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world of Change2020

Storytelling and Leadership

Would you see Phantom of the Opera over 32 times? Bill Toner, CEO of CH&CO Group, once recounted the story of how he had done just that in order to build important client relationships. Not only was this tactic fruitful, Bill noted that he would gladly see the production 32 times again if it was what he needed to do to grow the business.  A simple but powerful story, not only for its factual impact, but also for the numerous occasions that it has been recounted since, particularly as an illustration of his leadership style.

To explain, inspire and build an organisation’s vision storytelling is undoubtedly an essential part of the leader’s toolkit.  It is an aspiration within many communication strategies and a key driver of employee engagement during times of change.  However, in our experience there is often a gap between this aspiration and reality.  Part of the reason for this is the simple fact that there is little time to reflect on individual leadership stories given the demands of a diverse business environment.  The other truth is that an understanding of leadership storytelling necessitates a willingness to take a personal leap of faith, as it requires a link between a story from the leader’s life and the outcome that they are seeking to achieve.

study from Harvard Business School, in which 125 leaders were interviewed, found that they did not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills, or styles that led to their success. Rather, their leadership emerged from their life stories. Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core. In doing so, they discovered the purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective.

Storytelling makes you real. It tells how you have learnt, it tells of your development and it enables a view that you are not infallible, in fact, that you are a real person who has a lifetime of learnings to help craft the leader you are today.

The late James Strong, former CEO of Qantas, once said that “you have to be willing to put yourself at risk in the way you communicate and interact with employees.”  A quote that highlights a simple message: trust in leaders is essential and storytelling is an important part of this process. Often we look to our heroes outside of the business world for anecdotes and there is a compelling power in these. Martin Luther King Jr has inspired millions with this “I have a dream” speech on civil rights and he was a great man. But the real question is: how well do you appreciate the link between your life stories and the type of leader you are?

Some sensible and simple tips on the subject of leadership storytelling, from Steve Denning:

  • It must be authentically true
  • It must be positive in tone
  • It must be told in a minimalist fashion
  • It must be a story that contrasts ‘before and after’ the idea or change

Storytelling will help build acceptance for change, increase cultural alignment and drive engagement from employees. As leaders’ the first step in this journey is to connect personal experiences with the dream you want to create.

Engage, Engage, Engage

Establishing and Reinforcing Positive Emotions to a Successful Employee Engagement

If we are witnessing one transformation in the workplace it is the role of engagement as the single most important driver of successful change. Or, put another way, we are understanding the real risks of failing to engage with employees as part of change and the legacy issues that this creates. So why is there often a disconnect between the seemingly simplistic idea of engagement and the reality of workplace change? The answer lies in recognising the decisive role emotions play in employee engagement.

Establishing and reinforcing positive emotions is central to successful employee engagement. It provides a separation from ‘business as usual’ activities in order to reflect and understand the progress of change, with all of the emotive sensitivities that this brings. A leader’s ability to observe cues and responses supports the development of constructive interpersonal relationships.

4 Key Emotions Leading to Engagement

Research demonstrates that emotions are the principal drivers of employee engagement, with a study showing that the engagement level of employees who experience positive emotions is five times higher than those who experience negative emotions. The argument is that leaders should focus on building commitment by building involvement with a focus on interpersonal relationships. In addition to feeling valued the study found that there were four key emotions that lead to engagement:

  • inspired
  • confident
  • empowered
  • enthusiasm

So how can leaders build these emotions in their teams?

Great leaders operate with high levels of emotional intelligence and are equipped with compassion, empathy, and humility in order to place themselves in the shoes of others. They may not have all the answers but support and engage with their teams in spite of ambiguity. They also:

  • put themselves out there, they take the lead to solve problems and tackle issues;
  • build a vision around story-telling, consistent behaviour and an unwavering belief;
  • spend time with the troops, they ask questions, they sit and listen, they are a part of the team;
  • encourage others to take a risk, make a decision, promote an idea; and
  • are real.

All too often change is stifled or fails because of a lack of engagement and is a result of not anticipating the emotional impact of all decisions, even the apparently straightforward. There is a need for constant judgement and refining of the objectives of engagement, rather than assuming people are transitioning in accordance with a plan or timetable.

The challenge as a leader is to prioritise engagement; change is a given, but its success is not. Our experience tells us that this likelihood increases significantly if engagement is at the core of the change strategy.

In all of the grand plans to grow a successful organisation one could be forgiven for wondering why the word nice would appear on a list of values or leadership qualities. There is a tendency to trivialise this characteristic in the description of a leader in preference for sharper, cleaner words such as determined, focused, driven or committed. Rarely nice. Perhaps seen as a form of weakness, particularly when set again the harsh challenges of a competitive business landscape, there are many factors which could negate the perception of a leader as nice.

Yet, the challenges we face in developing strong leadership would be significantly improved by an acceptance that it is OK to be nice and that this is an essential quality to build engaged, committed teams. Being nice is a mindset, an approach to leadership that places compassion, humility and empathy at the forefront of leading people, without shying away from difficult issues or compromising focus.

“Just be nice” was a key reflection from Bobbi Brown, founder of the global make-up and cosmetic brand whose company was acquired by Estee Lauder in 1995, at a recent networking event when speaking about her approach to the growth of her organisation. Being nice was her intention from the outset, she noted, and it paid you back.

Research also supports the idea that being nice gets results. Amongst the most prominent is the work of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and Associate Professor from the Harvard Business School, who distinguishes between the qualities of strength and warmth. She contends that too often leaders opt to project strength before establishing trust and run the risk of eliciting fear and a host of other dysfunctional factors, finding instead that there is a body of research suggesting that the way to influence – and to lead – is to begin with warmth. The argument is that warmth is the conduit of influence: it facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.

Crucially, leaders who are able to build trust and keep the lines of communication open are more effective at being responsive to the demands of change, which directly impacts on the performance of an organisation. These leaders focus on engagement as both a priority and a discipline to ensure a level of agility within a team to make change happen, working collaboratively to ensure a smooth transition to the new state.

Adopting the mindset of being nice provides the ability to influence and drive performance. It places engagement at the heart of the change process and is part and parcel of emotionally intelligent, authentic leadership.

Highly engaged or just a control freak?

Today’s leaders know they are required to be engaging, be present and invest time with their teams – they either inherently understand this or have developed this understanding via coaching and development.

The demands on leaders are significant. They are expected to create and lead a high performance culture where accountability is paramount. Shareholders, the Board, employees and in some instances, the media and public all have an expectation of performance and behaviour.

So maybe it is the relentless focus on outcomes coupled with the expectation of creating a great place to work that causes leaders to drift into micro-management or in some instances ‘control freak’ behaviours. Maybe they feel they have to keep a close eye on all aspects of the business to ensure positive outcomes.

The problem is that the leader convinces themself that ‘involvement’ is actually ‘engagement’ thereby justifying their behaviours.

Engaging leaders are proactive, they step up and take ownership over issues and problems (they do not look to blame others), they build a sense of enthusiasm among the troops; they reinforce the vision via storytelling techniques. They invest time in their teams and listen to the challenges, ideas and opportunities; they provide opportunities for growth and development, they trust that others have good intentions; they are open, present and confident while retaining a sense of humility.

Controlling leaders like to be in charge, they like power and regularly seek recognition. They expect others will follow them, while overtly creating an environment of mistrust. They engage in ego-driven conversations and compete with their peers for attention and accolades. You can usually spot them as their stories start with “I did ….” and end with “great outcomes due to me or my …”. They happily bask in the limelight and may actually enter into turf wars in the workplace. They are poor delegators and will ‘throw you under the bus’ if a project is going poorly; blame behaviours are commonplace.

So if the behaviours and styles are so different, then why are two so easily confused?

Time and Style – we all have 24/7 and we have to make a choice as to how to use that time – controlling leaders seek short term wins and therefore operate in a ‘tell and do’ style; engaging leaders focus on developing sustainable wins for the business and team and therefore operate in a ‘show and develop’ style.

