Five steps to leading under pressure

One of the reasons I love talking with younger people about leadership is that they’re very transparent about their expectations.  While we’re busy devising development programmes, setting learning goals and more, they’re focused on the nitty gritty of job titles, office size and company car potential.

I love that pragmatic nature, and I’m always amused by how we expect our careers to flow smoothly in an ever-upward direction, when reality shows that our lives stutter from one missed opportunity to the totally-unexpected open doors.

Designing programmes is all about that flow of the development journey, and yet a recent conversation had me thinking about all the steps that can be missed because they don’t ‘count’ in typical leadership programme design.

Step 1: Talking about leadership

The way people – young and old – talk about leadership is a clear indicator of the gaps between expectation and reality.  If our potential leaders are stuck in the ‘leader as hero’ paradigm; or have outdated assumptions about gender, age or cultural diversity, we need to shift the conversation.

Listening is vital, so that the shifts needed are clear, and can be woven into programme design.

Step 2: Seeing past symbolic leadership

It’s not just expectations about having your name on the door; a better cubicle in the office, or a fancy title.  These ambitions are natural side-effects to having career goals.  The key here is to ensure that people coming to your leadership development programmes can recognise them for what they are: symbolic gestures to indicate a level of accountability and responsibility.  A reward for the challenges they will face.

Expecting to give someone a new job title; a different position on the organisation chart and a rise is not enough, on its own.

However, working more closely with your compensations and benefits team as part of the leadership development programme helps put these elements in a leadership context, rather than making them the focus.

Step Three: Knowing what ‘leadership skills’ are

Programme participants need to know and understand the behavioural expectations you have of them as leaders.

To appreciate ‘self-leadership’ as a precursor to leading others.  How some behaviour levels can derail success, and some have transformational impacts.

And how ‘leadership’ isn’t just about performance, but about evoking inspiration, motivation, and being a role model for others.

  • About giving and receiving feedback for continuous improvement.
  • About attitudes towards accountability and responsibility, and using that intrinsic motivation to drive our behaviours.
  • About emotional intelligence and its role in evoking empathy, maintaining good humour and being resilient in the face of challenge.

Oh, and talking about failure.  And avoiding perfectionism.  How we don’t need every single competence at the highest level; just good enough for the job we’re in right now.  And having a ‘development mindset’.

Step Four: Practicing leadership behaviours

All the theory; all the models; all the ideas in the world aren’t going to make better leaders.  It’s one thing to have understanding of a subject, it’s quite another to see when, where, and how to put leadership skills into practice.

Our leadership development programmes are as much a place to practice those skills, based on the real issues that our participants bring, as they are to explore, discuss and debrief on the theory.

High on interaction, every activity is designed to have an immediate, tangible benefit.  An opportunity to give and receive feedback, and a chance to debrief on how it can be applied back in the participants’ real world.

Step Five: Delivering leadership under pressure

So few of the situations leaders find themselves in these days are predictable.  It’s become the new definition of leadership.  The predictable has been automated; or can be delegated to, and managed by, the team.

And unpredictability brings pressure.  Raised voices; uncertainty; fear.  And this is why the best leadership development programmes extend into delivery support.  Because whatever gets rehearsed in the classroom, you can bet that it’ll be different on the front line.

We provide group action learning for participants, so that they can debrief and learn from each other’s real world issues.  What works; what doesn’t work.  Tips and tricks for success.

Long gone are the days when learning was about memorising facts and regurgitating them on paper.  No ‘looking over someone’s shoulder’.  Keeping your ideas to yourself in case someone ‘stole’ them and took the credit.

Today’s leadership development is all about collaboration; ideas sharing and celebrating success.  But every step has to be in place for better leadership to be a reality.

And, while people ask us to tailor our programmes to their organisation – which we’re very happy to do – we also remind them that their biggest resource is their people, who will automatically tailor the content to get the most out of their development.

You’ll benefit from better leadership, more effective and productive teams, and higher employee engagement scores too.

At Forton we change cultures and support leadership development from bite-sized to week-long events.  And we can show you how to demonstrate return on your investment (ROI).

