10 Books to Read on your Summer Break

It’s time to run away on your summer break, finally you’ll get time to read, what should you pick?

Leadership

(1) I will be reading Leadership BS, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Which promises some ways of rethinking leadership.

(2) If you’re trying to re-think how you manage your team, then Why Work Sucks will take you through the concepts of a results only work environment – there are things there you can implement when you get back from summer.

(3) Your own leadership style comes out of your own attitudes The Art of Possibility is my favourite book to focus on personal leadership.

Innovation

(4) I’ll be reading How to Fly a Horse: The Secret of Creation, Invention and Discovery, a refreshing look at creativity.

Business

(5) I’ll be reading Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross. It seems to be a mashup of predicting trends and business applications.

(6) I want to read Phishing for Phools, reviews vary with some economists deriding it and some business people applauding it.

(7) The last business book I read (and reviewed) was Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which challenges our current monetary system and looks at some alternative models for the future of business.

Biography

(8) I want to read the biography of Elon Musk, although I usually am wary of biographies of living people. Musk is such a fascinating entrepreneur for me, he seems driven to solve the world’s challenges as opposed to building a better widget.

Personal Effectiveness

(9) I want to read The Happiness Track, I’ve thought a lot about the way we work and the demands we put on ourselves. I’m hoping this book challenges the ideas behind our current cultural definition of success.

Fiction

(10) If you’re more into fiction – I’m halfway through The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers. The BBC has a list of ten books to read that’s making me itch for a bookstore trip.

Happy reading and happy summer.

Image: Summer Read  |  LWYang  |  CC BY 2.0

Giving Feedback

My Uncle went off to study at agricultural college as a young man, this was before Facebook and mobile phones so he used to write letters. He sent a long letter to his mother. She corrected the letter, in red ink, and returned it. He never wrote again.

Giving good feedback is much more than knowing what is right or correct. It is understanding what will be useful, and delivering the feedback so that it can be heard and used.

The feedback model proposed by the experts at Manager Tools has some really helpful podcasts, it’s a three step model and it focuses on behaviour. Simplified to a script template it looks like this;

When you [describe behaviour] the outcome is negative [explain how], how will you repair this/change your behaviour next time?

In their podcasts the guys from Manager Tools give several working examples of this and I’ve found it a really simple, workable method. Using this script has kept me focused on the work behaviours that really matter, removed an personal or accusatory tone to the feedback and put the responsibility for the change/improvement squarely in the employee’s hands. Of course I’ve also offered concrete help when needed.

I’ll give an example. One colleague, let’s call him David, who I was coaching, tended to pack too much into meetings meaning that he would be rushing to get through all the content in the last ten minutes,  even though the most senior people would be already preparing to leave. Instead of saying “hey, you should plan your meetings better” I had a conversation that went something like this;

Me Can I give you some feedback about today’s meeting?
David OK, I guess
Me Did you notice at the end of the meeting that the managers were closing their laptops and wanting to leave while you were still talking?
David Yes…
Me They have other meetings to go to and when you plan your meeting to go right to the hour they don’t listen for the last about 10 minutes. What do you think would work better?
David Um… Should I plan to finish at 10 to?
Me Yes, be wrapping up then. So when do you think you need to ask for the decision?
David Quarter to?
Me Yes, or perhaps earlier, to allow for discussion and wrap up. What will you do for the next meeting?
David Put less on the agenda and try to ask for the decision at about half way.
Me Let’s try that, I bet they listen to more of what you have to say that way.

This works best when the feedback is about correcting a behaviour, but it can be extended to bigger changes, either with longer discussions or repeated discussions.

There are a couple of other things to look out for;

  • the person has to be willing to hear the feedback, in the case above David was someone I was already coaching, so we already had an agreement in place that I could give him feedback. However I still asked his permission.
  • the feedback has to be useful, David had been frustrated that people weren’t listening to him, so suggesting something to change that was useful to him.
  • the feedback has to be specific,  David walked away with something to try for next time
  • the change proposed should come from them, you can ask them to think about it and come back to discuss with you or you can seed a few ideas if needed, but the answer should come from them.
  • the person receiving the feedback should feel positive and that you are helping them get better at what they do.

It is as much about usefulness of what you’re saying and delivery as the correctness of what you say.

Back to my Uncle, although he did call his mother after he stopped writing letters, my Grandma later saw her mistake. She’d given feedback that wasn’t really useful, and delivered it in a rather cruel way. She did regret sending that letter of corrections.

Image: feedback via pixabay

Toxic: Lessons from Science

I’ve seen a number of articles about toxic bosses, or toxic workplaces recently, and I’ve heard some harrowing stories; the boss who creates arbitrary rules and then breaks them, the manager who blames everyone else – every time, the idea thief, the company that expects staff to be flexible but makes no allowances for genuine personal crises. I’m sure you have more examples to add to this list.

So why do we apply the term “toxic” to a workplace?

Merriam-Webster online defines toxic as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation”.

In science toxic chemicals are those that cause damage to an organism, organ or cell. In examining the impact of toxins scientists will consider the amount of toxin taken, the length of exposure, and the health of the organism prior to exposure,

If an organism has a long exposure and a high dose the impact will be greater, in fact there are many chemicals that are safe at a low dose by dangerous or even lethal at a high does. Vitamin A is an example, as humans we need small amounts, but cannot process large amounts, if we eat more vitamin A than we need we store the excess in our livers where it accumulates and in extreme cases leads to Hypervitaminosis A.

We also know that toxicity depends on the organism, most toxins are species-specific, and on the health of the organism. Healthy people break down protein they’ve eaten, and their kidney’s work to remove any toxins generated in that process. But for people who have damaged kidneys a high protein diet becomes toxic.

Could a workplace be that bad?

Short answer; yes.

Long answer; yes, poor work conditions, overwork, lack of control at work all contribute to stress at work and stress has a direct impact on your health in a number of ways. Toxic workplaces are a health risk.

What can you do?

If you find yourself in a toxic workplace as employee what can you do? And by toxic I mean more than the mild disfunction of most companies, to a level where your health could be impacted. There are three principles you need to stick to as you move out.

  • Understand that it’s not you, it’s them
  • Stay professional, both in your work ethic and your behaviour
  • Plan to exit with dignity.

You’ll note that I haven’t suggested trying to change the company, these are all coping strategies. The larger the company and the more toxic it is the harder it is to change, it will generally only happen following a crisis when there is a leadership change. My recommendation is to look after yourself first, and find a new role in a happy company.

As a manager or executive your options are greater, you may be able to change the work environment for your part of the organisation.

There’s a TV series called “Undercover Boss“, which has a simple premise of a boss going into the field disguised as a new recruit or someone returning to work after a career break. In the episodes I’ve seen the disguise was rumbled just once – when the company employee noticed the soft hands of a supposed experienced labourer.

In pretty much every episode the CEO learns the same lessons including;

  • when people get to make decisions about their work they flourish
  • head office makes some lousy decisions
  • you need to listen to your employees – and so does your management team.

If you recognise that your workplace is toxic and you’re in a position to change it, get out there and listen to your staff. As you listen, and act on what you hear, you’ll start to rebuild trust.

Trust is an antidote to toxic workplaces, in the same way that we have antidotes against the toxins of poisonous animals. It won’t fix everything immediately, there will still be scars, but the organism will begin to recover.

Image: Chemistry via pixabay

 

Support versus Commitment

In every big project in every company you need your senior executives on board. If you’re the project manager you’re asked to get the support of leadership.

On paper leadership support sounds good; it often comes with budget and it can pave the way for decision-making.

It’s not enough.

You need commitment of your leadership. So what is the difference?If you think of the bacon and eggs breakfast; the chicken was supportive, the pig was committed.

Commitment is visible in the organisation. If your executive is visible connected to your project then she has a real stake in its success. Budget will be more easily released, decision-making will become easier, other leaders will want to be part of it. Perhaps more importantly a number of the doubts about the project will dissolve, the fact that an executive puts their name on a project gives it a credibility vaccination.

Years ago when I was involved in implementing an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) at a large financial institution we’d done really well with good adoption numbers and some real business results. We also had the support of our CEO, who’d even featured in a launch video. I was happy about the momentum we were building.

Then we got a new CEO who wanted to use the ESN to reach employees and have a real discussion. Wow. What a difference, his name was on a community and he was interacting with employees. The questions people had about using an ESN changed from “why” to “how”. There was a growing assumption that this would be how we worked.

So, look for executives who are ready to commit, ask for their visible commitment, and move the conversation from “why” to “how”.

Image:  After a Night’s Fast  | Pekka Nikrus  | CC BY-NC-SA2.0

 

Positioning Thought Leaders

This is the third post in a series; in the first post of this series on thought leaders I wrote about defining thought leaders and gave some well-known examples.  In the second I talked about finding your thought leaders. Today I’m going to suggest ways to position your thought leaders to best represent your company or organisation. Most often this is a “big company” question, so I am assuming some internal support, but a number of the ideas can be adapted for smaller organisations.

Your thought leaders need to have the credibility of the organisation behind them and they need to be speaking on their thought leader topic both internally and externally. Here are some ways to make that happen.

Job Title

Their Job Title needs to match their role in the company and their authority as a thought leader.

AOL has a digital prophet, David Shing (known as Shingy), who turns up at conferences and event around the world. Would he be so popular as a conference speaker with a job title “Trend Analyst”? There are plenty of other creative job titles out there to consider, are you more curious about the Chief of Operations or the Chief Troublemaker?

Maybe such edgy titles aren’t right for your organisation, pick one closer to your organisation’s business culture that reflects the authority and expertise of your thought leader.

Internal Role

Your thought leaders should be known across your company for their vision and expertise. Your employees should be be inspired by your thought leaders otherwise who are they leading?

Having your thought leaders speak at internal events builds their reputation as visionaries, it gives them practice at speaking, and it gives your employees confidence to “spread the word” with their own networks which builds the thought leader’s external visibility.

External Visibility

Speaking Events

Identify the key events that your thought leader should speak, go beyond your own industry and look for more events with a wider audience.

Pitch your thought leader as a speaker, many conferences have open calls for speakers, but don’t be afraid to contact the conference organiser and discuss your ideas. The more  you know about the conference the more specific your pitch can be.

Support your speaker, with training, speech-writing and preparation sessions. You want to have a high impact.

Promote your thought leader’s participation in all speaking events – before, during and after the event; this could be internal announcements, press releases, company tweets, or relevant articles sharing some content from the speech, or publishing the presentation online.

Online

Use online tools to build and re-inforce your thought leaders’ reputation.

  • profile on company site makes a clear association between the company and the thought leader.
  • company blog – on company’s own site or via an external platform such as Medium – gives the thought leader
  • social media,  which platform you use will depend on your audience but likely candidates are;
    • LinkedIn profile, a quality profile will support your thought leaders’ reputation, you can add presentations to the profile to boost the content
    • LinkedIn Pulse,  you’ll have to work with LinkedIn to make this work, but it’s a great way to build a reputation. Part of joining pulse means committing to a minimum publication cycle of one post per month..
    • Twitter, use of twitter depends very much on the target audience, but even if your consumers are not using twitter other business people and journalists are.  It can be a great way to promote content for other content, and during events. One of the best CEO’s on twitter has become a bit of a thought leader on organisational culture, Peter Aceto.
    • SlideShare, this is a great way to store and share presentations made by your thought leader, and they can be embedded into other sites, or shared on social media.

It’s an integrated approach that will take discipline and time, but it will build the reputation of your thought leader across audiences.

Image: The Thinker  |  Christopher Brown  |  CC BY-2.0

 

Finding Your Thought Leaders

In the first post of this series on thought leaders I wrote about defining thought leaders and gave some well-known examples. Today I’m going to suggest ways to identify thought leaders in your company or organisation.

So what are we looking for? here are my criteria for a thought leader;

Expertise

Your thought leader needs to have expertise in their field in order to be credible to any audience.  Looking at the examples of thought leaders from last weeks post all five people have expertise in their field.

Most often this expertise is clear from their track record, as is the case of Warren Buffet, Sheryl Sandberg and Elon Musk.

Sometimes the credibility comes out of personal experience;

Malala Yousafzai is a teenager, her message is not wildly new, but she has enormous authority to call for equal rights for girls in education because of her own fight to have an education.

Ellen MacArthur is most known as a sailor, and it was on one of her solo global circumnavigation re realised that human’s impact on the world needs to change and she now devotes herself to the circular economy.

Leading Change

Thought leaders really need to be leading change, either by leading a programme of change or holding a role of accountability in your company or organisation. This builds their credibility but also means that they have something interesting to say on their field.

Communication Skills

Thought leaders communicate ideas, to inspire and convince the audience, so strong communication skills are essential. Your thought leaders need to be able to connect with their most relevant audience and they need to be able to convey the your company’s values and mission to an audience unrelated to your business. If you’re a tech company can they speak with passion about technology to non-tech people?

Importance

Thought leaders need to be working on and thinking about the thing that’s most important to your company. If you’re a healthcare company it’s innovation in healthcare, if you’re an NGO it could be policy development, if you’re a product company it’s your designers.

Begin by looking for someone who is leading change; perhaps the woman who challenges the status quo, or the guy with stealth project that turn out to make money.

Most often the person will have a senior role, either in their organisation structure or in the scope of projects they lead, simply because to have the credibility of thought leader across audiences. However the person will also need to be a representative of your brand; if you’re a youth fashion brand for example look for someone young and cool, who embodies the brand’s style.

