Asking in the Right Way

Creative step-by-step ways for Leaders to successfully ask people to do stuff without hitting a problem

Leaders spend a lot of time asking people to get stuff done.

But how much time do you put into targeting the way you ask somebody to do something?

And particularly, how much time and attention do you pay to which is the right way to ask that specific person?


Asking someone to get something done in a way that avoids their unconscious barriers and makes the most of their natural predilections is incredibly helpful in maximising opportunities at work and in not discovering when its too late that there’s actually been no progress!

One approach that can easily help is to think about two of the dimensions that have a big impact on people’s behavioural and thinking styles at work:

  1. their preferred Motivational Direction; and
  2. their preferred Operational Mode.

For 1, their preferred Motivational Direction, that simply means do they prefer to:

  • look for goals and opportunities to achieve things (“Towards“); or
  • look for problems to solve or avoid (“Away From“).

For 2, their preferred Operational Mode, that means do they prefer to:

  • develop and create new ways of doing things (“Sponanteous“); or
  • follow established procedures (“Procedural“).

Put these two dimensions together and you’ve already got four possible combinations of how people respond to and think about the world around them. You can see this in the matrix at the top of this post.

The very best leaders already know which preferences their team members have in the way they think about and respond to the world about them. They can then adapt their approach so that when they ask somebody to get something done, HOW they ask also supports them and doesn’t actively get in the way.


Try it yourself.

Think of anything that you need to ask somebody to get done, and see if you can ask it in each of the four ways I’ve outlined in my matrix above.

  • Who do you know at work who would respond well to one of these approaches?
  • Who do you know who would be overwhelmed or annoyed at being asked in the wrong way?

What is your OWN preferred way of being asked – which of those approaches in the matrix would be most persuasive with you?


“Understanding people is much deeper than knowledge. There are many people who know us, but very few who understand us.”
Unknown


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Leaders should pay more time and attention to the WAY that they ask people to get stuff done. Click To Tweet

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The Intersecting Tracks

To make progress, great coaching runs on two intersecting tracks: Understanding – expanding what’s possible; and Doing – creating practical results

First, there’s a Doing track.

The Doing track is important because great coaching has to be a practical, tangible thing – to result in something useful that you can see or touch or hear. It’s not possible for clients to arrive at that destination without actually Doing something.

Second, there’s an Understanding track.

The Understanding track is important because great coaching should take people beyond what’s currently possible. And that requires new ways of looking at ourselves, more understanding about how best to relate to the world around us, and a deeper sense of what’s possible for us, both as individuals and in concert with others.


Clients often have an expectation that the coaching work will only focus on one or other track – sometimes they’re unaware that there even is a second track.

They might be struggling to get something done or to make a significant change, without realising that the reason they’re struggling is that they first need some new or deeper understanding. At other times, they can be flailing around, looking for the magic bullet to make things easier, when they simply might not have tried enough different ways, or even have tried hard enough.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s not easy to tell if something we’re attempting is difficult because (a) we lack some crucial insight; or (b) we should just be trying more things, or just trying harder. This is where our tracks need to intersect and why the coaching space, somewhere to reflect on those points, is such a powerful one.


So, intersecting tracks:

  • Track 1: discover some new Understanding because that then makes possible a different type of Doing; and/or
  • Track 2: try more or different ways of Doing, because the results from that doing will lead to new Understanding.

Once you become conscious of the intersecting tracks and the need to be both Doing and Understanding in a way that’s pretty close to simultaneous, all kinds of fantastic breakthroughs start to appear.

“Action without knowledge is useless and knowledge without action is futile.” Abu Bakr


What’s been your experience of this – can you understand without doing? Or push what you’re capable of doing without also getting new understanding?

Please leave a comment below if they’re still open at the time of reading, or tweet me @nickrobcoach

Great coaching has to run on two intersecting tracks – Understanding and Doing – more or less simultaneously. Here’s why: Click To Tweet

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How’s Your Crisis?

By now, we should all know something about how we’d do in a crisis. How’s yours going?


What’s been your experience of this crisis – and what are you learning about yourself as a result – good and bad?

