Posts Tagged leadership

My Brain is Full – 6 Things Leaders Can Do to Support Learning

As a leader and as a learning professional I value and encourage learning. I read broadly, I question with interest and I take the time to reflect. I encourage others to do the same. The world is changing at an incredible rate and if we are to continue to add value to the stakeholders that we are accountable to we need to internalize the act of learning in the same way that we do eating and sleeping.

There’s my elevator pitch. What I had forgotten was how much mental energy is required to support an active learning process on multiple fronts. Let’s make this post all about me. About a month ago I started a new role with a new organization. The recruitment process was an active one – my employer had a wish list of skills, competencies and other attributes that they wanted to bring into the organization that would allow them to deliver against their strategic plan. They did everything right…after all, they hired me. The interview process was very much a two way street. First and foremost I was looking for fit. As I’ve matured throughout my working career the lure of the big dollars and straight line advancement opportunities simply isn’t as strong as it used to be. I was looking for an organization that had similar values, that believed in the power of people, that encouraged growth, learning and risk taking. Above all else I wanted, no needed, to work somewhere that allowed me to feel that I was contributing to something greater that ME.  So on March 19 I began that latest part of my journey…for those that follow this blog you may have noticed a corresponding drop off in activity.

During the last five weeks I have started to develop an understanding of a brand new government driven industry. I have planned and budgeted for the upcoming fiscal year. I have participated in the inaugural leadership development offerings that has been launched in support of a new management framework within the healthcare industry, I have conducted focus groups on work that was done more than 18 months prior to my starting, I have started the process of merging two teams and assimilate myself as their leader. I have researched, identified process improvement opportunities, and taken the lead of one of our corporate strategic projects. Each act normal but for each I have had to look back even as I try to to build enough contextual understanding to drive the right forward looking actions. It’s been invigorating, challenging, fun and oh my goodness satisfying. I look forward to what the new day brings as a child does during the long lazy days of summer. But I have to say by the end of the day my brain is full. At the end of the working day that involves a commute, dinner (cooking or procuring) and the small talk of the day made with the family I am at best awake (I lay no claim to coherency at this point), and fast asleep on the sofa at worst.  My brain has developed a very healthy coping mechanism – it shuts down. It needs time to process and it needs for my body to catch up.  Each day it gets easier, the feeling of competency is starting to develop and my reflections and learning becomes more targeted as I build the contextual understanding to identify what is important and what is not.


Which got me to thinking…how much information is too much? At what point does the act of sharing information or learning become ineffective? The reality is that change is going to continue to drive the need to adapt and learn at an ever increasing pace. In the healthcare industry we are driven to do more for an aging population, with dollars that the government is looking to provide more stewardship over (and so they should…my tax dollars are in there somewhere!) and in a way that is different than how it has been done in the past. This process is being replicated in all industries and all companies.

How as leaders and learning professionals do we ensure that our people are supported to be effective in this type of change environment when there is simply so much to learn? It’s a question that is critical for us to get our heads around if we are to avoid the risk of our teams collectively shutting down simply because they can absorb no more.

Some of the answers may come out of the work related to the transfer of learning. In a nut shell – learning is better absorbed if there are some critical supports in place.

  1. Just in Time Learning. Don’t train it, share it, introduce it until such a time that your employee needs it and will be required to apply it. Use it or lose it is very true of all new learned skills.
  2. Make sure the learners are ready. Do they understand why they need to learn, change or adapt? Is there a driving value proposition that makes it worth their while to invest the time and mental energy? Do they have the skills to learn?
  3. Are you employing adult learning methodologies? Whether formal or informal learning is being employed – we all learn different. Some of your employees need to do, others need to see, others need to think it through and talk about it. If you are looking to deploy significant change have you catered to all types of learners?
  4. Don’t dilute the message. Identify what is a need to know and a nice to know. Focus on the need – your employees time and mental energy is precious. Use it on the big hitters…leave the small stuff for another time.
  5. Are you ready? Are you ready to coach, are you ready to help build mental bridges between the work, the change and the strategic directions? Are you supporting a learning environment?
  6. Teach it as they would do it. Theoretical learning can be fun but in a busy schedule most benefit from learning that applies directly to what you want me to do. Take my budget example  – in the preparation of the new budget I learned about the history, I learned about how public organizations are funded, I learned about the approval processes in place etc… it was real because it was relevant.