Ego – having an ego is not a bad thing, it literally means a person’s self-worth or self-esteem – it is the size of the ego that can cause the issue. The engaging leader uses their ego to back themselves while still being able to listen, be humble, consider the points of others et cetera. A controlling leader’s ego morphs into arrogance where they consider themselves to be right most of the time, the most experienced or the brightest person in the room; their ego adversely influences their effectiveness as they are largely focused on protecting the ‘image’ they have built based on their ego. An enormous ego; often attributed to a sense of fear and vulnerability results in leaders aiming to control as much as possible to manage the negative emotions.

Perfection and Achievement – going above and beyond to achieve great outcomes is both admirable and desirable in leaders; engaging leaders deliver on outcomes. Going above and beyond for a controlling leader does not always result in outcomes; often they aim for perfection and of course, perfection is not attainable, so their efforts can be considered wasteful and self-indulgent.

Advice and Directives – engaging leaders will provide input and offer advice; they will then let you decide what to do with the information they have provided. Controlling leaders will offer input and advice with an expectation that you will implement their suggestions; their advice is in reality, a directive.

Engaging leaders delegate effectively; when they ask you to lead a workshop, they contribute as a participant and resist the desire to take over or make corrections to the agenda. They recognise other people around them have talent and quite possibly are better equipped to write communications, analyse data or chair meetings; they are not threatened by the capability of others. Engaging leaders will have up to three successors for their role; they will actively develop and mentor the successors without fear of ‘what does this mean for me’.

The bottom line is that controlling leaders stifle team development, crush creativity and reduce productivity. Yet the essence of building a successful organisation is anchored around people, building their confidence and letting their voice be heard in the workplace. The job of a leader is to bring about many forms of engagement that provide ways in which people can be encouraged to contribute and it’s only in these circumstances that a mission can be achieved, excellence be delivered and a culture fully realised.

So the challenge for leaders is to recognise the emotions of vulnerability and fear – and take personal steps to manage these in order to build high performance teams and a culture based on engagement and accountability.

Busy, Busy, Busy…

Busy, Busy, Busy (does NOT make you terribly important)

There is an unspoken competition going on in boardrooms, open plan offices, call centres and even in espresso bars!

When asked the everyday question: “how are you?”, too often the answer is “good, but busy”. It seems that being busy is a statement which excuses you for being short or abrupt, in a grumpy mood, not delivering on a promise, rescheduling your 1:1 (again) and so the list goes on. What’s troubling is that the competition to prove ‘I am busier than you’ takes up time and effort – time and effort which could be spent doing that 1:1 or delivering on promises.

People hide behind the excuse of being busy in all walks of life. We live in a world of ‘busy-wars’ and this has transcended into the workplace, from competitive meetings to everyday interactions.

The issue is that we need to stop and ask ourselves whether telling people we are busy is getting in the way of being effective leaders.

Don’t get me wrong, the fact is that we are busy – all of us – for different reasons, often with conflicting priorities and with different motivations. Some of us need to be busy to be effective and thrive on being busy, others genuinely find their schedule over-whelming and are fearful of not being able to deliver. As leaders, this presents issues because it is their job to ensure that they not only inspire purpose into teams but build a level of intimacy in work relationships that allow others to question, to challenge, to let us know what they think.

Barrier to Effective Engagement

Telling people that you are busy is not an answer to the question: “how are you?” In fact, how often do you hear the response “me too?” especially from members of your team? This kind of one-upmanship provides no meaningful understanding of what is really happening or how you as a leader can support your team member. It creates a barrier to effective engagement, perpetuating a culture of ‘self-importance’ where being busy is something to be proud of (and tell everybody about).

Telling someone you are busy also tells them that your time is more important than theirs – the person feels they are intruding or adding a burden to your already ‘full’ day. Strong leaders take the time to provide their people with opportunities to talk in spite of their workload. Being busy is a mindset, a reason not to talk, or probe, or question. What’s more, it means that you miss the nice moments, the moments of fun and banter in the workplace that allow us to fully appreciate other people, build relationships and gauge the mood of a situation.

Consider this:

  • Being busy is not an excuse, it is a choice;
  • The definition of busy is different for different people;
  • Being busy does not make you more important than others;
  • Being too busy to conduct your 1:1’s, prepare for meetings, commit to coaching sessions, et cetera will work directly against your effectiveness as a leader;

The ability to communicate in a genuine and open manner is a cornerstone of leadership; connecting with your team both formally and informally is necessary to deliver on common goals. So I set you a challenge – aim to NOT use the ‘busy’ word for one day per week; I promise you it will make you more conscious of the messages you send, how to juggle your commitments and how you engage with people.

And a closing thought – We all have 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week – how are you going to use it?


IKEA as a change agent?

You can feel it when you first walk into the reception area or the office – you know what I mean. You can feel if this is a place where you want to be, where you would be pleased to come to each day, where you might actually enjoy yourself.

The place in which we spend 40 hours per week (often way in excess of this) can heavily influence our mood, our behaviours and our level of motivation. Research shows that people employed full-time outside of the home spend approximately 33% of their waking hours at their workplace, and exposures to physical conditions at work that can affect physical or mental health are both lengthy and frequent. Unwanted consequences such as reduced capacity to work, increased error rates and absences from work impact us all

While many people accept that the workplace must be inviting, too often we rely on a few very thirsty water lilies, the occasional inspirational poster and adherence to ergonomic standards – well, I think we need more.

Appearance and layout is often the first impression we have of the workplace – it tells us a story about the organisational culture. Workplace design is important from a leadership perspective as building emotional connectivity and strong communication in the workplace aids in the generation of new ideas, promotion of information sharing and encouragement of open and frequent communication.

There is considerable focus within current workplace design trends on building collaborative working environments in order to improve communication, creativity and productivity. In its report The Smart Workplace of 2030, global manufacturer and facilities management company Johnson Controls, state that agile workspaces will be in demand providing a transformable and adaptable working environment. It argues that training, collaboration, socialisation and flexibility are at the core of the working model of the future. As part of its Eco Office the creation and sharing of knowledge drives economic wellbeing and the workplace will become more community oriented with employee villages forming to create workplace communities.

I recently had the good fortune to work with a leadership team who really wanted to rid themselves of beige! They were surrounded by it: carpet, wall paint, desks and chairs – even the air-conditioning vents were beige. A very large, open plan, single floor office environment, which was too large for the number of employees, had the traditional excessively large offices for the very important people, a tiny kitchen with limited dining area, no place to ‘mingle’ or catch up with team mates and the meeting rooms were few and far between (they had all been taken by the enormous offices).

They wanted to change it. They committed to changing it. BUT they had a big problem – budget was a significant limitation. The global business had experienced a downturn in profits and the thought of spending money to make the office feel ‘more inviting’ was a very hard sell indeed.

So the plan was simple. Talk to the employees, find out what they liked, didn’t like, who had a passion and eye for interior design, and ensure the budget came in under the obligatory global approval authority matrix.

Firstly they simply used a storage room which had stock and old furniture in it and turned it into a ‘conversation hub’. They painted it green, bought some basic furniture (which was assembled by an employee with over 35 years service to the business and did not care too much for the ‘fluffy stuff’) and waited for the conversations to start. Initially, people were unsure if they could or should use it, but slowly it became a place to have a meeting (in a lounge chair!), discuss strategies (without a whiteboard!) or get the team together for a weekly catch up (without a seat for everyone!).

Next a trip to IKEA and a few more bits of furniture, more paint and a lamp shade. Some ‘meeting rooms without walls’ were set up, rugs were arranged and music was turned on – the impact of these relatively simple gestures was incredible, you could feel it instantly

There was no brief for the creative team except for the budget – rather an approach of ‘just let them do what they want to do and trust them’.

Building an adaptive and collaborative organisational culture stems from positive employee engagement, and often simple opportunities for communication and personal empowerment can have a profound impact. In this instance it was not so much that there were new chairs and rugs, but the fact that the team were able to actually choose and purchase the furniture – this seemed to be the point where people felt real change was on its way.

Sometimes, change really can be simple – lets not lose sight of that.

Gaining a Seat at the Table

HR People – have you earned your seat at the table?

We have all heard of the saying ‘gaining a seat at the table’. Recently we have seen this statement attributed to Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and Facebook Chief Operating Officer; but it has often been used in reference to human resource practitioners and the debate around becoming a true business partner in order to be recognised as key contributors at the top level of organisations.

There have been significant advancements in this area and among the ten largest public companies in Australia all but one has their senior HR leader in a prominent role as part of the executive leadership team. Many business leaders recognise that human resource management is not soft and fluffy or transactional and payroll related, but a critical consideration in all aspects of the business operations and that, quite simply, without people a business would not exist.

HR Professional Distinction

Despite progress made at the executive level of HR, I think there is a distinction at the middle management and operating level between an HR professional providing advice about HR/IR and people related matters, as opposed to an HR professional being part of strategy development with HR/IR and people matters in mind. HR advise at these levels is often provided ‘when asked’ and, although I don’t doubt the quality of the advice, this positioning as an internal expert does not necessarily lead into a more rounded business focus. Being called upon at moments of crisis such as the analysis of risk in an employment law claim is quite different to analysing business metrics and providing tactical and strategic advice to fellow business leaders.

A true business partner is someone who intricately understands their business, is part of the team who develops the strategy and plans, has clear decision-making accountability and can influence the outcomes of the business. Clearly, from an HR perspective, they need to be more than an adviser.

HR Becoming an Effective Business Partner

Deloitte’s recent research report on Global Capital Trends 2014: Engaging the 21st Century Workforce reported that less than 8 percent of HR leaders have confidence that their teams have the skills needed to meet the challenge of today’s global environment and consistently deliver innovative programs that drive business impact. More broadly, the research found that 42 per cent of business leaders believe their HR teams are underperforming or just getting by, compared to the 27 per cent who rate HR as excellent or good when assessing HR and talent programs. It argues that to become an effective business partner, HR teams need to develop deeper business acumen, build analytical skills to underwrite their leadership, learn to operate as performance advisors and develop an understanding of the needs of the 21st-century workforce.

HR professionals who do have a seat at the table and report directly to the CEO or MD are business partners who don’t wait to be asked for input or advice, and nor would their colleagues expect anything different. My experience is that people at the most senior level demonstrate business depth and knowledge equivalent to their peers around the table. However, as you move beyond the executive level of HR there appears to be reluctance at the middle management and operating levels to ‘back themselves’ when considering general business matters – apparently it is safer to remain in a position of adviser or expert about specialist matters, as opposed to delving into solutions which may assist the broader business. As the research above suggests this perpetuates questions around the quality of HR overall and there is less acknowledgement from the business that teams are performing.

How HR Can ‘Gain a Seat at the Table’

I have observed very senior HR people pitch an idea to their leadership team with an idea that sounds good as it will both develop people and help attract and retain talent – we all want that right? But when questions are asked about risk, return on investment or impact on existing plans or projects already operational within the business, their knowledge has been left wanting. Integrating HR knowledge and creativity with the overall business, whether with a one-off idea or a new people program, is a challenge – there needs to be a greater appetite to appreciate the demands of an organisation and how these impact HR service priorities. To overcome perceptions, a change in language is needed across the HR team in order to deliver real added value.

So how do you gain that seat at the table?

  1. Immerse yourself into the strategy – seek to understand the strategy and operational plans, if it doesn’t make sense – ask questions. Develop knowledge across the organisational functions; understand acronyms, metrics and key performance indicators. Become familiar with functional language, ie sales targets, brand values, risk registers, governance protocols, commercial and financial analytics – be a business generalist in the first instance and an HR specialist secondly
  2. Immerse yourself into the leaders – develop a relationship with each member of the executive and senior leadership team, understand their individual concerns, drivers and success indicators. Understand where risks may occur with the leader’s style or plans – be proactive and have a plan in place to mitigate risk and optimise opportunities
  3. Immerse yourself into the business – meet as many employees as you can, gain an understanding of the ‘feeling’ of the workplace, develop rapport, ask open questions, encourage ideas and suggestions for improvement – become a familiar face!

The immersion approach means you are rich in information, data, insight and trusting relationships – as a collective, this is powerful. You can develop supporting strategies and plans; pre-empt risks and issues; ‘coach’ the leaders; target communications to the employees; embed constructive behaviours across the business and you can rightly assume your seat at the table!


Manners, Please

This is probably just an opportunity to vent and perhaps it will fall on deaf ears, but I want to encourage the ongoing use of manners in the workplace.

I know that people get busy and that people have different values around the use of the words like ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘I promise’, but I believe there are some fundamentals which must be demonstrated by leaders today. Quite simply, if you say ‘I will get back to you’, show common courtesy and actually do what you say!

Undoubtedly the workplace environment has changed rather dramatically in the past 50 years and continues to do so at pace. Technological advancement, hybrid work teams, matrix management structures have placed layers of complexity on an organisation which were previously inconceivable – let alone the challenges of operating and competing in business. Yet, some things have not changed at all and basic manners are part and parcel of building a successful culture that delivers inspirational leadership and shared accountability.

Social connectivity may be partly shaped by social media but in reality solid, ‘old-fashioned’ relationships are an essential element of workplace communications and leadership. Simple courtesies are how people feel valued and experience personal fulfilment, and they form part of the emotional needs for all generations.

Compassionate leadership is essential to building inspired and productive work teams, where leaders demonstrate respect for their people possessing the ability to put their needs first in order to create real trust and loyalty. However, what of the seemingly increasingly detracting behaviours in the workplace from some leaders? Being late to meetings, leaving meetings early, not saying ‘hello’ to people, keeping phones on during meetings (in full view of others), interrupting without listening to other points of view, not saying thank you, being under-prepared for meetings and making last minute cancellations – these are all stoking the flames for de-motivation and resentment that ultimately reveals itself as low morale and poor productivity.

In her research of 5,600 employees at 77 Australian companies, Dr Christina Boedker of the Australian School of Business found that a critical part of lifting workplace productivity is having a great boss. Her findings showed that great bosses are those who enable workers at all levels of organisational hierarchies to lead change and be the best they possibly can. Notably she found that it is the interpersonal and motivational skills of bosses that prompt staff to exercise discretionary effort.

Simple gestures count. Etiquette must not be forgotten. Good leaders understand these points and make small but significant gestures to let others know they are valued. They stay around for the answer when they ask ‘how are you’, they make eye contact, they smile, they say ‘hello’ and they do not make others feel as though they are too busy to take time to listen.

My issues are probably more so from the perspective of being an external provider as I can’t tell you how many times we have been asked to develop a proposal responding to a challenge or issue. The request more often than not comes from a member of the executive team – individuals equipped to provide a brief, review the response and make a recommendation to their peers regarding acceptance or otherwise of the proposal.

Responding quickly is important in our business as we will allocate time, review available documentation and prioritise the development of the proposal to ensure it reaches the audience as soon as possible (therefore enabling a decision).  Once the proposal is made into its final PDF, it is sent off via email with an encouragement to call if any clarification is required and…? Are those crickets I hear? Not a ‘thank you for the proposal’, not a ‘this is interesting but not quite right’, not a ‘thanks but no thanks’ and not a ‘this is spot on, when do we get started?’ Nothing.

We don’t expect to be successful with every proposal, so getting a ‘thanks but no thanks’ is OK, but getting nothing at all – well to be honest, I think that is just rude.

Basic manners are to acknowledge when someone has done something for you at your request. A courteous reply would be a ‘thank you’ – eight letters which takes less than two seconds to type, but for some people it seems too difficult. (In our case, even when the initial proposal is followed up once, perhaps twice and still the only sound is… crickets).

Our leaders need to demonstrate the behaviour they expect in their teams and culture; if they are too busy to say thank you, then where does that leave us? We often hear about how the schooling system is failing our children with the basic three R’s and how parents need more support than ever to bring up children. Well, let’s not forget about our business leaders – using simple manners goes a long way.

Seniority does not provide an opportunity to forget the basics or be dismissive towards others. In fact, the opposite should be true. If you want people to follow you then you need to inspire others by demonstrating compassion to the people around you. Treat others as you would like to be treated, practice open and transparent communication, be open to two-way discussion and dialogue (including constructive criticism) and make time for others, in spite of the relentless pressures faced across the leadership spectrum.

Please take the time to reflect on this article.

Thank you.

7 Change-Cheaters

Maintaining Focus Despite Repeated Cycles of Organisational Changes

Many readers will appreciate that it is often not the subject of a change which presents the greatest challenge; rather the cultural impacts which are likely to occur as a result of the change. Repeated cycles of change have been the norm for many years in Australian businesses, with strong and decisive leadership essential to sustain motivation and focus. Here are my tips for keeping positive and resilient during challenging periods:

  1. Understand the change has a finite timeframe and the feeling of unrest will not last forever. Most change in organisations involves transitioning to a new situation, whether it be the result of a new structure, process or system. Projects like these may have to factor in initially unforeseen challenges, but this is common in change management and necessitates additional planning – it is generally not a crisis.
  2. Find yourself a ‘buddy’ who is normally a bit upbeat and seems to have a glass half full – spend time listening to the other side of the story. Objectivity is essential during periods of change, particularly difficult times. Talking issues through with others helps to keep things in perspective. A buddy builds a base of trust through which problems can be questioned and emotional responses kept in check.
  3. Keep yourself informed, ask questions, be curious – being informed can help to minimise the negative rumours which will undoubtedly surface during the change. Don’t bury your head in the sand or get overly focused on the minutiae of a situation. Ask questions and seek clarification from your leaders throughout the change process. Take the time to read the communications as they are issued and ensure you attend meetings and gatherings where updates will be shared. Also, if you have a question, the chances are high that your peers also have these questions – it is ok to ask, if not, you will be none the wiser!
  4. Your wellbeing is important – look after yourself so stress is an unlikely visitor. Understand where you derive your personal energy from and ensure that you incorporate this into your daily routine; encourage the same for others. Work smart, ensuring that you find downtime in order to reflect, as this will help you to sustain the pace.
  5. Make a clear decision to stay away from the ‘black hatters’, avoid the rumours and gossip and make a stance to not become involved in the negativity. Personal accountability at work is essential; be involved in the change process through observation and engagement in order to ensure that you have the facts. Don’t rely on assumptions, rumour and innuendo. Be brave, when you hear the negativity, challenge it!
  6. Get involved in the change – let leaders know that you can play a role (it keeps you informed and it demonstrates keenness to be a part of the future state). The cycle of change is constant, even if a specific project has a finite beginning and end date. Adapting to new circumstances and anticipating future states is part of taking ownership of your role and input to the organisation. Change brings both learning and opportunity in different ways and it can be fulfilling to have shared a journey with others, as well as developing good skills for the future. Nominate yourself for a role in the change program, request an opportunity to be mentored by a change leader or offer to help out where extra arms, legs and ideas are needed.
  7. Simply choose to be positive, honestly, it works – aim to engage with others, work towards a satisfying workplace and recognise that change is a part of what we experience every day. Whatever stage of your career, maintaining a positive mental attitude is paramount to professional and personal success. Work and change go hand-in-hand and as the saying goes, ‘you get what you give’. Attitude is a choice and it is important to focus on remaining positive. Fighting an inevitable change is exhausting and almost always a waste of time and effort – find the opportunity in the change and make it work for you!

Remember that the world of work has changed so much in 20 years, due to both significant external and internal elements, that we now live in a permanent state of transition – and this actually breeds exciting opportunities for innovation and advancement. Our own experience in this journey takes self-awareness, effort and focus in order to intellectually and personally ensure that we can keep perspective and positivity.

It is your choice how you respond to change!


The Merry-Go-Round of Middle Management

I have a hunch that it is unpopular or perhaps risky to be in a middle management role. When the squeeze is on, the middle layer is often the first to go, and when times are buoyant the accolades and gratitude are aimed at the executive leadership team.