Who gets called to speak at conferences? People who are thought leaders in your company may already have been found as speakers for events.

It’s a tricky combination of skills, knowledge and character to find, and you really want just one per business or perhaps per geography. Thought leaders are rare and valuable.

Next Week; Positioning Thought Leaders

Image: The Thinker  |  Christopher Brown  |  CC BY-2.0

 

Who is a Thought Leader?

The concept of thought leadership has been around for a few years, long enough to attract its own stand-up comedy character.

Thought leaders can have important role in positioning your company or organisation, in a series of three posts I’m going to provide;

  1. a definition of thought leadership, with examples
  2. the benefits of thought leaders and how to identify them in your organisation or industry
  3. guide on positioning thought leaders in your company or organisation

So what does “Thought Leader” mean? Wiki gives the definition;

A thought leader can refer to an individual or firm that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.

A true thought leader will have a solid base of expertise, skills in communicating with the relevant audience, ideas about the future, and be driving that future.

It’s a tough position to fill, so who qualifies as a thought leader? Some examples will help.

Humanitarian; Malala Yousafzai

The youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the girl who famously took a bullet in order to go to school. Malala now lives in the UK and continues to campaign for education and other rights for girls and women.

Innovation; Elon Musk

Founder of Pay-Pal, Tesla Cars, and responsible for landing big ideas.  I saw him interviewed at the Dublin Web Summit and was immediately impressed by the scale of his vision

Business; Sheryl Sandberg

The COO of Facebook and the first women to join their board, her book Lean In has inspired a movement of Lean In circles supporting women’s growth in business.

Investment; Warren Buffet

Buffet’s rules for investing well have become famous, some can be applied to business or even more generally to life. He’s one of the founders of the Giving Pledge, where very wealthy people pledge to give away at least half of their wealth.

Environment; Ellen MacArthur

MacArthur famous for sailing solo, non-stop around the world as the fulfilment of her childhood dream. She now campaigns for economic reform to sustain our environment, the Circular Economy.

Most of these are household names, but a thought leader may be less broadly known, but well-known, and sought after, in their field.

 

Next Week; Finding Your Thought Leaders

Image: The Thinker  |  Christopher Brown  |  CC BY-2.0

 

Creativity Inc

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 17.37.28This was the best non-fiction book I read in 2015, hand’s down. I bought it because I heard Ed Catmull speak at the Dublin Summit and liked what he had to say. I add notes as I read, and this is my most annotated book. I was texting quotes from it to a friend – who has now bought his own copy.

In part it’s the story of Pixar, but from that there are distilled lessons for business leaders of all sorts. There’s a touching afterword titled “The Steve We Knew”, which details how Steve Jobs worked with Pixar, and shows not just the level of commitment he had to the company but the enjoyment he got from Pixar and how much he learnt from them.

In someways Pixar is a special case; it’s a highly creative company with a string of movie hits. Those movies have been chock-full of technical innovation, but it’s the story arc, and the “realness” of the animation that has won them fans, earnt the dollars and won the awards. They are relentless in their pursuit of quality, and take unusual steps to achieve this;

  • On the ground research; animation teams experience first hand the real life environments they’ll need to create on the screen. The makers of Brave had archery lessons, and a chef made ratatouille for the makers of Ratatouille.
  • Honest feedback; movies go through multiple rounds of feedback on every aspect of the film, from the story itself to dynamics of animation. Often the focus is on pinpointing what is wrong rather than prescribing a fix.
  • Trust; while the process might seem messy, the direction is right and the quality story will emerge from the messiness.
  • Open Communication; anyone can talk to anyone.

This creative DNA has meant that the company was more willing to test ideas on how to work. The feedback loop on the creative output could be re-engineered and applied to the creative process and then to the company culture. The result is some real lessons for businesses.

I think the most powerful idea is that if you have the right team, then the chances are that they’ll get the ideas right. This is so often overlooked in companies where the emphasis is placed very strongly on process.  It’s backed up by the ideas of hiring people smarter than you, and people with great potential to grow.

Pixar always looked to improve, so even with a string of hit movies and good growth figures when managers got a sense that the company culture was tilting away from their vision they held a “Notes Day”, designed to collect specific improvement points for action. The day itself was compulsory, and it was opened by John Lasseter, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, sharing the feedback he’d received about his own behaviour. This radical honesty set the stage for more openness. After the event there were more than a dozen specific ideas to implement, but much of the value came from the event itself. It served as an explicit re-inforcement of the company’s open culture and commitment to honest feedback.

Catmull’s love of the company he founded, and his belief in it’s continued success shines through every page. He seems very aware of the impact of his style of leadership and his decisions and very focussed on building excellence into the company, the output and most importantly the people.

In the final chapter called “Starting Points”, Catmull summarises the learning points from the book and adds this caveat “I know that when you distill a complex idea into a T-shirt slogan, you risk giving the illusion of understanding – and, in the process, of sapping the idea of its power”. The ideas, though, have potential as mantras for managers and employees. He talks about how imposing limits can encourage a creative response, which is true, although the story behind this that is related in the book shows that it needs to be tempered with some common sense so that the limits don’t kill your team. His comments relating to risk are instructive as well – it’s not for managers to prevent risk, but to make it safe for to take them. The attitude to failure is a positive one “It’s a necessary consequence of doing something new”. If the leadership of your company said that and demonstrated belief in it, what might you achieve? Another favourite and one that I’ve put into practice “Be wary of making too many rules”, you can spend a lot of time making rules to prevent something that almost never happens. It’s better to focus on building the behaviour you want and address issues individually.

But my favourite, one that I would put on a t-shirt is “Protect the future, not the past”.

This book is on my “favourites” shelf, partly because it validated some of the things I’ve already been thinking about working with creative professionals. I was fascinated to have a glimpse inside Pixar, the style of writing is conversational and easy to digest, and there was a lot to learn.

What Does a Great Leader Look Like?

This month the Harvard Business Review asks a pertinent question; “what makes a great leader?” From the image accompanying question, the answer seems to be “a white guy”.

We know that images have a bigger impact than text, we know that role models are hugely important, so I decided to tease this out a little and have a look at what happened when I searched for images of “leader”.

The first search I did was “leadership icons” on Google. I thought that by using a search for icons the results would be relatively untainted by any news items. Here’s the result.

Most of the icons are explicitly male, and wearing a tie. Apparently that’s our standard impression of a leader.  In fact when I clicked on “more images for leadership” I still had to scroll past about 80 images to find one that had a figure that could be identified as specifically female. Let’s call her Eve, here she is.

You’ll notice that Eve is ahead of a group of people as if to lead them, but she’s not alone. Apparently Adam can lead alone, but Eve cannot.

If I search for “leadership” in Google there is an image using a fish metaphor for leadership that ranks higher than any image featuring a woman.

That’s just one search engine, do others perform any better? Bing and Duck Go Go deliver roughly the same set of images. My hopes rested on Yahoo!, with a female CEO perhaps it would be reflected in their search results. I tested it and the answer is, maybe. At position 45 there is an icon of a woman leader.

A leader who bears a passing resemblance to Marissa Mayer, in as much as icons can resemble people. However she’s very lonely on the page, I found no other representatives of women leading in the next 50 or so images.

Just for fun I tried the same test looking at “programmer icons”, the results were depressingly similar, although google did manage to have a female appearing icon in the first group.

I’m not blaming Google et al for this, search results are a reflection of our collective choices, over the lifespan of the internet we’ve created more images of men as leaders, and chosen images that depict tie-wearing males to represent leaders. I’d like to see this imbalance redressed; perhaps if we all started depicting leaders with a range of icons and images reflecting the range of people in leadership roles. And any designers out there working on icons, or photographers working on stock images, please include a gender balance and a mix of ethnicities in your depictions of all occupations. Of course changing the number of icons won’t automatically result in massive increases in the number of female CEOs, but it may help women leaders be seen as normal, and help young girls and people of colour to have that level of ambition.

Going back to the HBR issue; it features an article on the 100 best CEOs of this year, of which just 2 are women. The “white guy” on the front seems to be Lars Sørensen who topped the leader-board this year.

The Two Most Important Words for Managers

Years ago, during all the pressure of a work crisis, one of my team members who had just joined the team worked tirelessly with a demanding colleague to solve a tricky problem.  He was dedicated and patient, I was relieved he could find a solution by about 6pm.

By then I was in a meeting deep in discussion with colleagues, but one of the advantages of working in a glass building is you can see out. I spotted him leaving with his head down, bag over shoulder, hands in pockets. I excused myself and raced to catch him by the lift.

“Thank you” I said “I saw how hard you worked to solve that today and you’ve done good work!”

He smiled and straightened up. “It’s my job” he said shyly.

The look on his face made me realise just how important it was and in that moment I knew I’d be OK at this management thing (still learning!).

And those two words “Thank you” are the most important words from managers and leaders, and not just the generic “thanks for your hard work”. When you follow thank you with specific feedback that s