Please leave a comment below if they’re still open at the time of reading, or tweet me @nickrobcoach

Ever wondered if you're a good person to have around in a crisis? Now you should know! Click To Tweet

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The “What if … ” Game

Plan for unknown, risky or even magnificent situations using the “What if … ” game. A tool for helping people venture into the unknown with their eyes open

I like my coaching with my clients to be rooted in real, tangible results, and to relate to actual experience.

So at first sight, the “What if … ” game might seem very different to that – abstract and make-believe. But here’s why it’s such a useful tool both for getting real results and for helping people to properly ‘live’ their day-to-day life and work.


First, people sometimes fail to take action, or fail to really be ‘present’ to their actual experiences, out of fear, embarrassment and shame around what could go wrong, or where they don’t feel good enough, or out of self-criticism about how things ‘should’ be.

At those times, the “What if …” game can be a great way of safely looking at and planning for the scary stuff together.

Leaders and coaches can ask:

What if your situation IS as bad as you think – what would you do about it?

What if you DID actually need to get better at doing X; how would you go about that?

What is actually the worst that could happen – and what’s the first thing you’d do if it did?

Nine times out ten, asking these kind of “What if … ” questions results in somebody really quickly reconnecting with their choice and personal agency (ability to get into action). You’ll get answers like, “Actually, if that did really happen, I’d just do X;” or, “The worst isn’t really as bad as I imagined, the really bad stuff is way, way beyond where I am!” On the tenth time, you might find someone who isn’t ready to re-empower themselves just yet, and the “What if … ” game will just get vague, non-concrete answers. Best strategy then is to simply explore more about what’s currently going on: “Tell me some more about how things are for you right now?” Give it time and space.

The 'What if ...' game can be a great way of safely looking at and planning for the scary stuff together. Click To Tweet

Second (and just as often), we can fail to take action, or forget to be in the moment, because our big, audacious goals, if achieved, would result in radical changes to our situations. This is true even though it seems really counter-intuitive – why would we not take action to make a radical change, or fail to fully experience the process of doing it, when it’s something that we wanted all along!?

But any kind of change, even positive change or growth is by definition scary – it lies deep into the unknown territory.

At those times, leaders and coaches can use the “What if … ” game as a way of safely exploring that unknown territory together. We can ask:

“What if this actually works – then what happens?”

“What if you find yourself changed in some way – how would that be?”

“What if you can’t tell how it will be until you get there?”

Any kind of change, even positive change or growth is by definition scary - it lies deep into the unknown territory. Click To Tweet

It’s human nature to either see only the outcomes we want or, more often, to not look at outcomes at all, because there’s a chance they’ll be unpleasant, scary or beyond our capabilities.

The “What if … ” game is a great tool for exploring what we might find and how we might feel when we do choose to venture into the unknown. And to go there with our eyes open to the risks and the benefits and our ability to deal with them.

Let me know if you’ve used the “What if … ” game, or something like it yourself please? What did you find?

Please leave a comment below if they’re still open at the time of reading, or tweet me @nickrobcoach

Leaders and coaches can help people to reconnect with their choice and personal agency using the 'What if ...' game Click To Tweet

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You’ll Be Fine

If there was one thing that I most want people to understand, right down in their bones, it’s that they will get through tough, difficult and challenging situations.

Sometimes, the noise of self-doubt in people’s heads is so loud that it can drown out everything else; including their sense of perspective (how difficult, really, is this thing?), and their memory of just how resourceful they’ve been in the past, and can be again now.

At those times I can see the noise of self-doubt as a little flicker behind their eyes, or a sag of their shoulders, a drop in their chin, or a reduction in their spirit.

At other times, people don’t realise how loud the self-doubt noise is. Instead of hearing it for what it is, they’re compelled by it to fight their way out or to sprint away. For those people, it’s not a loss of spirit, but a loss of reasoning and balance that the noise of self-doubt can lead to. I notice this if I find myself asking why they approached something in a strange, irrational or sub-optimal way.


As a leader or a coach, it can sometimes take you a while to grasp just how important it is to tell people really, really simple things like:

“You’ll be fine,” “I know you’ve got this,” “You’ve come through before, you can do it now.”

Saying this in the right way literally can make all the difference to someone.

It has to be said in a way that has significance:

  • First, you have to mean it; you have to ‘see’ just how resourceful and capable people are. And if you can’t see how amazing any one person is, then you’re not looking (or leading or coaching) properly.
  • Second, you have to believe it about yourself too. Perhaps this is the hardest part, because the right to tell others that they’ll be fine has to be earned by doing your own development work; properly hearing your own self-doubts for what they are and not being ruled or directed by them.
The right to tell others that 'they’ll be fine' has to be earned by doing your own development work Click To Tweet

If you can do that, if you can say to others in their difficult moments, “You’ll be fine,” and say it with significance and meaning and self-belief, it’s a fantastic gift to both of you. You can help silence the noise of the self-doubt and help return someone to their full power. That’s proper leadership.

Let me know if you’ve noticed any of this too please – or what you’re discovering about how important it is to remind others of their brilliance?.

Please leave a comment below if they’re still open at the time of reading, or tweet me @nickrobcoach

The importance of telling people they'll be fine - and saying it with significance, meaning and real self-belief! Click To Tweet

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Moral Support and Working Remotely

The Top 4 Reasons why Leaders aren’t doing enough Remote Stroking and Moral Support

Another occasional casualty of our new remote-working that I’m hearing more about is the need for stroking and moral support.

Different people call this different terms: “recognition”, “connection”, “praise” and “stroking”.
Each of these actually means slightly different things, but that’s not the important point – which is for leaders to not miss out on doing the human touch while their teams are remote from them.

Why is that so? Why aren’t leaders doing enough remote stroking and moral support for their people?

I’ve been collecting some of the reasons that clients mention and, in my limited samples, here’s the reasons I think come up the most:

1. Transactional Stuff Gets in the Way

Co-ordinating and leading the work of others when you’re rarely in the same room as them takes a different mindset. It’s not difficult to lead remotely, but in the need to get all the nitty gritty of the work stuff done, it is perhaps easier when working remotely for the human side to get forgotten.

Ask how people are feeling. Be open and honest about how you’re feeling – this gives permission for others to do the same. “How are you doing, in yourself?”, “I notice I’m feeling a little more stressed these days; how about you?” Just really simple things like that will do it. There’s a fundamental need (for most of us) to be fully seen as human beings, for others to “get” our condition. Leaders need to let people know that they’re ready, willing and able to ‘see’ their people fully in this way.

2. They don’t need it themselves

There’s some research to suggest that only about 40% of people absolutely ‘need’ to get recognition from others at work. If you’re in that 40% and you’ve got a boss who doesn’t need any external recognition themselves, and who also doesn’t understand that other people DO need it, then you can really feel the lack.

Leaders – tell people how they’re doing. Again, it isn’t difficult. Just find a quality that someone has displayed and play it back to them: “The way you handled that project really showed what a tenacious person you are; thank you for all your effort.”

3. They Mistakenly Believe that you can’t Stroke and Criticise at the same time

A few years a go there was a trend for leaders to be taught to give feedback in sandwich-form – one positive thing, one negative thing and then finish on another positive thing. I hated that approach then and I still hate it now and I think it just showed how HR people are often not natural leaders themselves. If you’ve got something to say to me, say it straight, whether it’s good or bad. I reckon that the unnaturalness of the sandwich approach put leaders off from giving straight feedback and had the unfortunate side-effect of teaching them to believe that you can’t tell people positive and negative stuff together – which is rubbish.

Say it straight please leaders, and make sure that you’ve generally got something genuinely good to say about others. Again, it’s not difficult: “It’s great how you always find a new angle on things or a new project to get started with. And, I need you to finish this priority work too.”

And if you as a leader can’t generally find something genuinely good about each of the people in your team, you’ve surely got to go and have a stiff talk in the mirror with the person responsible for that team!

4. They Resent Doing It

Previously, I think this reason would have been lower down the list. Perhaps it’s because we’re all running on slightly empty tanks these days. I write this at the start of autumn, as the days are shortening and the weather worsening and a second covid19 wave looks increasingly likely. Instead of getting ‘back to normal’, or even finding some normalisation in how we’ve set things up over the last six months, it looks like we’re going to need to adapt and adapt again.

It’s rare for leaders to say things to me like, “Why do I have to reach out and stroke them; it’s not all plain-sailing for me you know!”, but it’s not unknown. This is understandable.

If there’s any leaders reading this who notice they might not be reaching out and supplying the human touch to their remote teams, please make sure that you’re also taking care of yourself enough. Do what it takes for you to feel healthy, balanced and whole yourself. Don’t resent other people for their needs – take care of your own.


Let me know if you’ve noticed any of this too please – or what you’re discovering about the remote human touch these days.

Please leave a comment below if they’re still open at the time of reading, or tweet me @nickrobcoach

Why don't leaders reach out more, now we're working remotely? Click To Tweet

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Zooming, Storming, Norming and Performing – Teams and Video Conferencing

How Video-conferencing is impacting the way that teams perform and making us miss crucial problems

It’s said that teams and groups follow four (or sometimes five) stages of development as they learn how to work together:

  1. A ‘Forming’ stage – where people don’t quite know how the team behaves together, what’s expected of them and what’s acceptable (or not). During this stage, people test the water, trying to find out how they should behave with each other;
  2. A ‘Storming’ stage – where people begin to resist or act against the constraints that team membership places on them. During this stage, you can expect conflicts to arise and for people to compete for informal leadership and their place in the hierarchy;
  3. A ‘Norming’ stage – where people develop close relationships and the team coheres around a shared identity. During this stage, the ideas around what constitutes acceptable behaviour become fixed;
  4. A ‘Performing’ stage – where people basically can now turn their energy away from issues around team formation and behavioural norms and start getting stuff done.
  5. (For those teams – like project groups and task-forces that are temporary in nature, there’s a fifth stage – Adjourning, where performance drops again as everybody prepares to disband).

Evidence for whether or not teams do actually follow this four-stage model for performance is mixed, but it is a useful thought-starter for what to do at times when performance is low, or when leaders are wondering about changing team memberships.


I’ve noticed in my coaching with teams how the impact of Zoom video conferencing is felt at each stage:

At the Forming stage, the impact of Zoom is most felt in that people are now also having to test out video-conferencing related behaviours, rather than purely work-related behaviours. (Have a google for “what to wear when video conferencing” to see what I mean. In case it helps, Vogue suggested recently that dressing professionally raises our opinion of ourselves, so I’ve put my work shoes on to write this). Leaders will want to make sure that their video conferencing etiquette includes a rounded assessment of the behaviours that will make the team (and the meeting ) effective, as well as the usual “what background are you using?” stuff.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve noticed is a tendency for Zooming to hide the ‘Storming’ part of team of team formation. It seems all too easy for work conflicts to not be addressed in a Zoom meeting. Even if it’s uncomfortable, leaders need to turn the spotlight onto individuals occasionally. Ask about what barriers there are to effective working together. Ask directly where different priorities and agendas are conflicting. Challenge people – “Why aren’t you two resolving this together?” And most importantly, don’t let people use technical glitches, diary clashes and the lack of immediate body-language feedback to hide away from or duck any unresolved ‘Storming’. It will happen sometime; best to manage it when you get a chance.

Another important thing to look for, particularly at the ‘Norming’ and ‘Performing’ stages is the kind of group-think that means people will overlook or just not see obvious problems (for example in customer service or in the overall performance of the division or in how individuals are coping). There’s something about the strangeness of not seeing each other face-to-face that means we might also be blindly accepting all kinds of other strangeness or out of-the-ordinary problems without noticing them or feeling the urgency to address them. Leaders should ask themselves and their teams: “Whilst it’s all so weird, what are we not noticing, that needs our attention?”

Let me know if you’ve noticed any of this too please – or what you’re finding out about teamwork now that we’re not meeting face-to-face?

