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Leading Comes LAST

First you listen, then you learn, then you help, and then you can LEAD

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I love this principle, which I first learned only recently.

It comes from this article in The Atlantic, and is my paraphrasing of a quote from former US Defence Secretary James Mattis, summarising George Washington’s leadership approach.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What’s your current leadership challenge?


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers




Why not make a difference when you can?

How to use simple observation skills to make someone’s day

A few experiences recently have reminded me how important this is.


I had my weekly ‘thinking morning’ in my favourite coffee shop earlier this week. New staff member is there, just finishing her training. I’m writing notes but also got my ears open and she asks the manager about the plants around the cafe. The manager says that watering the plants is on the roster, but that nobody really knows anything else about them. New staff member looks around and says: “They’re all succulents, simplest plant in the world to take care of. I’ll look after them.”

Of course, my spidey-sense is really tingling now, because here’s somebody who’s just revealed both an expertise and a sense of purpose. I decide to buy an extra coffee as an excuse to open a conversation: “I heard you mention succulents – sounds like you know your stuff about plants?

This simple bit of listening and initial nosiness was all it took for me to hear this woman’s life-story and how this was a stop-gap job until she could work as a florist. And you can tell when just hearing someone like this, being witness to their hopes is big deal! All the succulents were well looked after and sung to that morning.


Last month I had lunch with a friend who I first met as a business acquittance a few years ago. He never misses a chance to ask if I remember what I said to him back then, during what was then a tough time for him. I don’t really remember what I said, but I do remember the impression I got of him at the time, which was of someone just hanging-on by his fingertips, with the strain showing, but also with this little flame flickering inside him, of something very important he wanted to fulfil. Just looking at the way he stood and a simple bit of listening about what he was trying to achieve was enough to reveal all of this.

The way he tells it, it went something like this:

Him: “I’m not sure if I can take this anymore, and I’m at the end of my tether“.

Me: “Sometimes, all it takes to turn things around is just hanging-on a little bit more“.

And it seems that simple homily was enough, because now he does exactly what that little flame was all about.


Then an email arrives from a former client, somebody I coached nearly 15 years ago. It’s to tell me how they’ve just made the next giant step towards realising a business plan we first crafted, on a beer mat (it’s a long story, but I kept a supply of them back then for doing just that…) , all that time ago. The email includes the line: “Do you remember when you asked me about X? That was the real turning point for me.

Again, I don’t really remember what I said. But I remember thinking about how strong and determined this person was.


So, this is my really important learning.

That there are opportunities to say and do things which make a huge difference for people, just waiting around for us to grasp them. And that people will remember you did this for years and years.

All it takes is a simple bit of observation, listening to what they’re saying, taking in all the other impressions you have of this person. And reflecting back something true about them.

As it’s so possible to do this, why not do it whenever you can?


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Good to Talk

The Zen of a great space for thinking out loud about ideas, concerns and ambitions

One of the best aspects of my work is how much people value the chance to just talk about stuff.

There are several things you have to do before, during and afterwards to make it work well, but, the most important message I’d like leaders and managers to take from this post is really simple:

having a good-quality opportunity to talk and think out loud about the things that excite, concern and drive us is a fundamental requirement for operating well and feeling good about things at work

If you’ve set this up well, people will arrive ready and raring to go, with lists, narrative notes or a thought-cloud of things they want to share.

As a coach, it’s sometimes surprising how little I actually have to do on the outside – the important part for clients is for me to ‘witness’ whatever it is they are sharing. And I’m often consciously working at not doing anything else other than witness during these times. I’m also working at not letting my opinions and my own concerns and ambitions crowd-out my attention.

Things that seem to make it a good quality opportunity for people include:

1. Environment
The actual physical space you’re in, which needs to feel fairly protected or perhaps isolated I think. Although you can do a lot towards that just by the way you interact and negotiate together about what’s to be said and how they want you to be during the saying of it

2. The Coach or Leader’s Attitude
Holding an attitude in mind where (as the coach) you can connect really well with whatever it is that you find genuinely interesting, magnificent or even puzzling about this person. This I think is the key to good, deep listening and should be what drives your body language and verbal ‘tics’ (the uh-hu’s and hmm’s etc)

3. Offering People the Chance to Just Talk
On a conscious level, people don’t always seem to know that they want the chance to just talk. So it needs to be part of the negotiations about what they want from you as their coach and I think you may sometimes need to offer it explicitly: “You know, people sometimes just want me to listen to what’s been going around in their head and in their experiences. Would that be useful for you either now or sometime?”

4. Confidentiality and Managing the Agenda
There are also the real basics, like your commitments to confidentiality and how it works if you’re this person’s boss and therefore also have to juggle your own and the organisation’s agenda as well as listening to them. Make sure you talk about these right upfront, preferably before offering an ear to someone. But do it not in an idealistic way, but in a way that includes and is explicit about the reality – what are the limits to the confidentiality you can offer this person? What are the potential conflicts with your own agenda for what you want them to achieve and what the organisation wants?

For me, being able to give someone the chance to talk about (and hear for themselves) their ideas, concerns and ambitions is an incredibly privileged and humbling experience. Instinctively (and I have more learning to do about this), my sense is that the experience of talking about these things should be really ‘zen-like’ – unadorned and aspiring to true insight.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers