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

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

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!”

Practising leadership

Last night I was fortunate enough to be eating in a restaurant in a ski resort in France overlooking an ice rink. For all the time that I was eating, an ice skater was practising a wide range of manoeuvres. I suspect on balance that I probably consumed as many calories during that hour as she lost. However, that was not my main conclusion for the evening. I was fascinated by the dedication that she showed to practising her art. To my untrained eye, she appeared to be executing each step flawlessly; I didn’t see her stumble or fall at all in that time. And yet although the sun had gone down, and it had begun to get cold, the skater continued to work through her routine.

I have no idea how she would fare on the international stage, although I did create a story, in the way that you do when you are watching strangers who you will never interact with, in which she was indeed a budding star. In the story her work would continue until the Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi, when she would finally get the chance to go on stage and demonstrate the perfection this discipline would surely lead to.

I started to think about the parallels with the leaders that we work with. They are expected to be on stage every day and yet how often do they get the chance to practise their craft? Leaders move jobs or they get promoted for the first time, and we expect them to be perfect from day one. Some of them will have been fortunate enough to go through some form of training in preparation for this new role, although far too often, they are expected to have learnt by osmosis. In any event, there are very few occasions when we give them the time to practise before they set out on their journey.

So what options are open to us here? Although I didn’t see a coach working with the skater, I am sure she would have had one and was practising ideas that she had discussed with her coach. In the same way, the leaders that we work with should be inspired to try out new things that will support them, their teams and their organisations. As coaches, we work with our leaders to create those opportunities to build the skills and behaviours they need.

We should also bear in mind those opportunities that come outside of the workplace. The leaders that we work with have opportunities in their communities to refine and hone new skills that they can then apply back in the workplace. That might be through volunteering, organising, speaking – whatever inspires them and can also enable them to learn and grow.

Leaders can build their emotional intelligence in their relationships outside of work and bring that learning back. The emotionally intelligent person will, for example, check in with their partners in times of stress to ask the question “what do you need from me right now?” The same phrase can be used to good effect with their teams.

I’d be fascinated to hear your ideas on how we can give leaders the time and space to practise their craft.