Please leave a comment below if they’re still open at the time of reading, or tweet me @nickrobcoach

Zooming, Storming, Norming and Performing: How is video conferencing impacting your team-effectiveness? Click To Tweet

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The Motivation Equation and Self-Belief (part 1 of a series)

How to define the outcome and establish your evidence in order to get more Self-Belief and better Motivation at work

I’ve written before about The Motivation Equation and how leaders can use it to motivate themselves and others to get great results and feel good about their work.

In that original article, I said that motivation is like a chain. Our overall willingness to get stuff done and our overall feelings about our ability to achieve things are only as strong as the weakest link in that chain. In other words, in order to spur ourselves and others into action and to feel good about the ambition behind it, we first need to make sure that each of the components of the Motivation Equation as strong as possible.

Here’s the overall equation: The Motivation Equation: Motivation = Self-Belief x Task-Relevance x Outcome Value Click To Tweet

We can think of each of the links as a kind of question or judgement that people make about themselves and their situation. For example, in the Task-Relevance link, people might ask themselves: “If I do this task well, will it lead to the outcome that’s required?

This series of articles will take that much further and deeper, in a bite-size way, by looking at each of the links in turn, starting with Self-Belief.


Healthy Self-Belief – Steps 1 and 2

If you want to motivate yourself or someone else to have more self-belief – either as a way to increase motivation, or just because the right amount of self-belief is usually a good thing – you’ll find the first of my seven essential steps to healthy self-belief set out below.

In terms of our overall Motivation Equation, the question that people ask themselves or the judgement that they’ll be making about themselves or their situation for the Self-Belief link in the chain, is this:

Self-Belief is about asking ourselves, 'Can I do this task well?' Click To Tweet

One thing that’s really worth emphasising at the outset is that self-belief is highly-contextual. That is, it depends on what we’re doing, where we’re trying to do it and what our situation is at the time. This is one of the reasons why self-belief can vary so much over time. It’s also why my first essential step is about getting really clear about that context:

1. Define the Outcome

What exactly is it that you’re trying to do?

You might be surprised at the number of people I coach who’re not feeling good about their self-belief precisely because they haven’t been clear enough about what, specifically, it is that they’re trying to achieve.

I think that this is partly a kind of defence mechanism – if we’ve been vague about what we’re trying to get done, then we can be similarly vague about whether or not we actually succeed. But that kind of hedging your bets, not being clear about the outcome you want, or avoiding getting too specific makes it much more likely that your motivation will be similarly ill-defined.

So don’t be vague, get clear about the outcome you want to achieve. What exactly is it that you’re trying to do?

For most people, it can also really help to then consider step 2:

2. Establish your Evidence

How will you know when you’ve done it well?

Again, this is such a simple step, but one that can often get overlooked. It’s also one of the reasons why I encourage people to celebrate and mark the occasion when they’ve achieved something significant. By looking back at it in this way, people get used to evaluating things in a much more rounded way, including the emotions involved in that accomplishment as well as the hard data.

I think also, that one of the reasons why we might avoid doing that kind of post-achievement reflection is because things rarely go as well as our secret desires had hoped for. There’s usually some wrinkle, or some aspect that wasn’t as perfect as we might have hoped.

So don’t wait until afterwards to set-up those measures. Have them be transparent right from the outset. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How will I know when I’ve done this task as well as I’d like to?
  • What will I see, hear and feel that will tell me I’ve achieved it as I’d like to?

And remember to reflect on and celebrate those things afterwards too!


In summary:

The first two steps towards healthy self-belief are: 1. Define the Outcome and 2. Establish your Evidence. Click To Tweet

In the next article, I’ll continue with the Self-Belief link in the motivational chain and will look at:

  • Enabling Beliefs – what we believe enables us to do something well
  • Reason Beliefs – what we believe is the reason for being able to do something well.

I hope that’s been helpful in some way and that this bite-size approach works for you. Please look out for the forthcoming articles in this series. As they’re published, I’ll hyperlink them here.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. Tell me about your own experience of motivation and self-belief, either as a leader working with other people, or for you personally?


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Connection Overload

Is conflict at work happening because people are overwhelmed by all the relationships they need to manage?

