to “Save as…” or download your copy of the full handout.

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

Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

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?

Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Personal Development Basics

Angry, Anxious, or Chaotic?
Three simple techniques for when you really need to kick-start some personal change

Sometimes before you can do any significant behaviour change and development, you first need to shift your state to be a little more positive or flexible. Or perhaps you just need to get yourself out of a temporary ‘stuckness’. Here are my favourite quick and easy actions to create some space, order and momentum. You’ll still need to do the developmental work and growth that leads to longer-term, sustainable change, but these simple actions often seem to help get that started.

Click here to download as a pdf


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Positive Behavioural Change

How to use Positive Intention and Metaphor to give someone a real boost to their interpersonal and relationship skills

I’m occasionally asked to help when a man in a senior leadership position is seen as being particularly challenging or negative in his relationships. Or similarly, when his interpersonal behaviour is having a damaging effect on other people or is just not getting the results that the business needs.

My experience has been that it’s almost impossible to help this man change his behaviour by starting out being critical of him. By the time things have got to the point where the business seeks my help, plenty of other people (and, sometimes, even the man himself) will already have been highly critical of him. Even if my being critical would have worked as a behavioural change catalyst (and sometimes it can), that option is often no longer available to me.

Instead, I often apply a change strategy based on two key aspects:

  1. the power of Positive Intention; and
  2. the use of Metaphor.

1. Positive Intention

Positive Intention works by seeking to understand, from the other person’s perspective, what was the ‘good’ outcome they were hoping to achieve by applying the behaviour that they used. Even if the actual outcome they got was highly negative, there will be something from their point of view that they were trying to achieve that, to them, would have been a positive outcome.

If I can understand what their Positive Intention is, as they see it, that’s halfway to creating the rapport and partnership we need for me to help them explore other behavioural strategies.

I’ve listed some of the examples I’ve come across of Positive Intention in the table below.

2. Metaphor

I’ve noticed that there’s something about metaphors in a coaching context that lets them fly right under a client’s radar, bypassing any resistance to change.

When we’ve found a metaphor that works well to either describe what the client’s positive intention was, or to picture how a ‘good’ interpersonal relationship might work, I can often see that it’s like weight has been lifted from their shoulders. See the table below for some examples.

Positive Intention and Metaphor


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers