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To begin at the beginning

This is second in a series of management talking points. As I mentioned in the first of the series (available on LinkedIn and on my own Good Strat Blog) the name Leadership 7s was chosen based on certain influences in my formative years; rugby union and the heroes of the legendary Welsh rugby team of the ‘golden age’ (1969-1979).

Here are the second seven talking points in this series that deal with aspects of leadership, coaching and management.

Simplify everything

Some of the most exciting moments of my childhood were when the family would gather around the television to watch the Welsh rugby wizards weave their magic spells.

This was the team of the mighty Pontypool front row, the brilliant Gareth Edwards and the legendary Barry John, once the greatest rugby player on the planet.

In his autobiography, Edwards captured the rugby essence of John “He had this marvellous easiness in the mind, reducing problems to their simplest form, backing his own talent all the time. One success on the field bred another and soon he gave off a cool superiority which spread to others in the side.”

Which brings me to Tesco. Tesco PLC is a multinational grocery and merchandising retailer headquartered in England. Since it was founded in Hackney in 1919 it has grown to become the third placed retailer in terms of profits and second for gross revenue – globally. Part of Tesco’s success is intrinsically linked to simplicity.

Tesco has three conditions that must be met before enterprise wide innovations are put into use. Innovations must be better for customers; they must ultimately make things cheaper for Tesco, and thirdly – and this is the difficult part – the innovation must make things simpler for Tesco’s staff. Better, cheaper, simpler.

Michael Schrage once described Tesco’s success in these terms “Tesco’s secret sauce for innovation simplification was, appropriately, astonishingly simple: the company made people — and held people — accountable for simplicity.”

Why are Tesco now being given such a hard time by the major discounters?

Both Lidl and Aldi understand the power of simplicity, they always have. But some of Tesco’s big decisions bypassed the simplicity ‘gatekeeper’. When push came to shove they failed to keep things simple and they suffered from not diligently following the most important of their own enterprise innovation considerations.

As leaders we must know how to simplify and to reduce or eliminate complexity, for everyone. But we must also remember that we must simplify and still retain the levels of effectiveness that are desired. So, simplify as much as you can, but do not oversimplify.

I would like to end this talking point with a quote from the late and great Steve Jobs, “That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Cultivate excellent preparation

In the eighties I worked at Sperry Univac (now Unisys), and in 1983 I was promoted to the role of Business Consultant, a role which involved identifying and understanding significant challenges faced by clients and prospects and then coming up with valuable, effective and simplified ways to address those challenges.

The head of the organisation I was working for was a brilliant communicator, the sort of speaker who could charm the dogs out of the trees. He was a natural, like a Bill Clinton of IT.

I used to speak at our European User conferences, and one particular year, my boss – at very short notice – was asked to give a keynote speech and to some of the biggest captains of government, industry and finance throughout Europe. He was up until four in the morning standing in front of a mirror and rehearsing his talk. His partner being his only audience.Needless to say, the next day the pitch was a resounding success. That evening the delegates frequenting the bars and restaurants of Nice talked of little else. That was a great lesson in the importance of preparation, no matter how good you think you are.

I have a friend who is also a chef who doubled as an IT expert. We were working together on a very large and high-profile Business IT project in Cork. I once mentioned that I played the classical guitar, so I was asked if I would go and play in his restaurant one Saturday night, which I quite happily agreed to do. I arrived in Bantry in the afternoon just after lunch, and sat in the kitchen of the restaurant whilst my friend busily prepped the food for that evening.  It was the first time I had seen this up close, and he was brilliant at it. Everything that was done, the order in which it was done, how things were combined, cooked, cut and presented, made absolute sense. Nothing was unnecessary; everything had a coherence, cohesiveness and precision about it.

All of the diners that night were absolutely thrilled and delighted by the food set before them.

I casually remarked that if he applied this type of skill and preparation to data, then he would quite possibly revolutionise data integration, architecture and a management; which coincidentally he went on to do, and with no small success.

As Abe Lincoln once remarked, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Communicating with sense and sensibility

Although content and context are important communications aspects, one cannot aspire to be a great leader if one does not aspire to be a great communicator. This is a lesson that I have learned from observing great leaders and great orators up close, and also from observing great leadership and admirable leadership traits found in all walks of life.

The eighteenth century English theologian, dissenter, philosopher and scientist Joseph Priestly wrote that “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate” With such influences in mind I try to encourage my team members and other collaborators to use appropriate channels of communication, and one of the ways I use to this message across is with a list of options. I find that doing this early on can help to really simplify things and bring a greater degree of clarity to the table.  But as with many other aspects of management with this approach one too has to be flexible and realistic, and allow for the election of the most appropriate option according to the circumstances. My preference list is:

  1. Face-to-face
  2. Video conference
  3. Telephone
  4. Post-it note – or similar
  5. Texting
  6. Email
  7. Smoke signals

I will not touch on all of these options at this time, but I will highlight three: Face-to-face; telephone; and, email.

For me, face to face communication is by far the best option for many business situations. There are lots of touchy-feely types of empathic benefits to be gained from face-to-face, but there are also pragmatic reasons for choosing this option. Communication becomes more dynamic, clearer and interactive; there is less possibility of noise being introduced and of issues and questions being left unaddressed; and, it is far easier to create a positive rapport and a sounder business relationship.

I use the telephone when face-to-face is not an option and the use of video conferencing is inappropriate or unavailable – although with PC based video conferencing it is becoming more widely available. It has some of the advantages of face-to-face, especially if you can put a face to the name, that you have met the people you are communicating with.

Face-to-face communication with colleagues and suppliers (in the sense of project suppliers) is the preferred option, each and every time. If that face-to-face option is unavailable then the next choice should be either to set up a video conference (where available) or to call the person on the telephone. If that also is not a possibility, then email would be the fourth option.

If all else fails, bar that of using smoke signals, I resort to email. In my opinion, a manager (and certainly a leader) should never use email as the first or second option, especially with their direct reports, but as a means to reinforce a message already communicated, to confirm an event or action, and to distribute digital content. Email should be a reasonable communications option, but only when better options are not available or not appropriate.

What are the reasons for this protocol? It’s actually quite straightforward. It creates and cultivates group cohesion, cohesiveness and empathy; in short, it creates a real team from a disparate collection of talented individuals.

I know things are going well when my team members become enthusiastic and animated talkers, questioners and listeners. For me, a team that doesn’t talk is a symptom of something negative.

In this respect the greatest satisfaction I get is when a peer (another leader or manager) tells me that my teams are the most talkative, inquisitive and noisiest they have ever come across. This is good, very good. Because at the same time I know that they that the team and the individuals in it are more effective in doing what is needed, in delivering what  is required, and of rapidly addressing challenges and overcoming problems. They talk, question and listen, over and over again, they are comfortable doing so, and the results are frequently brilliant.

I know there are various reasons why people don’t follow these guidelines. Some people are shy or reticent to communicate face-to-face, others may think that they communicate better in writing, and a very small minority may simply not like communicating at all and may not even see the need for it –more on that in a future edition of Leadership 7s – But nonetheless I insist on trying to encourage this and other aspects of a simpler and more effective communications protocol.

If people feel that their communications or social skills are holding them back from attaining what they want to achieve, then there are remedies, and those remedies may consist of mentoring, coaching, classes or hiring a psychologist who specialises in improving people’s social skills.

The amazing power of ‘why?’

No, this is not about a new sect, a trending self-help book or a box-office smash from the wonderfully creative people at Disney. ‘Why’ is a word that comes from Middle English, a word whose origins can be found in Old Norse.

The architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman wrote that “In school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question.” In my childhood I had an aversion to asking questions until I got an answer that I actually understood, mainly so as not to offend the adults, who would frequently take offence by someone’s persistence, especially if that someone was a child.

Fortunately, my active involvement in politics and with many of the personalities in it, together with a concurrent study of philosophy, politics and economics, knocked that nonsense out of me.

