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  If our potential leaders are stuck in the ‘leader as hero’ paradigm; or have outdated assumptions about gender, age or cultural diversity, we need to shift the conversation.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

Coach training for experienced coaches: the Forton difference

If, like me, you’re an experienced coach working with executives and leaders in corporate settings, you may be wondering why you need to invest in specific leadership coaching training. Of course, you may be about to renew your credentials, which is a great reason to do this!

Here at The Forton Group, we provide a wide range of flexible ways of getting the CCEUs and supervision hours you require for ICF renewal.

But what’s different about leadership coaching, why should you add it to your kitbag and why The Forton Group? Continue reading

Football management and leadership behaviours

I’ve been interested recently in the fortunes of a UK football (soccer to our North American readers) team and their manager. Now, I enjoy watching football, and I follow a particular team – Manchester City – however, I can’t be a true fan, because I don’t indulge in the hatred of their traditional rivals. I’m quite geographical in my allegiance, so I’d rather a team from Manchester beat one from London or indeed any northern team succeeded over a southern team. 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

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

Leadership and listening beyond the words

Last week, we launched our flagship leadership coach training product, Ignite, in Italy. I had the great pleasure of spending time with our partners in Rome.  They ran the course for a dozen leaders and coaches keen to learn our model.  My job was to listen, observe and support – and my biggest challenge was the listening.

I think it would be fair to say that learning new languages has never been one of my strengths – although I’m happy to be convinced this is merely a belief, and look forward to some offers of great coaching on this topic! Over the years, about the furthest I have got is to learn how to order a beer and ask for the bill. I’m proud to say I can now do this in eight different languages.

However, this limited vocabulary was going to be of little use to me as I observed my colleagues run the program. I had also promised to say a few words to kick the thing off, and thought it might be a bit early in the day for a beer, so I added another phrase to my vocabulary – “Mi dispiace, non parlo italiano” which ( I hope) means “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian”.

They were very tolerant of me and, after I’d finished, I sat quietly at the back of the room and watched the experts get on with running the course. As I was listening, I saw what a great practical example this was of what we always knew about learning – that it is about more than just the words.

It is often said that only 7% of the success of our communications is down to the words we use. Albert Mehrabian published research in 1981 where the 7-38-55 rule first appeared – 7% of the message is conveyed by words, 38% by tone of voice, and 55% by body language. In fact, his research was much narrower, about how we convey and interpret feelings – the rule determines how much we like someone when they’re talking about their feelings. It’s been incorrectly applied more widely over the years.

However, other studies have come up with a range of different ratios showing the importance of words versus the non-verbal elements and there clearly is a contribution to the success of our communication from both. When we deliver our leadership coach training programme, we are always flexing our style between trainer, facilitator and coach. My inability to understand Italian became less important as I could clearly see my colleagues using these different styles.

It was a great reminder about some core lessons about listening. It’s a vital skill for coaches to have and, of course, for leaders too. There are many reasons why this is so. For example, how often do we hear about major disasters that have ruined the reputation of companies where somebody in the organisation could see it was going to happen but nobody listened to them.

Also, when you think back to the great bosses, that you have had, my guess is that one quality they all share was that you felt listened to, and that builds loyalty and engagement.

The good news is that it’s possible to build this muscle – and the bad news is it needs constant practice. If you’d like to look at slightly different approach to improving your listening, then I’d recommend  “The Listening Book” by W.A. Mathieu.

I’d be really interested to hear your tips on building the skill of listening; how it impacts on your leadership, and any books you’d recommend. Buon ascolto!”

Leadership and Only Connect

I had fun earlier this year taking part in a TV quiz show on BBC4, called Only Connect, hosted by Victoria Coren. I formed a team with two old friends of mine and, because it had been my idea, they wanted me to be captain. I’m still not sure if this was a leadership privilege or a curse. The show was broadcast a couple weeks ago and so we are finally allowed to talk about the result. I’ll save you the trouble of watching it and tell you that although we lost, some kind people said that we emerged with some credit.

Continue reading

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.