“Thanks, your work was almost adequate”

What should leaders say and do when someone’s work is disappointing?

The comedian Henning Wehn performs a joke about a German baby that doesn’t speak at all until it’s five years old – and only then to complain that things are no longer satisfactory.

Here he is delivering the punchline to Alan Davies’ setup on BBC’s QI:

This joke actually tells us a lot about the causes of a problem that leaders sometimes share with me – what should you actually say when someone delivers a rather disappointing piece of work and then expects some praise or thanks from you?

My challenge to those leaders when they raise this issue is this – have you been a bit like that German baby and been too silent until now?

By which I mean the following:

  • Have you previously set out clear enough expectations of what a great solution to this work would look like?
  • Have you previously given this person enough positive feedback so that they know what their strengths are and how much you value them?
  • Have you previously spent enough time coaching and developing this person, so that they’re definitely capable of delivering what’s required?

If you can’t honestly put your hand on your heart and say “Yes, I have previously done enough of that”, then you’ve been too much like that German baby and have spent too long being silent because things were tolerable before.


Your choices now that the disappointing work has been delivered are much narrower than before. And – and this is really important – the blame probably lays at your feet, because it means you’ve likely missed one of the factors I’ve described above.

I’ve spent lots of years not quite living up to my own standards as a leader and have coached loads of others through similar situations, so I have some experience. Here’s how I would chart my way through a ‘disappointing output’ situation:

  1. Say a proper thank you, like you mean it;
  2. Own up in a neutral and non-complaining way: “This is different from my expectations, can we talk through that?”
  3. Be specific: “I was expecting ‘A’ and this looks like ‘X’.”
  4. Ask for what you now need. If you can live with the output as it is, but want it to be better next time, skip this stage and the next. If not, you need to say something like: “I do need this to meet the following criteria (and list them), so I will need you to re-work it please.”
  5. Ask them to describe their version of that output ‘X’, by saying something like: “Tell me how you’ll know that you’ve done a great job on this, before it gets to me?”
  6. Ask for what they need from you: “What support, resources or information might you need from me, so that you can do a great job with work like this?”

Leading is a tough job. And even when you have done everything I’ve suggested above, people will still deliver disappointing outputs to you, for a whole load of reasons. Don’t be too tough on yourself though, despite my accusing you of being like that German baby!

My point is, it isn’t necessarily your fault, but it is your responsibility. If you want to be a great leader, and you’re not getting the results you want – try a different way. And if that doesn’t work, try another.

And don’t be afraid to seek that support that you need, so you can be as resourceful and flexible in your approach as you need to be.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. Tell me how you normally tackle this situation, and how that usually works out for you?


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Efficient + Effective = Elegant

Why a stripped-back approach and a deep understanding of function is the most graceful way to empower people

I’ve been aiming to follow the formula in the title of this post for as long as I can remember but it was first put into words for me by the brilliant Derek Jackson and Fran Burgess who are now, unfortunately for the rest of us, retired from their training work.


Efficient + Effective = Elegant

Fran and Derek sketched it out on their whiteboard, talking about how:

  • Efficiencyworking with speed and economy; would combine with
  • Effectivenessbeing capable of producing the desired result; to produce
  • Elegancesimultaneously excellent and graceful.

This state of elegance was what I’d been after in my work, well, for ever!

I remembered a couple of occasions, back when I had a proper job, when I’d come close to this. Leading a team handling some really complex and high-pressure tasks where we were really getting great results with limited resources and where it’d felt just … easy.

Looking at Fran and Derek’s whiteboard in that classroom, I wasn’t really seeing their notes, but was remembering that experience at work which had felt – and I say this as a 6’2″, 100kg clumsy person – like doing ballet!


My wife is a designer and this combination of Efficiency + Effectiveness = Elegance is something you often come across in the worlds of design and architecture.

