Our Man in Panama

I’ve just finished a week of working in Panama.  We’ve been running career development workshops for an international charity. It’s a fascinating country, whose recent history is dominated by the canal.  It’s a visionary project, still a vital lifeline for trade, operating 24 hours a day. The city is the headquarters for many charities.

I’d set off with a few pre-conceptions about what the people would be like.  They came from across South America, a continent I’ve never visited. I suspect that subconsciously, I was looking for proof to reinforce my stereotypes. I began to think about how often we do this, at many times in our life.


It reminded me of a time in my earlier career as a manager when someone I knew came back to work for me. I remembered him especially from his rather drunken 21st birthday party and the image of him from there was still with me. Of course, he had by now matured into a great person, but it took me a while to reset my opinion.  I hear that Facebook has a similar impact when people post ‘the morning after the night before’ pictures and messages today.

The brain stores images in long term memory, including the faces of people we’ve met, along with the opinions we’ve formed – and even opinions of people we’ve never met. Think of a famous person – my guess is you have a view of what they are like, even without ever meeting them.

When you meet someone new, the brain flicks through its folder of images and, if it finds a match, it assigns the same characteristics from the person in memory to the person you’ve just met.

I was talking to the group about the importance of perceptions.  As a leader, people will form opinions about you, often based on the scantest of information. We can influence that perception.

We always have an impact when we walk into a room, especially if we are the leader. Too often, it’s not one we have chosen and people read things into our behaviour.  They extrapolate from the smallest frown assumptions that you are ritually bad tempered.

So it’s important to choose the impact you want to have

Adam Bryant talked about this at our recent Book Club based on his interviews with CEOs for his column in the New York Times, and his book, The Corner Office. He mentions one CEO who has a favourite interview question – “What misperceptions do people have of you?” Interesting enough, but it is just a set up for the next question: “What is the difference between a misperception and a perception?”

I want to say that a misperception is when people are wrong, but of course the truth is there is no difference.

This has also come out in the 360 degree feedback that our participants received.  One person said it wasn’t a fair reflection, because the person giving feedback only met them a few times in a year. It’s true that it may not be an accurate reflection of who you are, but is a very good reflection of how you first show up and the impact you have on new people.

As a leader, you need to be always aware of the image you project.

Another example from Adam’s book was the senior female executive who went into work one day with her scarf tied in a new and unusual way. Within a week, several other people in the office had copied the style

So, back to Panama. I had a great conversation with one of the leaders. He was talking about a briefing he had once on the customs and etiquette in a particular country. “They told me to be careful as in that country, people didn’t like to be seen to lose face. I asked him who in the world actually enjoys losing face?”

Oh, and the people were of course as typical a cross section of personalities as you’d find in any group of 20 people around the world. We spend a lot of time talking about diversity, and of course we all benefit from making the most of the rich variety that is humanity. However, let’s also appreciate the common characteristics we share.

On our leadership development programmes, when we ask for volunteers to demonstrate a skill, in the UK, we get told that this might work in America, where they are “more forward”. My experience is that in the US, there is just as much shuffling of feet and lack of eye contact as in the UK.

The difference is that when someone does finally crack, in the US the rest applaud, whilst in the UK, they wipe their brow and exclaim “Phew!”

So a few insights for me in my recent experiences I’m trying hard to remember to be careful of stereotyping people, and do my best to present the image I choose. I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts about this

What do HR Directors really look for in professional leadership development services?

There’s a lot of debate around what HR professionals are looking for from suppliers of leadership development services.  I was reminded of this when I came across some copies a PWC study* for the ICF (International Coach Federation) looking at purchasing decisions from a client perspective

Some people get technical – looking at profiling tools and tests such as MBTI, Firo-B (relationship behaviours) or DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance)

Others want to tailor products and services to their company.  Many invest in defining leadership competences or behaviours.

All of which is fine.  These approaches provide benchmark against which people can develop themselves and others in their team.

What PWC did is look at important attributes in the selection process and identify the most important aspects, under

  • Personal Attributes
  • Background
  • Experience
  • Reputation
  • Methodology

Under the topic of Personal Attributes, confidence, rapport and personal compatibility were deemed as most important by far of all the attributes.  And no surprise that effectiveness was the most important attribute under methodology. These four attributes were the most important to PWC’s respondents – by far.

The finding that ‘Personal referrals’ were more important than client references under Reputation was intriguing.  And it is revealing was that relevant professional experience was perceived as more important that ‘years as a coach’ under Experience.  I was also pleased to see that the level of ‘coach-specific training’ was most important in Background.

(source: *ICF Global Coaching Client Study, Association Resource Centre and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2009)

Our evaluation of professional Associates (Consultants, Coaches and Trainers) is that its’ this combination that matters and these are the questions we ask:

  • What leadership experience do you have?
  • What technical and skill areas do you have (outside of leadership development)?
  • What coach-specific training and qualifications do you have?
  • What learning do you have around the topic of developing leaders?

Rapport and personality come through when we meet with them – it’s key for their relationship with clients and we much prefer to do business with likeable people.  We also make sure that we personally hear each of them coach – so that we can really stand behind the quality of the professionals we work with.

So why does this matter?

I’m intrigued by organisations buying leadership coaching services and coaching skills training, without really thinking through what they need.  For example, one company were seeking recently seeking training with two accreditation options in mind – one at a low skills level and the other for an academic qualification.

