The only real way to make changes in your life

In common with many people, my physical fitness has yo-yoed during lock down. In the UK we were blessed with amazingly good weather so we were able to walk in nice conditions and I took my open water swimming more seriously from being a few minutes splashing about to feeling I had exercised at the end of a session. When the sports centre was allowed to be open I used the climbing wall (I really can’t call myself a climber but I have a go!). So I wasn’t in too bad a condition physically but not great. And then winter came and more lockdowns. Along with the shorter days, longer nights and cold weather came injuries, unhealthy eating, way too much wine …. well I think you get the picture. My physical fitness plummeted as did my state of mind. I think it was many things catching up on me to do with old injuries reappearing, a lack of motivation and feeling the effects of the lockdown. Over a period of months, I started to think I that I was in desperate need of something different.

Some years ago I had taken on a personal trainer which was one of my best life decisions ever. His name is Phil Sims and he has become a major force for good in my life – as he is for many others. I hit on the idea of setting myself the goal of completing one of those muddy obstacle course events which was scary but motivating. With his help with training and on the day the pushes and encouragement of other people Phil trains, I managed to finish the event and felt really good about myself. I also managed to injure myself pretty badly so exercising became more and more difficult. So in the end I stopped working with Phil. But I stayed friends with him and we started meeting up for walks a few months ago. I spoke with him about my frustrations about how I felt I had gone backwards since we had worked together and about my injuries and …. well I went on and on with my wall of excuses. I expressed interest in working with him again but also treated (!) him to more ramblings about what I could and could not do at my age. And there was the cost. And did I mention my injuries. And… he very kindly listened but eventually stopped me and said these words

“I think the best thing you can do is to start.”

That stopped me in my tracks. Such an obvious, simple statement but one I couldn’t argue with. When thinking about making changes in your life, you can plan all you like but when it comes to it, this is exactly what you have to do. Maybe you won’t be quite ready. Maybe it won’t work the first time. Maybe the end goal seems unattainable. You might think you can’t do it. But maybe you will make progress. Maybe you will develop in ways you can’t visualise yet.

I decided that this time I wouldn’t set myself a massive scary physical goal, but instead to work on just steadily improving my fitness and do it carefully so I wouldn’t get injured. And it’s working. Starting with the fitness which I am taking slowly, the other habits that had slipped rather badly have started to improve. At only a month in, I am feeling loads better. I sleep better and am enjoying the exercises. Phil has taken lockdown in his stride and used it as a catalyst to innovate so instead of weights we use special rubber bands to exercise and they are brilliant once you work out how to use them – or rather, when a professional helps you to use them correctly. I am really looking forward to re-starting open water swimming and renewing my clumsy attempts at climbing. And my state of mind has improved immeasurably.

I think there is a wider lesson to learn. Perhaps there is something you really want to do but it seems too huge to even know how to begin. It is maybe daunting how long it will take or whether you will be able to finish it. Whether it is crazy. Way beyond your grasp. Something you have never tried before. Something you have previously tried and it’s not worked out. Maybe it is a new skill like playing a musical instrument or perhaps learning to draw. Or writing a book. Possibly the garden is in too much of a mess for you to even work out what to do. Maybe you are someone who like me needs just the final nudge to actually go out there and make something happen like I wrote about in a previous blog. So I will pass on to you Phil’s advice which really is the only way to make changes in your life:

the best thing you can do is start

So, finally a quick plug for him that he isn’t expecting. He works online as well as in person around Leamington Spa. He takes on people of all ages and all abilities who all meet up (when restrictions permit) for fun and much laughter. He’s active on Facebook and Instagram and his web page is HERE.

Get on with it!

A story to install a sense of urgency.

This short blog is about a story of a project that is my inspiration – and I have to admit I am somewhat obsessed with the product so my comments might not be entirely objective.

Some time in 1946, a man who worked in a senior position in the car industry went for a walk on a beach with his brother who worked in the same industry. They started to discuss an idea for a new sort of car – or rather a new version of one that had been built in the US but never in the UK. Between them they started to draw an outline of the car with a stick on the sand and discussed how it would meet their needs for a farm vehicle that could drive on the roads. They thought maybe there might be a wider market for it too. Back at work in the midlands, he worked up the idea and had it accepted by the board in 1947. It was launched in 1948. And thus the legend that is Land Rover was born. With our understanding of the impact on the climate of CO2 emissions, of course there are significant factors to add to the story to day, but my point is that this entire process took only 18 months. From idea to launch of an entirely new class of motor vehicle.

OK cars were simpler then and yes the first Land Rover was largely made from existing parts. And yes there are probably other stories of rapidly developed cars that went nowhere (the Transport Museum in Coventry has many of these as does the huge British Motor Museum). But taking this success story, it pre-dates the concept of the rapid prototyping by over 50 years. And yes these days cars require endless testing before they can be launched. There is also the very fashionable (and really important) approach of the Lean Startup by an even longer time frame (see my previous blog here for a description). So there are models you can use today that can potentially deliver similar results. 

But here is my message to everyone reading this blog: when you are thinking of making a change, you will automatically face resistance. It is human. But when faced with people telling you it can’t be done], or saying your plan will take 10 years, perhaps you can think of this story and ask yourself if the change you are making is more fundamental than the one pitched to Rover in 1947?

Why am I telling this story now? I think there is a really important parallels to the challenges we face today. I suspect that a lot of the positive attitude and the “let’s get on with it” shown in the story came from the war time experience of society facing appalling hardship and massive challenges. Today we face the massive challenges of recovery from COVID and at the same time tackling climate change. We need to tap into this entrepreneurial spirit everywhere. These are global challenges and two brothers on a beach in Wales will never be able to solve them – no matter how good their idea. We need to find great ideas and make them work across the world. And we don’t have much time. There is potentially the worst economic recession ever looming as we emerge from COVID and the climate clock is ticking. We must make changes to our world like never before. These changes need to be fundamental and fast. There is no time to waste.

Postscript: I am quite sure many people reading this blog will have no real idea what these early Land Rovers was like so here is a description of the time line here , information about the car museum in Coventry is here and the British Motor Museum is here .

Why leaders use Lean Startup methods.

I wish I’d known about this method years ago as it would have saved me trying to force the wrong changes and pursuing hopeless causes. Looking back, when I did things that worked I was in some way following this method more or less by accident. I also really wish I had access to these ideas when I started my first three businesses. So this is a blog about a method, an approach, a set of techniques. To some it is a kind of religion but to me, the concepts are so brilliantly simple and massively useful. It is related to “LeanUX” which is specifically about interface design for software. The point of my writing this blog is that the methodology has massive potential beyond those two applications so I wanted to show how it can be a great way to run a wide range of change projects in any organisation. If you already know about these methods and use them every day, great! But for everyone else, here’s a short summary of this powerful approach.

What’s the big idea?

As with most great ideas (and I do believe this idea is genuinely great) the core is very simple and goes something like this:

The trouble with new technology is that nobody really knows they want it until they have tried it. So if you had asked anyone if they wanted a mobile phone they might have been a bit interested. But the first time anyone actually uses one, it is life changing. And more recently, if you asked people if they wanted a phone that could also take pictures, the answer would have been no. I clearly remember the first time I saw someone using their phone to take a picture and thought it was a crazy, useless idea. However, when I bought a phone that had a camera, I was immediately hooked. There is a clear read-across into new products but increasingly it is being used within businesses to establish new ways of working. The vital part of the idea is that asking people abstract questions about something (usually forcing them to answer on a Likert scale) will only give you a hint about what they would feel about something. The truth is that the margins for error are very large because we cannot really imagine what a new process will actually be like or how a new product would make us feel.

Take another example: I had heard how amazing the acceleration on a battery powered car is. But I didn’t really appreciate quite what this meant before I actually drove one. It is astonishing! But my telling you that has little real impact. You really need to experience it for yourself for it to make sense. If you asked me what was important to me when buying a car, the benefits of the electric car would not have surfaced since I didn’t really know what the product was. The crux of this approach is to find ways of presenting the actual thing – or as near as you can get to it quickly – and then asking what people think about it. This is very different a way more valuable than asking “what if” questions. This is how it is different to market research – although some “what if” questions to potential customers as a kind of initial sniffing of the air can be used but only as the start point to show there might be a problem to be solved or that a particular product or new way of working might solve the problem. Above all, anyone launching a new product or service needs to be able to answer the Big Question:

What problem is it that you are solving?

This is also true of changes being made within businesses. For instance, how many restructuring projects are based on a truthful answer to that question? There are lots of other questions that follow from this –

How bad a problem is it?

How many people have this problem?

How much will people (or the business) pay to solve it?

Who else has solutions?

Will this solution actually solve the problem?

You need to completely focus on the Big Question before you do anything else. This means you really need to understand the customer (or user) completely. This means getting some good ideas from your potential market (that’s the market research bit), then if it seems promising you quickly create a product and then seeing how your customers react to it. This is referred to as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – a product that is quick to make but looks as much like the final product as possible. Do this quickly and don’t worry too much how close to the real thing it is. In some instances, having a product that is obviously a rough prototype can actually give more information that one that is more refined. In general people are grateful to be asked for their opinions and when the project at hand is some sort of internal change, people are far more likely to support change if they feel involved or that they have at least been asked for their opinions.

I remember when a new school was built in my town, I met a teacher at the school and asked about what their involvement had been in the design. I was astonished to hear that they hadn’t been consulted at all. So despite the investment in the design of the buildings, many mistakes were made simply through a lack of involvement from the people who were best placed to know how a school should be designed. Inevitably there was a significant motivation problem amongst staff when the new buildings opened and some of the architects ideas lacked the insight of the teachers. A wasted opportunity. What if staff (teachers and support) had been asked for their ideas, given mockups to work with? And what if the students and their parents had also been asked?

Often those running projects like this would shy away from asking for opinions because they have their own views or because they are concerned people will ask for things that will not be feasible. And then there is the budget. But there is a useful literature to refer to here which is generally called ” involvement”. The research is clear – people want to feel involved in the decisions that affect their work. And the work environment is one of the most important elements of how satisfied they will feel. BUT at the same time people also understand that their ideas might not be the ones that are put into the final design. We need to feel consulted and listened to more than we need to get our own way. It is a matter of trust: if I am treated as someone whose opinion is important, this is of more value to me than whether my idea is actually implemented. By all means make caveats about whether ideas will be included in end product, but time spent consulting with those most closely involved is time well spent. So create a rough version of what you think might be a possible solution to the problem and get people to use it. Or as close as you can to really using it. This is true for a new process, a new office layout, a new product…

Perhaps the key thing to remember is that the MVP can be very rough at first so it is created quickly and as soon as you possibly can, given to your users to… use! The emphasis is on speed and responsiveness. Your target audience will be more forgiving of the roughness of your MVP if it is explained to them what it is about. They want to feel as though they are contributing to the creation of something so seeing it being very rough is actually a benefit. Even when building apps, some believe it is actually better to make a virtue out of this by using hand drawn screens rather than spending any time creating nicely laid out ones.

Perhaps this seems obvious but it hasn’t quite been the way it has been worked in the past. Previously a product would be created based on asking customers what they might be interested in using if it existed. Lean Startup spends as little time as possible doing this and then moving as quickly as possible into actually giving them a simplified version of the product and finding out how they respond to it. Do they actually use it when they can? It is then far easier to predict whether they would actually buy it if it comes to market. This process has become the common language amongst startups and countless examples exist of its success.

At the same time it is essential for you to be objective – or as objective as you can. At what stage do you stick to your guns and say that regardless of some challenges, you are going ahead. Or do you take the evidence as telling you it simply isn’t going to work. Do you stick with your idea, change your offer or abandon the project? Those are usually very difficult decisions indeed.