As leaders one of our key roles is to empower our people. Part of that empowerment is to ensure that we are creating the right supports for learning. And part of that empowerment is the gift of time – to absorb, apply and reflect. And part of that is to model the process… as leaders and learners… food for thought.


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Learning, leading and cultural change… the synergies.

This post definitely falls into the arena of “things that make you go hmmm”. 

Story telling has long been used to pass down wisdom, as a tool for learning and to entertain. A good story leads us down a path, it allows us to discover, at predetermined moments, little nuggets of wonder that make us want to follow the path to the end. At the end of the story we are left with a message that the author/or teller wants us to have but the experience we had in getting there was very much our own for we saw it through our eyes, our realities, our emotions…

Recently I had the distinct pleasure of preparing a story as part of an interview process.  The story, at its heart, is about people, it’s about massive change and it’s about learning to do things differently. It’s a story about human frailty and incredible human strength. It’s about the excitement of the possibilities.

In “business speak”  it is a story about selling myself as being the right person to help an organization implement and embed a new leadership framework, of supporting the creation and sustainment of a learning organization and of leading a diverse team to do great things.

The organization that I interviewed with has a clear vision and the change required to support that vision, on the surface, was massive. However as I built my story, as I reflected on what I had done in the past and researched what others had done in similar situations I had an “aha” moment that made my story a very easy one to tell.

A few facts first

  1.  the organization was in the process of moving from a heirachical leadership model to a distributed one.
  2. achieving the vision and the strategic imperatives was going to require a strong cultural change  – the way in which the work got done would have to change
  3. the organization was committed to creating a learning environment (this was not shared up front but it was an assumption I made given that I was applying for a role with “Learning” in the title

I developed my story by asking myself “what does effective/successful” <insert topic> look like. As I asked this question for leading, cultural change and learning it became very apparent that there in fact four key success drivers that are common to all.

Distributed Leadership Model
Cultural Change
Effective Learning
Clear roles and responsibilities. Vision.
Clear definition of end state.
Clear definition of end state
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Resources and support to meet goals
Resources to support the change
Resources to support the application of learning
Feedback and adjustment
Cultural audits and adjustment
Feedback and adjustment


First and foremost we need to know where we are heading.  We need a vision or end state that we are driving towards. As leaders, as employees or as human beings we are then able to self manage our alignment to that end state.

Secondly we need to be able to measure our success. Are we moving in the right direction? Are we seeing the changes in the way that we expect? Are we driving the right things?

Thirdly, do we have the right resources and tools in place for people to be successful?

And lastly we need to ensure that we are collecting the feedback we need to ensure that we can make course corrections as we go. This is a critical step for all leaders. Things change, people are unpredictable,  stuff happens – we can not always plan for every possible outcome but we can certainly build in an agile feedback and correction methodology that will allow us to keep steering to the vision.

As I was writing my story it became apparent to me that if these four success drivers were effectively cared for the individual stories of leadership, cultural change and learning would naturally merge to create a rich tale that could drive towards the strategic changes that this, and any other, organization was driving towards.

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The gift of the mirror – self reflection as a learning tool for leaders.

When you walk into most call centre environments you will likely see a small personal mirror on the desk of every phone agent. While it can serve to stroke ones vanity or serve as a personal grooming tool the real purpose of the mirror is to remind people to smile. Your verbal tone is very different when you smile – and when you are on the phone tone is one of the few tools that you have at your disposal to build relationships.

The humble mirror is often also flouted as an insult or rebuke as in “she needs to look in the mirror” meaning that perhaps “she” should be looking at herself for the answers/issues/ problems rather than looking at others around her. While the usage is very different than the call centre example the end result is the same – it is about relationships and human connections.

The mirror serves as an intimate 360 feedback session – a session with our ourselves. Good leadership means different things to different people but at its core most of us agree that is defined by vision, personal integrity, respect and relationships. We may use different words and we may have a few other criteria that we use but on the whole our views are very similar.