At the time of my studies with Derek and Fran, the Millau Viaduct – which is featured at the top of this post – was just being completed by Foster and Partners. This stunning bridge, still the world’s tallest at the time of writing, is part of the French autoroute from Paris to Béziers across the Massif Central, crossing the River Tarn between two high plateaux. In describing the bridge, Foster talks about a fascination with the relationship between function, technology and aesthetics in a graceful structural form. Foster and Partners said that they had a choice between two possible structural approaches: (1) to cross the river; or (2) to span the 2.46 kilometres from one plateau to the other. They wrote that although geologically it was the river that created the landscape, it is very narrow at that point, and so it was the second option, to go plateau to plateau, that provided the most economical and elegant solution.


One of my favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway, describes how his writing process is similar in that he would ruthlessly go back over his work and remove “whatever didn’t need to be there”. He talked about how he would sometimes strip away the unnecessary almost to the point where readers would need to invent some of the details for themselves. Hemingway’s writing, for me anyway, has a kind of aliveness I feel can almost touch, whether it’s in a small but “clean and well-lighted” cafe, or hiking over a Spanish hill with a heavy pack.

I love this kind of stripping back and removing the unnecessary. Or as Foster might put it, reading the landscape well enough to see what combination of technology and aesthetics would provide the right function in the most economical and elegant structure. This approach is what I want for my coaching work. It’s why I’ve had to boil down and boil down what I know until the real essence appears.

This is also why I don’t introduce a complex model of how to do something, when a simple coaching question will get the same result. Instead of a slow, laborious trudge, it’s just being sufficiently curious about how somebody might achieve something to begin unleashing their potential – and not showing-off mine.

It’s also why there are lots of times when I don’t even need to ask that simple coaching question. In the right relationship, with the right degree of trust and respect, I often find that a simple shift of my head or a slightly raised eyebrow is as good as asking the most brilliant question. Sometimes, I even think my eyebrow is better at asking the right question than my brain is!


The best thing about the Millau Viaduct isn’t that it’s a brilliant piece of architecture. It isn’t Foster and Partners that are making the crossing. The best thing about that Viaduct is that it enables you and I to cross from one high plateau to the next. And to enjoy the experience and to feel alive.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach.


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Three Bullet Leadership

How leaders can set the agenda, focus attention and create momentum – in three easy bullet-points

This is such a favourite leadership technique of mine and something that I work on with lots of clients. Rather than write a long version, I’ve practised what I preach and written the short, bullet-point version here too.

This is one of the best tips you’ll read, for any leader who wants to really set the agenda or has big changes to implement. It’s great way to focus people’s attention and help them to establish priorities. Use it at the start of something important or if you want to give it more momentum or if you need to get something unstuck.

This is also a good way of not getting too involved in the hands-on doing yourself. It’s a straightforward way of setting out your stall, of influencing what happens by being absolutely clear what the priorities are and conveying that with unwavering precision.

Here’s the technique in three easy to remember bullet-points of its own:

  • Write down your top three priorities on a wide Post-it note, in succinct and plain language, not jargon or shorthand;
  • They can be actions that need achieving, culture that needs adopting, changes that need making, or a mix of the three;
  • Say them out loud, and keep on saying them, in that same succinct and plain language whenever and wherever you can, as often as possible.

That’s it – go out and make stuff happen!


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. How do you set out your leadership priorities?


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Leading by Standing Back

The fireworks school of leading and delegating: light blue touch-paper AND STAND WELL BACK

As I write this, it’s coming around to fireworks season here.

It’s been a little while since I lit any real explosive-based fireworks of my own, but I’m reminded of the safety label:

Light blue touch-paper and stand well back

The “… stand well back” bit is sticking in my mind at the moment, because it’s such a great metaphor for leading and delegating.

Readers of this website will know I’m a big fan of the type of leadership and delegation that inspires people – in a firework sense, the type that lights them up. Or, even better, that helps them to light themselves up.

What is often overlooked, perhaps especially by enthusiastic leaders who are good at creating the lighting-up part, is the “… stand well back” bit.

But this standing well back and watching what happens when you’ve inspired someone or helped them to light themselves up is quite possibly the most important part. This is when people get to learn by and for themselves just what they’re capable of. I’d go so far as to say that you can’t really delegate properly, if you’re not doing the stand well back part.


In a firework, the potential energy of its chemicals only fulfils its purpose when it takes to the sky. For the people you are leading, this is when they start to become all that they can be. Like a firework, part of this is unpredictable. You don’t really know how well people will do. You can’t entirely tell if they’ll blaze a trail, just phizzle-out or explode in your face.

But people are even better than fireworks. If they fail, they’ll try again. If they light up the sky, they can do it again and again. And when they do, they’ll never forget who stood back far enough to make that possible.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What’s the leadership or delegation challenge for you, in knowing when and how to stand well back?


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Leading Comes LAST

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

Click the picture above and then right-click or hold to download your copy.

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?


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Leadership, Role-modelling and Behaviour

Leaders cannot NOT be role-models – so be the right kind

I know I keep banging on about this, but Behaviour is such an important thing for leaders to get right.

If you have any kind of authority, responsibility, power or even visibility in your organisation, other people will base their own Behaviour on yours.

This applies whether or not you’re formally called a ‘leader’ or ‘manager’ or whatever. You cannot not be a role-model; so be the right kind.

If you want to know who in your organisation sets the standard for how things are done and what’s the right way to Behave with each other – take a look in the mirror. If you find yourself complaining or worrying about some aspect of the culture in your business, the person looking back at you from that mirror is the one who sets the tone.


People sometimes ask me, “Well, what do you even mean by ‘Behaviour’?”

The answer is simple – everything you do and everything you say.


What makes things tough for leaders and anybody who wants to manage their own Behaviour, is that what you say and do on the outside is actually the end result of a long chain of stuff that happens inside our heads and bodies – and which is often largely unconscious.

To make a start in managing your own Behaviour I recommend two simple actions:

  • First, as you interact with others, be very clear about what outcome you want to achieve. Behaviour without Intention is not managed. Remember:

You cannot hit a target which is not there

  • Second, have some kind of ‘Reflective’ practice. The best way is to keep a diary or journal where you can reflect on your day and set your intentions for the next.

You know yourself mostly by your thoughts. Everyone else in the world knows you only by your actions. Remember this when you feel misunderstood. You have to do or say something for others to know how you feel.

James Clear

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach.

What aspects of being a role-model, or of Behaviour at work are important to you?


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One Page Leadership

What should leaders actually *do*?
The whole of Leadership on one page, free download, no sign-ups.

Click the picture above and then right-click and select ‘Save as…’ to download your copy.

Inspired by some work a client organisation was doing this week, I wanted to get the whole of my mental leadership checklist to fit on one page.

These are the factors I’ll typically run through when I’m coaching someone in a leadership role and want to help make sure they’re covering all the bases that their role demands.

It’s useful for newly-appointed leaders and well-established leaders who want to keep their approach fresh.

This is not the only way of thinking about leadership, but if you include all of these aspects, you can’t go too far wrong.

(This simple structure can also be especially useful in situations where people don’t already think of themselves as “leaders”, even when they’re responsible for and reliant on the work of several other people.)

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach.

  • What aspects of your own leadership do you like to regularly check on
  • What advice would you give to other people who aren’t sure about their leadership?

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You are amazing

When you get to really see people for who they are, their light and their dark, they are truly inspiring!

Maybe I’m just in a good mood at the moment (although it’s lasted quite a long time if that’s the case) but I’ve been finding lots of my coaching clients very inspirational just lately. And for a man who’s a natural cynic, that’s a nice place to be.

I love my work and one of the great gifts it brings is the opportunity to see people for who they really are. By which I mean to notice and understand the whole person (to the extent that you ever can). Their light and their dark together.

I frequently find myself thinking how amazing this person sitting in one of my client chairs actually is. Not because of what they are doing in their life and work – although lots of my clients do do amazing things. And not because they’re a ‘good’ person either.

For me it’s a kind of gut sensation. As we’re coaching together, if you’re lucky, you build up a picture of somebody: their light and dark, their strength and weakness, their kindness and cruelty, their aspirations and their fears.

Often in the coaching I get the chance to say what I’m seeing – we call this a ‘Recognition’, and it might go something like this:

“I see your commitment to this project you’re leading, even though you sometimes doubt your abilities and don’t know how it’ll work out. That’s courage, right there.”