But what if you are not starting a business? Of course if you are creating a new product, the process still holds true and you can see this every day on supermarket shelves. But I see the methodology being relevant in many more situations than just these. Clearly it has relevance to the creation of new IT systems and especially smartphone apps (which was where I first came across it). But I have now seen the idea being used in professional services, training and even manufacturing where it is combined with new technologies such as rapid prototyping. I have even used it in my own day job in Higher Education where I have tried out different exercises and approaches with students.

The time I used it most was when I worked very closely with students in developing a smartphone app that enabled students to access their learning on their phones. In fact I see this is a really good example of what happens when you bring an idea to life and then put it in the hands of the user. My initial idea was for ways for students in large lectures to feel more personally involved with the lecture materials. But almost immediately it became clear that this was an important but a relatively minor part of what it could do. Students wanted it to feel social and interactive so they could hear about changes to their programmes, communicate with their lecturers and work in small groups. This surprised me because other technologies already exist to do these tasks but the message came through loud and clear: students wanted all the tools needed for their learning in one place. We had hired a researcher who was a recent graduate deliberately so she would be of the same mindset as the students still studying. She had a suspicion that this might be the case and asked students about it. It seemed as though the social aspect would indeed be important. So we created what is called a WireFrame – a mockup of the different screens. We showed it to students to see what they found interesting about it. We then made a more refined mockup that imitated some of the functionality. Again we could see the features our users were attracted to so we started to actually build it. And then refined it again and again. We got the feedback we had dreamed of: why on earth hasn’t anyone done this before?

With a skeleton working prototype, we showed it to lecturers told us they liked using voting systems in large lecture groups but it was too fiddly or expensive and could we include this? So we built a skeleton version and gave them to try. And it was extremely popular. And that was included too as were other features.

Wider applications

I have seen first hand how this approach has massive applications across all manner of organisations. It’s been a key part of designing processes that really simplify workflows by including users in the design and testing from the start. I have seen new products develop at breakneck speed with apparently promising ideas being ditched before too much money was wasted on them simply by finding that there was no enthusiasm amongst customers. And I think we are only at the beginning of seeing how valuable these methods can be. They form a crucial part of Design Thinking and driving innovation. And there is really only one thing any of us can be sure of at the moment – we need to be innovating constantly or else we and our organisations will be left behind.

Nothing to say about the new year.

I mean, obviously it’s not that I really have nothing to say. But I don’t have advice for the Doctors I have worked with on leadership. Nor to people who suddenly have to work from home. Nor would I give advice to the self employed who suddenly can’t work at the moment (and for how long?). I might have something to offer those who have lost their jobs as this has happened to me many times.

But I think maybe there could be something different I could draw from the experience we are going through at the moment.

Like most of us I would stand on the pavement outside my house at 8pm on Thursdays and applaud. It became a ritual of a type I have never seen before. I know one friend who was driving back from her long shift as a nurse on Thursday who said it was a real morale boost to see it happening all along her route home. But I am not about to go into some lament about how we used to be a community and maybe how we should return to it. My parents were of the wartime generation and both loathed the sentimentality of looking back to the war as a better time and had no good words for the “we’ll meet again” dirge. So why have I decided to put finger to keyboard and suggest that I have something to say that is worthy of your time?

It is this.

I read this somewhere “When the restrictions are lifted, be careful what you bring back of your old life.”

I think this is an excellent challenge. There is always something interesting to be had from any challenge. Some people interpret this as how they can make the situation work to their advantage but I think there is potential for enormous positivity. So what is it that you are not going to take back into the normal life when you can go out to the pub/shop/holiday? Or go back to work “normally”?

For me, the thing that really hit home was how the isolation in ones home highlighted the need for human connection. Like so many others I am spending my days in conference calls and my leisure time with my immediate family. My family are lovely people but there is something significant missing in my life with the loss of every-day real contact with others. Yes there are some benefits – we are going on walks as a family and my 12 year old comes along without a single protest which will definitely not outlast the quarantine! But I really miss being in a room with different people. I love working with a wide range of people and being friends with people from very different backgrounds and whose work is totally different to my own. I love spending time with lots of different viewpoints, backgrounds, and especially being with people I care about. I don’t think I took this for granted before but I will make sure I savour it even more in future.