As a leader, I like to use my mirror for two purposes.

The first is to assess  “how did I do”? The questions can relate to today, this week, this quarter, this year.

  • Did I share the vision. Have I communicated it well?
  • Have I used my time effectively? Efficiency is only part of the question, the other is am I spending my limited time on the things that matter most?
  • Did I provide and ask for feedback?
  • How have I grown? Did I learn something new?
  • What have I done differently?
  • Did I model our shared values?
  • Have I treated everyone with the respect?
  • Did I earn my salary?

The second is a more focused look into the mirror when dealing with an issue or crisis. The type of questions I have asked include:

  • Could I have done anything to avoid the crisis from happening
  • Did I ask the right questions to understand the root cause of the problem
  • Was my response appropriate for the problem? Did I over react? Under-react? Did my reaction support the vision.
  • What will I do differently next time?
  • Have I cared for the “people” element involved (coaching, supporting, communicating)
  • What did I learn? How do I need to disseminate that learning?

The strength of the mirror is that there is no need to lie or fool anyone. It’s an opportunity to take an honest look at “you”. The fact of the mirror is that it shows all – the good, the bad and the ugly. The gift is that it allows you to learn and grow as a leader. It allows you to develop a true level of self awareness so that perhaps next time the bad and the ugly can be countered in the moment and quite frankly that makes for much nicer conversations with “you”.

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Creating a Thinking Environment

“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th Century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st Century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker.”

Peter Drucker

My initial motivation for the post “Leaders Still Need Time to Think” came from my observations that technology and ease of access to data points was driving a warped speed of business that seemed to cut out the critical step of deep thinking. Time constraints and time bound expectation are stopping us from pursing a level of thinking that allows us to explore beyond the obvious.

Time To Think by Nancy KlineAs I was writing that piece I was asking myself – how do we do that? How do we as leaders create an environment that not only gives people permission to think but also encourages them to think? My research very quickly showed me that others, not surprisingly, have asked these questions before me. The most noted a woman by the name of Nancy Kline who authored a book called Time To Think in which she offers some very practical tools designed to support a thinking environment.

What follows is based loosely on what Nancy has articulated with a good measure of Ann thrown in. For an indepth understanding of the tools I highly recommend Nancy’s book.

1. Time. Let’s start with time, simply to create a link to my previous post. Giving people time think without the contraints of looming deadlines or meeting packed days will naturally result in a higher level of thinking. Nancy refers to this as Ease. Many of us spend our days in meetings. Back to back. Different topics. Different people. We rarely have the time to assimilate the information that is being shared during those meetings let alone move through a process of critical thinking.

2. Attention and encouragement. If someone comes to us with a problem or request for help we need to ensure firstly that we empower that person to find a solution for themselves. Give them permission to think. Listen without interruption. Quite often people share what they think we want to hear or what we think they should think. Let me give you an example. I have been involved in an enterprise wide project that was led by a leader who had very strong opinions, who struggled with ideas that did not support their own and who would consequently “decree” direction. The process was an uncomfortable one. We are naturally programmed to find a way to remove our discomfort and unfortunately one solution was to give this leader exactly what they wanted. This particular project struggled to define its scope, team members disengaged from the process of thinking, attrition was higher than expected and we lost the benefit of the combined thinking that the team members brought to the table. We simply could not capitalize on the expertise in the room.

As a leader your role is to remove the judgement and encourage people to think for themselves. Listen deeply. A few years ago I worked with a Learning Manager who, in response to hearing the term “I don’t know” would ask the question “what would you say if you did know”. More often than not this freed the person to speak in a more ‘hypothetical” way that tooks away the onus of having to know. More often than not they provided sound insight – they just needed validation without fear of judgement. I have used this technique many times with great success and it has become one of my favourite “coaching” questions.