To experience this for yourself pick up the phone.  You’ll find us at +44 (0) 845 077 2980 option 1, or email

Leadership development: get past the roadblocks to attracting and retaining talent

Each time I update my know-how on unconscious bias with Wikipedia, it seems like they’ve added more categories and refined the definitions further.  I’ve given up trying to remember them all…

…And now the Nobel Peace prize-winner for cognitive biases, Daniel Kahneman, has introduced a new concept, which he calls ‘noise’. 

Put simply, ‘noise’ is inconsistency in decision-making.

It’s linked to bias in that more experienced people are more prone to it.  They think they’re better at decision-taking, and consistency, than they actually are. 

It takes me back to the reason why I’m so passionate about organisational development generally, and leadership development in particular. 

My early experiences of corporate life were filled with examples of inconsistent decision-making. It disengages people – and costs an inordinate amount of time as people invest emotionally in trying to understand why a decision has gone the way it has.  

Yes, there was sexism, lack of cultural diversity and all the biases that are now better-acknowledged in society generally, and the world of work in particular.  I cringe when I glimpse those 1970’s TV revivals, as it brings back so many moments I’d rather forget. 

My belief is that a need for consistency is linked to our innate desire for ‘fairness’, which most of humanity seems to share.  If we apply a rule consistently we’re perceived as ‘fair’, even when everyone appears to ‘lose’ as a result.

Even peace negotiations have run successfully on this principle. 

Kahneman’s book (yes, called ‘Noise’, to be published October 2016) talks about the estimated costs, versus the actual costs, to an organisation of this interference.  Leaders assumed that inconsistency was costing around 5-10%, when actually the costs are more like 40-60%. 

So I’m delighted that Kahneman, and his team, have done all the heavy lifting in terms of scholarship, research and validity.  

I can see the particular relevance of ‘noise’ to talent identification and performance management. 

If we can improve the quality of our decisions around identifying, filtering and selecting talent for management and leadership roles, we’ll reduce the costs of staff turnover, improve the leadership culture, and raise employee engagement levels too.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that the solutions are simple.  Just identify the practical variables and find a way to apply them systematically.  And that’s it.

Don’t wait for outcome data.  Don’t apply weight to one practical variable over another. 

The implications of this approach are issues such as:

  • Train Managers and Leaders to identify talent consistently
  • Develop HR team to filter and select professionally
  • Provide checklists for the systematic application of judgement
  • Automate, such as by using consistent assessment tools 

At Forton we support clients to identify the relevant variables to their talent pool selection, and performance management processes.  Then we provide the training and skills support to create a culture of fairness.  

And we don’t stop there; our 4D model includes the practical support leaders and managers need to apply these skills, consistently. 

This delivers more effective and productive teams,and higher employee engagement scores too. 

At Forton we change cultures and support leadership development through bite-sized, half-day and week-long events.  And if you need to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) evidence, we can show you how. 

To experience this for yourself pick up the phone.  You’ll find us at +44 (0) 845 077 2980 option 1, or email

Leadership Development – Silver Bullets Only Kill Werewolves

It’s human nature to want to keep our relationships simple.  Yet it’s a key leadership task to keep on top of the complex interplay of different relationships.  Put simply: our team members, colleagues, bosses and the wider stakeholder network.  It’s no wonder people find it difficult.

And of course, all this focus on others means that we neglect our own needs in this complex mix.

One solution is to analyse these groups and assess them by their power, influence or interest in your work.  A neat process, but one which doesn’t take human factors into account.

And it’s often in those that things can go horribly wrong.  Misunderstandings, lack of acknowledgement or recognition for good work, resentment of others.

Here at Forton, we regularly get asked to design workshops and programmes that help leaders and managers with ‘problem staff’: those ‘difficult conversations’, performance management; or customer relationships.

People typically ask us something like “What can I say when….?”

At the heart of these requests is the desire to have a single solution; a silver bullet.  But silver bullets only kill werewolves; sorting out relationships requires a more human approach.

Too often, when we go into organisations with these kinds of issues, we find that the basics for better relationships – at all levels – aren’t in place.