We have also discovered something really amazing at my work: we can pull things out of the bag in an incredible way. I won’t give my own examples because I am sure that everyone reading this will know what I mean – it is happening everywhere. Somehow we found that there are vast amounts of expertise, innovation, flexibility, collaboration and optimism that too often gets squeezed out by due process or fear of criticism or just being cautious. We have been forced to go into ways of working we never would have imagined even a few months ago. We have worked through the confines of video calls and messaging to make things work against apparently impossible odds. And I have taken huge inspiration from the students we work with who have also found ways to carry on their studies and even broaden out their interests by learning new skills and becoming resilient to this massive global challenge.

I will take it as my mission to make sure we don’t forget these things and slide back into the old “normal”.

Leadership lessons from a caddish relic

I have learned many a good lesson from people I don’t like very much, and I have come to rather cherish this as a thing. So when I realised I was learning some really great leadership lessons from someone difficult to like, I was inspired to summarise them in this blog. I hope it i of interest to people wanting to improve their leadership qualities.

The person in mind is Lord Mountbatten. Massive figure in the second world war, influential royal, inspirational leader. I will ignore his self-aggrandisement, naked personal ambition, selfishness, relentless self-publicity, disfunctional private life, controversial role in the partitioning of India/Pakistan and rumours of … well anyone interested is encouraged to read “The Mountbattens by Andrew Lownie. But amongst all this, he was without doubt an extraordinarily gifted leader. He inspired lasting affection in those he led and pulled off some remarkable feats. I want to summarise where I believe he got it exactly right and how todays leaders can learn from his example

Personal attention

Early in his career, Mountbatten was made Divisional Officer which is where the ship’s company (ie crew) are allocated an officer probably outside of their chain of command. In some ways it’s a bit like a Personal Tutor at university. Being a DO is something that early career naval officers gain an taste of leading a large group of sailors and can be a challenging post for a young officer. When Mountbatten was given this post, he managed to get hold of the the list of all the 120 sailors in his division and learned all their names before he even joined the ship. He even managed to get hold of information about their backgrounds so when he met them for the first time he was able to make it seem as if he knew them already. So he could, for example ask after a sick mother, a new born baby or whether an injury was healing. Given that many officers in those days were quite remote figures, this was a revelation and immediately won the loyalty of the division and started a pattern of personal attention that he was to follow for his entire career.

Paying attention to the needs of the people he led

This is probably rule one in the Horatio Nelson leadership book – you need to look after your people. It’s something that has been passed down in military lore to this day. I remember when I was a private soldier in the army a rather touching ritual every evening. We squaddies would line up at the cookhouse for our evening meal and when we had all been served and sat down to eat, the duty officer would arrive and walk around asking if the food was OK. And only once they had done that, they would get their food and sit down and eat. OK they ate at a separate table and OK we sometimes took advantage of the situation to say “the only problem is some idiot keeps on asking us if the food is all right”. But the point was made every single day: officers eat last. Nowadays the speaker and author Simon Sinek has made most of his career on this point (see a good Ted Talk he did on the subject) . It is a great thing. But to return to Mountbatten, he always went way beyond that minimum. He would use the knowledge he had about his people to make sure he could do what he can to help them. Perhaps it was easier for him as he had married into vast wealth so there was always a rail ticket he could pay for or a favour a connection could pull. But he did what he could. And that made him stand out amongst his peers – and amongst many who came after. So, it’s great to know your people. But even better to use that knowledge to go above and beyond what you are obliged to do.

Knowing how to leverage his network.