And for every one of those Recognitions I’m able to say out loud, there are several times when a bit of my brain is lost in wonder at the sum of somebody’s parts.

I often think that mine is one of those jobs where you don’t really need to look too hard for inspiration. It comes and sits in one of my client chairs and is ready to reveal itself if I look and listen well enough.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter

Yoda

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What inspiration or other qualities do you see in people if you look?


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Paradoxes

Courage follows fear – and four other important things that happen the wrong way around

Is it just me who sometimes wishes that each of these things would work the other way around for a change?

Courage follows Fear

You don’t usually get the courageous feeling until after you’ve done the scary thing, although the time that you might most want it is before.

Vitality comes from expending Energy

If you want to be more energetic, you’ve got to be regularly spending your energy on something sensible, not saving it.

Leadership follows Followership

Commitment, involvement, collaboration, ego-management, and credibility are all things best learnt first without the added need to lead.

Faith comes before Trust

If you want to be able to trust people, you’ve first got to give them the chance to be trusted – and that takes a leap of faith.

Wisdom comes after Experience

If you’re anything like me, then you need to fall flat on your face quite a lot before understanding how stuff really works. And even then, I still learn more and am surprised by how things actually turn out compared to how I thought they would.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What other things seem to paradoxically happen the wrong way around?


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Motivation for Leaders

Why my favourite go-to motivational quote still has three fatal flaws; and what leaders should do about them

This quote from Theodore Roosevelt has long been a favourite of mine for helping to motivate myself and others:

Do what you can,

Where you are,

With what you have.

– You can click and then alt-click the image above to download a copy for yourself –

Anytime I’m stuck or feeling powerless, or can’t see the route through the forest for looking at all the trees, this quote gets me unstuck and into purposeful action.

But it still has three hidden weaknesses.

Leaders who want to use this kind of thing to help other people feel motivated need to be aware of these flaws and to take extra steps to combat them.

It’s really worth doing this, especially if you’re the kind of leader who:

  1. Naturally likes to be around empowered people and to help others to raise their game; or
  2. Occasionally finds yourself wondering why other people don’t take the initiative more, or don’t work as hard as you do.

Each of the flaws I’m talking about are right there in that first line:

“Do what you can

And this is why…

1) People aren’t always aware of just what they can do, both in terms of what they have ‘permission’ to do, and in terms of their own capabilities.

2) People don’t always believe that what they can do will actually lead to the outcome that’s needed. To take a really basic example, even though someone ‘can’ make 20 sales calls today, do they truly believe that those calls will lead to the extra business they’ve been asked to generate? If not, they won’t be motivated.

3) People don’t always know in advance if the outcome that their actions might lead to is actually an outcome that they really want. It’s not so much about them not wanting to achieve a specific outcome, but more that they just don’t really, consciously know if they do want it! I believe that this hidden flaw derails more attempts to motivate people than almost anything else.


So as well as using that brilliant quote from Teddy R, leaders who want to motivate people should also be doing these four things as well:

1a) Always give the permissions up front. This is basic delegation skills. If you’re asking or expecting someone to do something, what permissions do they have or need? What resources can they access? What approaches, methods or ways of doing it can they use or not use?

1b) Help people to assess and grow their own capabilities. Which means you really do need to encourage and show people how to learn and adapt.

2. Break the unconscious rule that people make for themselves about taking action and needing to get the correct result. Help them to be more like a scientist. Any action will lead to ‘a’ result. Get people to be curious about selecting from a range of possible actions. Have them observe the results like a scientist doing an experiment. What worked, what didn’t get the expected result, what would you try next time?

3. This is perhaps the most significant one for leaders to be doing. Encourage people to live in the future a little. This outcome that you want them to help achieve – what will that be like? What will it mean for them when it’s been achieved? How will it change or affect their day-to-day experience?

This important part of motivating people is the equivalent of getting them to try on some new clothes in the mirror before they know whether or not they want them.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach What do you think of that Roosevelt quote? Does it help you motivate yourself and others? What also works for you?


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