To expand on this point I was recently speaking with a client in the utilities sector and he told me that he is one of 14 direct reports to his manager. “Fourteen!” I exclaimed. He said, “Well it has improved, when I joined he had 21!” I challenged him on this but he was able to take me through the structure role by role and it was clear he was telling the truth. I asked what sort of relationship he had with his leader and he replied “I leave him alone. I am capable and like my autonomy – and he has enough squeaky wheels to deal with!” We then discussed his career ambitions and, while not striving for the top job, he is certainly keen to move beyond his current level. I asked him how he was going to get there – sadly “I have no idea” was the response; “They expect us to be great at our jobs, bring in the projects on time, keep our customers happy and avoid conflict with the subbies – but we are not shown the way in terms of our career path.”

This started me thinking over the challenges of being in middle management. How do you get beyond that level if investment is low? Or what if your role is made redundant and, when you apply for your next role, you are considered still to be middle management as you are yet to perform at senior or executive leadership level?

The phrase ‘war for talent’ has gained much significance during the past 15 years and there has been a tendency to focus on retaining high performers or top executives within this debate. However, recent research has called this into question. In a recent global survey of HR professionals by KPMG 59% of respondents agreed that there was a new war for talent and that war is different than in the past. The research finds that addressing skills shortages is a higher priority now than two years ago – and will become critical in the next two years. It states that skill shortages appear likely to increase as globalisation and competitive pressures take hold across sectors and industries and improving economic conditions spur employees to seek new jobs. Notably the findings reported that there is little evidence that typical ‘war for talent’ practices that focus on high performers actually contribute to improved business performance. Respondents agreed that it was time to turn to new, more holistic strategies for managing talent, with two-thirds of survey saying it is more important to address the talent needs of all employees in the context of the business and its strategy, and just over half agreeing that pursuing high potential talent at the team’s expense puts the business at risk.

In a similar vein to the KPMG research described above, the findings of a 2011 survey by the American Society for Training and Development across 2,000 mid-level managers found that only 11 percent felt well prepared to handle their increased responsibilities and challenges over the next two years.

Much has been written about the challenge of bringing people through the ranks to fulfill executive roles, but these results make it clear that the issue requires deeper analysis of existing views on leadership development. Specifically, at the middle management level has there been enough focused development to instil confidence, belief and ability to be ready for executive roles? I suspect not.

The reality is that it is not so much a question of how much has been invested in development, rather the kind of development that has been provided. Middle managers still need to translate big picture vision into day-to-day practice, so how much has been done to build strategic capability? Equally, has there been a transition from a focus on the execution of middle management responsibilities towards building leadership capability? Leadership is central to all levels of an organisation – it is necessary to embed authenticity and a sense of connection to the overall purpose of a business amongst all those who influence and inspire people.

It has been reported that up to 80 percent of future leaders will come from within organisations. Whilst research suggests a more holistic approach to talent management is needed, there is clearly a question over how this translates to the experiences of middle managers in the current climate – a period of time where building business capability is crucially dependent on the quality of people, especially at this level. To cite the often quoted phrase, what happens if we invest in our people and they leave? Well, what happens if we don’t and they stay?

Here are some other critical reasons for investing in and retaining middle management:

  • They are your successors;
  • They are often the ones with first hand relationships with team members;
  • They have a high level of intellectual property which is often hard to replace;
  • Retaining and developing talent is a lot cheaper than recruiting new and untested talent;
  • Business is becoming more complex, especially in relation to communication and information flow – middle managers have firsthand experience of the impact on employees and how to get key messages across;
  • The are the gateway between strategy and execution: the middle ‘makes it happen’;
  • They are connectors for the culture and translate the vision and values of a business every day;
  • Leadership is required at all times, both good and bad, so there is a need to have a back up to support executives when required;
  • They have ideally had the chance to ‘act up’ and can respond well in a crisis or when unexpected events occur;
  • People are more likely to want to perform when there is investment and recognition; and
  • Loyalty yields results.

As businesses begin to move into a recovery phase the issue of the new war for talent is a key priority. Channel your investment in development across the spectrum of leadership and ensure that all those with accountability for people have the level of mental preparedness and insight that is necessary to provide authentic, practical and motivational guidance. Middle managers are the gateway to delivering strategy and their ability to both understand this journey, and be ready for the step up when ready, is a crucial success factor for long-term business sustainability.