Networking has become known as a skill in its own right. Consultants specialise in training people to do it and good MBAs will include a hefty amount of it. Way before the term even existed, Mountbatten knew how important it was. He was gifted a massive advantage in being born into royalty and then marrying into enormous wealth. But he leveraged these gifts with great skill. He was also completely shameless in asking for what he wanted and given the connections and power he accumulated, he usually got what he asked for. It’s hard to draw direct parallels though because having the sort of connections he had is extremely unusual. But we can learn to use what we have. On a daily basis leaders need to influence rather than instruct and so much of our abilities to achieve results come down to the esteem that others hold us in. So if you are asked to do a piece of work that is slightly outside the norm, the extent to which we are going to deliver the work is whether we are being asked by someone we (a) know and (b) trust. Networking is the way of making sure we have a wide circle of people who know us. The issue of whether we are trusted is vital but the subject of a different blog!

Being technically excellent in everything.

Despite a deserved reputation for partying and taking lavish holidays, Mountbatten was also an extremely hard worker. He had a flair for technology and an obsession for detail. This meant he spent hours working outside normal hours honing his knowledge and even brought in several inventions to do with signals that became adopted as standards across the Royal Navy. Any course he attended he would strive to be top and he frequently was. And he was always on the look out for a new skill to learn. He always stayed at the forefront of technology and became expert in all new systems. He avoided the danger of being known as the boffin though by sticking to the executive branch rather than being known only as a technician. Then as now, the technical expert was often not the one who was promoted or became the leader. I often discuss this with leaders today who have become successful in their specialisms. If you rely only on being known for being a technical expert, you can find your career can plateau. If this is what you want to do, then of course it’s great. But if you have ambitions to move into strategic management, you will need to develop a reputation of expertise beyond your immediate technical specialism. In order to be a strategic leader you will need to master the technology AND know the art of leadership.

And finally…

So these are some lessons I picked up from a leader of the past. He was of his time and controversies followed him as such a huge character would. He tended to bring out extreme responses – love and loathing. But regardless of which camp you are in, I would hold these as being pretty useful ideas for the leader of today.

Leadership is vital in defeat

In a move rather like the moment I left the Church of England or when I switched from PC to Mac, I stopped following rugby nearly 20 years ago when I took the solemn oath of allegiance to Aston Villa Football Club. Little did I know at the time the immense heartbreak this would bring my children who touchingly followed me into this… well it’s not an obsession. But it gets close some times. I have many examples from my Villa experience of defeats and posted an earlier blog about the then Villa Captain Micah Richards showing leadership and courage when things were going very very badly wrong. But mercifully things are generally better at Villa Park so my re-visit to the challenge of defeat on leaders needs to go elsewhere. And to the Rugby World Cup.

It is a matter of record that England lost the final and were comprehensively outplayed. But amongst all the frankly wonderful images and words about South Africa, the one I picked up on is at the top of this blog. It is the England team who have exceeded expectations to arrive at the final only to be found wanting. Disappointing hardly covers it. I guess it is at least at the level I felt when I realised my business – the one I had remortgaged my house against – was not going to work. I would guess that everyone has those sort of events in life. But at this particular very public moment, England captain Owen Farrell has decided to put his own feelings to one side and gather the team around and say something. He didn’t have to. But he did. And I would LOVE to know what he said. My bet was he was thanking everyone for their work, suggesting everyone sits with the crushing feelings of disappointment and then moves on to a new season where they can hopefully one day start to enjoy the game again. Perhaps he said that although rugby is important, it isn’t the only thing and this was only one day in their lives and that one day they would come to appreciate that.

Is this of any relevance to leaders in less public arenas? Well actually I think it is far more important what is said in defeat than in success. To be realistic about the defeat and yet positive about the future. To reinforce what went well whilst owning up to where the failure came from. No blame. But taking responsibility. Balancing accountability without wasting effort accusing others of being the reason for the failure. Thats where the leader can set the tone one way or the other. It is about the leader taking responsibility for their position at the front of the charge. As the one who would either raise the cup in triumph or gather the bloodied team in defeat.

I have learned my most important lessons from failure. And whilst the England rugby team will have a huge amount of regret and disappointment to overcome, in the long run it has the potential to serve them well. I hope the team recuperate and in time, learn the lessons. Oh, and I don’t mean the technical stuff which does of course need to be analysed.

I mean how this moment could well be the making of them as people.