My personal view is that the academic qualifications in coaching are for professionals with existing coach-specific training to explore the academic side of the profession – not for leaders and managers in the workplace who will only have time to dip into the theory.  At the other end of the scale, if an organisation wants to build an in-house coaching competency, then the training should be at a suitable level – with the option of a meaningful qualification.

One of the reasons we support the global standards of the ICF is that they transcend culture and diversity – whilst acknowledging local and regional difference.  Their accreditation process isn’t a walk-over either – as I’m experiencing first hand at the moment.

The ICF also recognise successful coaching programmes through their ‘PRISM’ award.  I was involved in the recent ICF Global Conference in London and was very impressed by the quality of the winners – especially by the evidence they put forward that showed the difference coaching was making in their organisations.

Recent PRISM award winners include

  • Genentech: considered the founder of the biotechnology industry, using human genetic information to discover, develop, manufacture and commercialise medicines to treat patients with serious or life-threatening medical conditions.  The company sees coaching as increasing their capacity for change.
  • TINE Group: NOrways most important contributor to value creation and the country’s leading supplier of food products – TINE provides a health and positive food experience.  The company sees coaching as a leadership skill.

Some resources for you

We’ve got spare copies of the Case Studies and the PWC report (only 12 copies – so first come, first served) here in the office.

If you’d like to receive a copy of either the report or the case studies, simply drop us an email at info@thefortongroup.com and we’ll do the rest.

Leaders and their vision

I had a fun week in Singapore recently. As well as celebrating old friendships and building new business, I saw great examples of the contribution made by leaders and by their visions. We spent a couple of days sightseeing, which was fun.  They took me to Raffles Hotel at 10am – but even I couldn’t bring myself to drink a Singapore Sling at that time of day. Mind you, at $28 a glass, I think I would have managed to resist at any time.

It was fascinating to see the old pictures in the museum there.  I saw the massive change from colonialism to the thriving economy that is Singapore today. I also loved the examples of innovation.  Walking round the marina we saw giant sunshades, fitted with solar powered fans.  They have motion detectors, which kick in as you walk under them, providing much welcomed shade and cool air.

Further on is the Marina Barrage. This is a dam built at the point where 5 rivers run out to the sea. It serves a number of functions; controlling flooding, keeping sea water out and providing a huge reservoir of fresh water.  It’s also a tourist attraction and a place for leisure. Impressive in itself, I was almost more impressed by the vision of the leader who caused it to be built

In 1987, the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, said  “20 years, it is possible there could be breakthroughs in technology – both anti-pollution and water filtration” The project went ahead and the technology did indeed arrive.  Without that vision, the project would have been far less successful. Now, they have another source of much needed fresh water

So, a reminder of two vital things that organisations need to survive and thrive, especially in challenging economic times: a climate in which innovation can thrive, and a vision to inspire people. Both of these need great leadership; leaders with vision who encourage creativity, and who tolerate mistakes – if learning comes from it. The good news is that all of this can be practised by anyone willing to try.

Influential leadership: what you need to know

Captain’s Blog

Stardate 240709

What’s the one thing about leadership you need to know?  What is it your boss needs to know you know?

It’s got to be said: everything a leader says or does creates an impact. Body language, the way he or she walks into the room; what they say and the way the say it.  The leader has the single biggest impact on driving performance: up or down.

Team members are looking for direction from our leaders, explicitly or otherwise; and our leaders hand down that direction in the subtlest of ways.  The team will pick up on a vocal nuance, a raised eyebrow, or the way papers are shuffled at the beginning of a meeting.  The interpretation they make of these actions will impact upon what happens outside that room as they apply the direction they’ve ‘heard’.

I’m hearing this feedback from the leaders I coach and members of their teams, as well as from directing my own teams.  The good news is that their experience is backed up by organisational research evidence.  To remind myself of these sources, I turned to the work of Daniel Goleman, the ‘emotional intelligence’ expert, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, who together wrote a book published in the US under the title ‘Primal Leadership*’ and in the UK as ‘The New Leaders’.

Their focus is on the ‘resonant leader’ and they used a “global database of 3,871 executives in which several factors that influenced the working environment were assessed”.  Two key findings were that “leadership styles affected financial results, such as return on sales, revenue growth, efficiency, and profitability”; and “leaders who used styles with a positive emotional impact saw decidedly better returns than those that did not”. 

What this tells us, regardless of whether you work for the private, public or not-for-profit sector, is that your bottom line – however measured – is impacted on by your leaders.

Cutting to the chase, what’s the one thing we can do as leaders to improve our bottom line (however measured)?  Find out what motivates the people who work for us – one by one – and play to their strengths.  Leadership isn’t all about us; it’s about a successful team and we unlock that success when we know what their strengths are and what really motivates people.

Watching the Australia/England cricket highlights this week I heard a great line which I’m paraphrasing here: ‘play to your team’s strengths, not to the opposition’s weaknesses’.  We can only do this when we truly get to know the people who work with and for us.

So if you’re having a tough week at work and the signals you’re getting from your boss are driving down your motivation and performance, print this out and leave it in a prominent place.  Your boss needs to know how to unlock your success and he/she needs to know that you know it too.


*Quoted from: “Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence”, Goleman D., Boyatzis R., McKee A., Harvard Business School Press, 2002, pp53/54.  The reference to the original database is set out on p.265.