Talking with a client recently about the number of connections with customers and team members that he was dealing with gave me an insight into a problem I’ve been seeing more of just recently. The problem is this:

Sometimes, people who are great leaders, who are brilliant at their job and whose teams are delivering great results, can simultaneously have really poor relationships with their peer group of other leaders.

Why is that?

It seems weird to me that people with the interpersonal abilities to lead and manage so successfully aren’t also able to get on well with their colleagues. Somebody with those skills would be capable of great influencing, of good listening, of super coaching. So why weren’t they always being welcomed around the boardroom table as well?

Thinking about what my client had been saying, and about the sheer volume of connections he mentioned, made me wonder about this question:

Can people be overloaded by the amount of interpersonal connections they need to manage, so that their ability to have successful relationships in all areas is impaired?

In trying to answer that question, I remembered some research I’d seen around Dunbar’s Number and Compassion Fatigue…


Readers are probably familiar with Dunbar’s Number:

the cognitive limit to the number of people we can maintain stable social relationships with

The limit is thought to be around 150 people – for relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. (For those people we don’t have a ‘persistent’ relationship with – don’t interact with them that often –  the number could be higher.) I wonder how close some of us get to the limits of Dunbar’s Number, when we consider all of the client, supplier, colleague and team-member relationships we need to focus on? 150 isn’t a huge number. If you added up all the people you need to regularly connect well with, what does it come to?


Research also shows that there are limits to Empathy too.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feeling of others.

Empathy is limited in a number of ways, two of which are significant here:

  1. Empathy is limited in that it depletes our mental resources – the effort of keeping information in mind is mentally and physically draining. This is why people in caring professions are warned about the dangers of compassion fatigue – a subject I’ve written about previously here.
  2. Empathy is also limited in that it’s a finite resource until refreshed. Using empathy in one area of our work and lives reduces the amount available for other areas. This was shown by a study (click here) in which people who reported taking time to listen to colleagues’ problems and worries and helping others with heavy workloads felt less capable of connecting with their families. They felt too emotionally drained and burdened by work-related pressures to also be empathic at home.

Putting together the Dunbar’s number data and this sense of empathy as a limited resource, made at least part of this issue clearer for me. This is why some clients – often those who are otherwise great leaders – might sometimes struggle to be effective in relating to their wider peer-group. It’s quite possible that they are overwhelmed by the volume and range of relationships they need to manage.

If you’re at the head of an organisation, and you notice that some of your team leaders don’t seem to be getting on with each other, this idea of connection-overload might be one place to look.

Some questions to ask might include:

  • Are some of your team leaders having to spread their cognitive powers too thin, having to ‘know’ the preferences etc of too many people?
  • Is their empathy overloaded – their ability to relate well to others simply depleted?

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. Tell me about connection-overload in your organisation or for you personally. Where are the limits of your empathy? What’s your own Dunbar’s Number?


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Mission, Vision and Strategy Explained on One Page

Everybody is getting Mission, Vision and Strategy mixed-up and wrong – so here’s a handy one-page guide.

I don’t do much strategy work these days, in favour of my one-to-one and team work. But, I do get a little fed-up with all the remedial team and leadership coaching I need to do which is partly driven by organisations getting some of their structural factors wrong.

In particular, nobody seems to understand how Mission, Vision and Strategy should play nicely together, cascading from the top down. Other stuff that really bugs me includes:

  1. Why do organisations work on their values without having a good idea what their purpose is first? No wonder their people are confused about what their priorities are and how they should be behaving!
  2. And why don’t businesses get their long-term mission straight, before thinking about the mid-term or immediate future?
  3. Why does nobody seem to have a compelling vision now, instead of “Oh, let’s just carry on as before but maybe do a bit more of it.“?
  4. Why is everybody so terrified of doing proper competitive analysis that their strategy is really just a list of stuff they were going to do anyway, instead of a way to win in their marketplace?

Anyway, rather than just rant, I thought if I put it all on a handy one-page guide, that might actually be useful. Click the image above and then alt-click it to save as or download your copy.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. Tell me I’m wrong, and that your organisation has a proper, cascading Mission, Vision and Strategy covering all the points I’ve listed.


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