Real team working

So much nonsense talked and written about teams. A whole industry rose and (mercifully) more or less disappeared to do with creating teams using outdoors activities. So often these totally missed the point about teams. It is something of an obsession of mine to cut through crap and find ways that people can work together in ways that are productive but also enhance the lives of people involved. The key thing is to find ways that are meaningful for the whole team so everyone contributes, everyone want the team to succeed beyond their own success.

So why the macho photo?

As a former soldier, I know about some aspects of this having lived it for nearly 10 years. Two things I learned early on were (1) the Royal Marines do teamwork better than anyone and (2) I was nowhere near tough enough to join them. But the fascinating thing to me is that being tough isn’t enough for the marines. What they are after is something else. Something to do with being thoughtful, genuinely working together and stretching everyone. This photo I believe encapsulates this perfectly. Just look at the group in the centre of the shot. They are attempting to run as a squad to break a record. Clearly the man in the middle was struggling and so the others immediately jumped in to help. And look at their facial expressions. It is about determination to get the whole team over the line. They aren’t judging the man who needs help and he is far from giving up.

Now of course very few of us work in places where we have to do this type of physical team activity. But …. look I don’t think I really have to join the dots. What if you worked in a team like this? How much could you all achieve together?

I’ve seen it. I’ve helped organisations achieve it. And I have to tell you it is fantastic for all involved. So many other problems fall away – performance management, disciplinary, retention, stress, illness…. But don’t worry. If you want to know more about how to do this, I won’t make you run like this. Not unless it’s your job!

(thanks for the idea for this from a tweet by ex-Royal Stuart Elms @elmsy1664 . Photo from The Telegraph)

Leadership is sometimes about picking up litter

I was gazing out of the window of one of the lovely cafes we have on campus at the University of Warwick having just finished my lunch. I was finishing my tea and enjoying the view across a sunny path outside with people coming and going. I noticed a Very Senior Person walking briskly past with a file of papers and a purposeful look on her face and I could tell she was off to an executive meeting. Suddenly she stopped, bent down and picked up a piece of paper that had somehow been blown into her path. She walked over to a bin, deposited the offending item and carried on her way. I noticed that she was smiling.

This person I know to be business like, committed and on top of both strategy and detail. But this small action told me more about her than I had learned from the occasional meetings we had had. She was clearly in a hurry but still wanted to deal with this small piece of litter. Nobody was watching and hardly anyone would have even noticed this small piece of litter. But it mattered to her.

Leadership? People talk about role modelling and demonstrating behaviours and this was a perfect example of it. We also talk about what people do when they think nobody is watching. I really don’t think she cared if anyone was watching or not, it was natural. It showed commitment and perhaps a deep attachment to her workplace.

Was it an act of leadership?

Well I now do the same. Not because I think anyone important might be watching but because I realised the effect that small action had on me. Far stronger than any inspiring speech, it showed to me that this person was committed to high standards.

Being a leader is about actions not about position.

When I run leadership modules for students, we usually kick off with an exploration of what is meant by leadership and we always end up with something like “having people who follow you”. And I think in a sense this is right – probably ‘follow’ sounds a bit passive but I am more or less OK with it given that the academic literature on leadership commonly uses the term. However, there is usually then a disagreement about how leadership is similar and/or different to management. It’s an old debate but one that does need to be revisited every now and then. So let me kick off this short debate with this: management is about running things. So if you have to do annual appraisals, arrange shifts, check people’s work, follow up when people are sick and so on, you are a manager. And you also need to motivate, provide direction, stand up for your team. And encourage, set an example and defend your people.

Which of these is management and which is leadership? Actually for the point I am making today I am working from a different angle. I am saying that all of the above are true when you are leading a team and some of it is management and some leadership (and some can be both). But at least some of these tasks are given to you because you are a Line Manager. You may think of yourself as facilitating peoples’ work, supporting them to be the best they can be or making sure they have everything they need to succeed, but you are their boss. And you can never escape this. Not even going for a drink after work, you are still the boss.