Here are three steps that you can put into place and share today:

Step 1: Make sure managers are putting their own needs first, so that they’re better able to deal with others’ needs too.

An insurance client told us a fascinating statistic recently: dentists who work fewer days each week earn more money.  This is because they have better relationships with their patients; plus they make better clinical and business decisions too.

If that’s what we need from our leaders and managers, investing in smarter working – not longer hours – is the easiest and first solution.

Step 2: Ensure that managers and leaders know about the need to give regular acknowledgements of their team’s good work. 

People need a higher ratio of praise to criticism than managers typically think.  The Gottman Ratio is 6:1 for organisations (5:1 for personal relationships if you want to improve that area of your life).

Step 3: When it’s criticism that’s required, use a consistent feedback model that works – both for the giver, and the receiver of feedback. 

The best way to give (and receive) feedback is to make it future-focused around what success looks like.  Most people look backwards and focus on what went wrong and who’s to blame.

The other step you can take, is to give your leaders and managers some perspective – and distance from the day-to-day – by investing in a leadership development workshop.

At Forton we change cultures and support leadership development through bite-sized, half-day and week-long events.

Whichever behavioural framework you use in your organisation, our programmes will align with your goals.  And if you need to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) evidence, we can show you how.

To experience lasting performance improvements in your organisation, try us out.  Attend our next open leadership Ignite event – on 5/6 December in the heart of England. 

Or bring this workshop in-house with 6 people or more.

Pick up the phone at +44 (0) 845 077 2980 option 1, or email


Donkeys and the language of leadership

donkey and cart

I was stuck in a traffic jam on a dual carriageway when I was overtaken by a donkey and cart travelling in the outside lane. My journey to deliver this particular training programme was a little different – a couple of weeks ago I was delivering leadership and influencing training to a group of managers in Senegal in West Africa. Continue reading

Brain scan or brain scam?

I’m fascinated by the possibilities that might come from neuroscience. At the same time, I’m sceptical of many of the claims made in its name. So I decided to do a bit of research and found an excellent book on the topic called “Brainwashed – The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience”, written by Sally Satel and Scott D Lilienfield.

I wouldn’t normally rely on a single source, but this book has 57 pages of notes and references – they’ve done the research for me and written an excellent book on the strength of it.

One problem with many of the claims supposedly based on neuroscience is the assumption that what happens physically in the brain is a predictor of what I might be thinking or feeling. Continue reading

Where do the best ideas come from?

We are fortunate to live in a lovely village in the heart of England, close to the centre of the UK motor industry. Not so much a mass-manufacturing area these days, instead there are specialist ‘advanced engineering’ firms.  They support projects like the Formula 1 teams in nearby Silverstone.  Our neighbours in the village include several engineers, some retired.

There’s an admirable perfectionism about these people, though it makes for a very competitive environment sometimes. They also demonstrate very well the notion of transferable skills. Continue reading

The best leaders have a hinterland

“Hinterland?”  You’re probably wondering what on earth I’m talking about. Denis Healey, a retired politician from the UK, and his wife Edna, first used the word about Margaret Thatcher. Their view was that she lacked a real connection with people because she had no interests outside of politics.

Denis and Edna firmly believed that people had to have a breadth and depth of knowledge on other matters, be that sport, religion, art, culture or learning – Denis was a keen photographer. Continue reading

What can leaders learn from dogs barking at a postal carrier?

I had the great pleasure of running one of our Leadership Coaching Programs in Toronto last month.  Sunshine; great location; good company – what more could I want?

I was staying with our friends and colleagues, Cyndi and Ross, who have two delightful Golden Labradors. This has to be one of the friendliest breeds of dog. They love being around people, and are very enthusiastic and expressive. Continue reading

How leaders can build empathy

This is a good news/bad news story. The good news was having the fun of working in Accra, in Ghana, for a week, running development centres to focus on leadership behaviours. The fact that it was in the midst of the worst weather in England for a long time was a bonus. The bad news was coping with an infected foot, which left me only able to limp along very slowly and for short distances. Continue reading

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. Continue reading