This was when ideas such as the ‘art of the possible’ started to make sense to me, and I began to question more and more, but not once or twice or even three times, but until I had a satisfactory answer – and even if that ‘satisfactory’ answer was superficially ‘I am not going to answer that question’.

I learned how to ask questions from observing many forums for discussion, including parliamentary debates, and I would frequently walk down to the House of Commons in Westminster to catch a debate in the late afternoon or early evening. Later I picked up fantastic tips and tricks from many other places, from Ad-land to Zoology, and from Architecture to Zen.

Amongst the approaches to asking ‘why’ there is a very useful technique called ‘5 Whys’ developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used by the Toyota Motor Corporation during the development of manufacturing methodologies. It’s a powerful question-answer technique, and well worth serious consideration, at least as a stepping stone or as a reference point.

The power of ‘why’ is in its straightforwardness, it’s a hard question to obfuscate, and it’s a simple and powerful question. Many years ago I had a large poster in my office with a quote from Michael Schrage, it was a terse and to the point, “You can’t bullshit simplicity” it said. Michael could also have been talking about the power and simplicity of asking why.

Although, this is not a technique you should really nurture with loved ones, family and friends, in business it is absolutely essential. So, keep on asking ‘why’ until you get an adequate answer that is worthy of the term. You may ask ‘why do write that Mart?’ to which I might reply “that is a very good start”.

Larry King once aptly coincidentally described my feelings about asking ‘why’, when he stated “I love doing what I do. I love asking questions. I love being in the mix.” I couldn’t have put it better.

Motivate people, not teams

A lot of nonsense has been written about motivation. That’s normal, there’s a massive market created by people who would really like to know how to motivate others or themselves, and it’s to be expected that people will consequently try and turn a buck by feeding that market, whether they know their subject, or not.

A lot of what people call motivators are actually not motivators at all, or they even feature much further down the list of prime motivators than some people pretend, cocooned as they are from the real world of work. The biggest motivation for obtaining and maintaining work is compensation – not about being noticed, being appreciated or getting satisfying work related outcomes – but money and what that money can buy.

There are many approaches to motivating people, some make sense, others don’t, some make sense in some situations, and others don’t make sense in any situation at all.

The biggest mistake I see managers make with regards to motivation is to believe that they can motivate individuals by simply trying to motivate the whole team. I call this the ‘lazy arse approach to motivation’. It never really works, and usually comes with unintended consequences.

One other big mistake made by some managers can be found in their touching belief that they have a right and duty to try and mould people, team members, and that they possess both the authority and the knowledge to change what is quite often the innate character of people.  That’s a very dangerous combination in a manager.

Josep Guardiola – former Spanish international football player, FC Barcelona defensive midfielder and critically acclaimed football manager – said of his approach to the motivation of his players that “One should not try and change the players.  Each one is how he is. You have to look for that switch that turns them on, and you must know that this switch is different in every one of them”.  As a footballer, Pep knew how to get the best out of his own skills, physique and talent, and he played to the individual talent and skills of his fellow team members, and he carried that wisdom forward into the realm of leadership. He knows that we are all unique individuals, each with our own needs, wants and motivational switches.

Ross Perot encouraged people to “Lead and inspire people” adding “Don’t try to manage and manipulate people. Inventories can be managed but people must be lead.”

The keys here are inspiration, leadership and people. Not armies, not teams, not departments or work forces, but people, individuals.

Now there’s a darker side to this talking point, and one that some people will recognise because they have either done it, seen it or have been victim of it. As a leader, you motivate people, not teams, but, it’s quite easy to destroy motivation without going to the trouble of painstakingly wrecking the motivation of each and every individual, on a one to one basis.

The importance of listening well

I joined Sperry Univac in March of 1980. The previous year the Sperry Corporation had embarked on a revolutionary and innovative programme of coordinated advertising, PR and training ever seen in IT.

But the programme didn’t focus on hardware, software or services, but on effective listening.  It was translated into five languages, and tailored to meet the needs of managers, supervisors, marketing people, sales people, and the general employee population. The advertising slogan that accompanied the programme was “We understand how important it is to listen”.