If you have no line management responsibility then you are not the boss. In which case, surely you cannot possibly be a leader? Funnily enough I find myself in this position at the moment and I know a lot of others are – we have some sort of professional responsibility but this does not extend to being a boss. But I firmly believe that a large part of my job is to be a leader. I see many professionals with little or no line management responsibilities but who still need to provide direction and be professional. I was having this conversation recently with senior hospital doctors many of whom had little or no line management responsibilities. And yet they had opted to attend a programme that had “leadership” in its title.

I would go further than this and say that anyone can be a leader. There are so many opportunities for everyone to show leadership in their daily life – every time you see a colleague. Every interaction with a person who might come to your organisation (customer, client, patient). All of these small exchanges no matter how fleeting are chances for you to show leadership. It could be the smile and “good morning” or a short chat in the queue for coffee or taking time to ask how someone is after a bereavement. Even people who feel powerless can role model behaviour, has the chance to show how they believe things should be done through their everyday actions.

I have to admit my thinking on this comes directly from my (brief) army service where setting a personal example is in the culture from day one. And whilst not everyone is enamoured of the military way life, I have never seen better examples of this approach since I left. And I think a great example of this is a quote by decorated veteran Brian Wood.

Screen grab from Brian Wood MC talking about leadership as influence.

The trouble with young people today…

OK. I think I know what you expect me to say. Perhaps something about snowflakes. Or maybe wondering why some people talk about an epidemic of mental health issues in the young.

But I’m not.

I was prompted to write this blog after reading advice to senior managers to be mentored by someone under 30. Yes. Not to be a mentor FOR a young person but be mentored BY them. One of the very many delights I find working in a university is that I tend to be surrounded by people far younger than me. This is, for example why I joined Facebook in the early days because I discovered the students had set up a “Fan Page” about me but I could only read what they were saying about me by joining. It means that I know that none of them is remotely interested in Twitter, that there is no point in buying CDs and that watching live TV is only for sports. I am also reminded week by week that these are only superficial differences between the generations. There are some environmental context differences over the years to do with what sort of jobs are available, whether buying a house is a realistic prospect or how wealthy we might feel. But there remains a fundamental truth:

there is no such thing as a generation.

Yes. The industry that springs up periodically claiming a new label for a group of people who only have chronological age in common. This is complete nonsense. There are way more differences between people than between generations. Some insist that the world is changing faster than at any time in our history. Others say there are more pressures on the youth than ever before. And commonly people talk about the snowflake generation. But I am here to tell you there is no evidence whatever that any of this is true. My favourite de-bunking of these myths comes from a surprising source – former head of US Special Forces William H McRaven who said recently “Anyone who calls millennials ‘soft’ has clearly never seen them in a firefight” (full article from Task and Purpose is here) . And that too is my assessment despite mercifully never seen millennials in combat. In the students I meet, I see decency, ambition, drive, compassion, ethics, fun, rigour, intellect, curiosity, commitment. I guess there are some who aren’t like that. But my “generation” had that too. And we had dreadful fashion to contend with and mass unemployment … oops. I just fell into the trap myself for a moment.

I’m sorry to keep a military theme, but there is another great example of this being used by the British Army at the moment in its latest recruitment campaign. In recent years there have been challenges to recruit into the forces which are due to a number of factors about its role in the world, pay, conditions and many veterans leaving sooner than before. The latest advertising campaign has played on this perception of the youth and used these slogans:

There was a predictable backlash against this campaign from populist press and from some retired officers. But the recruitment figures were transformed as the image of the forces was presented in this new way. But surely this is an argument for the existence of generation differences? I would say no. The message was that the press talk about millennials as being somehow lesser than previous generations whereas this campaign quite rightly highlights that you people today are just as capable of serving and having a great experience in the forces as previous ones.

I would recommend thinking about that mentoring idea though. If you are in your forties or fifties and don’t spend much time with the under 30s, I suggest you find ways of doing so. It may remind you of things about yourself you might have forgotten.

Finally, if you haven’t already seen it, Admiral McRaven’s Commencement speech at the University of Texas is one of the best of the genre. Well worth 19 minutes of your time and is online here.