The goals of the programme were to:

1 – Create an awareness of the importance of listening.

2 – Learn how to overcome the barriers to listening.

3 – Identify poor listening habits and practice.

4 – Improve responsive listening skills.

During the first twelve months of the worldwide initiative more than 13,000 Sperry Corporation employees, through 600 one-day listening seminars – designed by communications consultant Lyman k. Steil – had benefitted from participating in the programme.

After the first eighteen months the programme was evaluated and the findings reviewed, it indicated that:

1 – A far greater awareness had been created throughout the corporation as to the importance of listening well.

2 – People had become considerably more aware of the barriers to effective listening; they now knew how to identify these barriers and how to overcome them.

3 – Individuals, through the course of the program, were able to identify their own personal, listening habits and practices, and to think of ways to correct those shortfalls and to significantly improve their listening skills.

4 – Overall, responsive listening skills had significantly improved.

In 2003, Technical writer and Editor Polly Traylor remarked that “In the end, 44,000 Sperry workers learned the tenets of listening, which eventually became one of the reasons that they became such a business success.”

Leaders must nurture and hone effective listening skill otherwise they place themselves at a serious disadvantage.

Put it this way, as a leader you might be the most amazing talker this side of the Rockies, but if you can’t listen effectively then it would be like Nadal, Federer or Djokovic, having a great world-class tennis serve, but with a cultivated inability to accurately read the play or to return any difficult shot.

Humility is good

“Aidos, in Greek mythology, was the daimona (goddess) of shyness, shame and humility. She was the quality that restrained human beings from wrong.” – Source: Wikipedia

Great quotes on the subject of ‘humility’ abound. Jane Austen stated that “Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast”, words that can be contrasted with those of Adam Clarke, a theologian, who stated that “Pride works frequently under a dense mask, and will often assume the garb of humility.” That aside, my favourite ‘humility’ quote is from the legendary Yogi Berra, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility”.

A great leader, manager and coach should be able to project an authentic sense of humility, which is not the same as false modesty.  But can people become too humble? I think this is quite possible, and an exaggerated degree of humbleness can be somewhat problematic, rather like a troubling aberration. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir sort of alluded to this when she told people “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great”.

According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, “humble people are more likely to be high performers in individual and team settings. They also tend to make the most effective leaders.”

Another thing that is challenging in this respect in the globalised world in which we live are the differing perceptions of humility, and the degrees of humility that are required, accepted or disdained.

But what is humility?

For me humility can be described for what it isn’t. I see it as being an absence of arrogance and hubris. But who gets to decide when humility starts and arrogance begins? I have my own criteria, but I am often puzzled when I see happy and boisterous displays of elation over a successful outcome being described as arrogance, and worse.  On the other hand, I think we are too fast when it comes to misreading confidence as arrogance.

I have followed the Spanish national football team for the best part of three decades, and I was thrilled and delighted when they won the UEFA European Championship in 2008, the FIFA World Cup in 2010, and the UEFA European Championship again in 2012. I often remarked that I believed that they were the most talented, cohesive and humble team of football players I had ever had the privilege of watching. Which is why I was so surprised by so many Brits and South Americans who assured me that they hoped Spain would be “roundly humiliated and thrashed in Brazil, because they had been”, wait for it, “so big headed after winning so many big football titles in a row, that they should pay for their lack of humility, by being brought down a few pegs”.  As you might imagine, I wasn’t expecting that one, at all.

So, perhaps given the huge disparity in how humility in leadership – or anything else for that matter – is viewed around the world, maybe the best that we can hope for in the short term is that managers, leaders and coaches try to be as modest as reasonably possible, and that enough high-visibility leaders will act as role models with an authentic sense of humility and lead by example.

That’s all folks!

So, that is all from me in the second of what I hope will be many issues in the series Leadership 7s.

I would like to leave you with this fabulous quote from Rosa Parks… just because.

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Thank you so much for reading.

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