3. Ask penetrating questions that are designed to strip away the assumptions that we use to limit our thinking.

4. Provide information. Sound thinking can only occur if we have understand what we are dealing with. Transparency, clear communication, and open sharing are all key foundational requirments to nuture a thinking environment. As a human being I am willing to invest my time and effort in “thinking” if I know there is value. If we feel that information is being withheld, which then throws into question the validity of that thinking, we are less likely to want to make that investment. As a leader you need to not only provide the information, you also need to encourage others to do the same. We need to all trust that we have the necessary information from which to think our way into great things.

5. Create equality in an environment that supports thinking. Human beings are more likely to listen and be attentive to others when we know that we will have an opportunity to also share our thoughts. Establish meeting protocal that gives everyone the opportunity to speak without interruption. Utilize tools such as brainstorming and round robins to solicit input. Create a process that allows people to go away and think, then add further input. Collobartive sites are one tool that enables this in a way that doesn’t necessarily require more meetings. Equality also means we remove the heirachical value attached to position power. Thinking is best supported in an environment such as the distributed leadership model. Your organization may not be structured that way but you, as a leader, have the ability to influence a team/project/department environment that has the right supporting characteristics.

6. Treasure and promote diversity. Diversity in background and experiences will naturally bring with it a diversity in thinking. The differences between us will help add a richness and quality to our collaborative thinking that our similarities simply cannot.

And one thrown in based on my own recent experiences

7. Think like an author. I have discovered that I look at my world very differently as I try to articulate a concept or thought or opinion. I question because I want to learn, I think because I want to assign meaning and I want to share that learning. I research because I understand that my expertise needs to be augmented and I seek out others thoughts because they challenge my own. Thinking like an author encourages you to go a little deeper with an inquisitive mind than you may otherwise would.

This is exactly what we want our people to do. You, as the leader, have the power to make a contribution to this century by enabling the thinking power of your more important assets. Your people.

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A timeless lesson in leadership from Atticus Finch

During the weekend, I had the great pleasure of watching To Kill a Mockingbird on the big screen in all of its revitalized, digitized glory. The movie is well made and the story well told but what surprised me was how well this story has stood the test of time. It’s storylines and its messages are still as relevant as they were 50 years go when the movie first hit the big screen. I’m sure that 50 years ago people were marvelling at how relevant the messages were in relation to the 1930’s, the backdrop for the story itself.

The story of To Kill a Mockingbird is most often discussed through the lens of racial relations but it could as easily be viewed as a lesson in parenting, personal integrity, tolerance or leadership. My personal filters these days are finely tuned to all things leadership and it was through this lens that I found myself watching the movie and reflecting afterwards.

Things I learned from Atticus Finch.

1. personal integrity is not defined by our times.

2. human decency is not defined by our times.

3. courage is not defined by our times.

4. respect is not defined by our times

We often hear of abhorrent behaviour or acts excused by the way of “being a product of the environment”. Atticus is the embodiment of that not being a given truth. He lived in a society that has as it’s “truth” that a mans skin colour was evidence of a mans value. The expectations, laws and practices within that society dictated behaviour of all men, no matter their colour. They each had a role to play and each typically played it well. Tension occurred only if one man, be they black or white, stepped outside of their designated roles. Within this backdrop the character of Atticus Finch was created.

Atticus shows us that even with a system of inequity a single person can make a huge difference. Atticus made his difference by creating a microcosm of equality. He created respect. He created the opportunity for his client to have a voice. He quietly stood up for what was “right” not in the eyes of his society but what he knew to be “right’ . He didn’t buck the system, he worked quietly within it and yet when it was necessary he had a voice that stood for reason. Not heated emotion. He lived his values through his work and throughout his life. His children were a reflection of that – they saw beyond the colour, the beyond the disability and through the hatred. They saw only people.

In Atticus I saw the things that I personally look for in a leader, that many of us look for in a leader. On many professional discussion boards the traits of leadership is a common topic. Perhaps for reflection in another post is why, so many years after the making of a movie such as To Kill a Mockingbird, in a time where our political, human rights and human resource environments are geared to make it so much easier to be good leaders, are there still so many examples of “bad” leaders. What makes it so tough for us as human beings to stay true to what is “right” when the world around us largely wants us to be “right”?

Atticus reminded me that leadership starts with one person…me. It’s not about the big L leader title (although I have held that for many years)…it’s about the ability to lead by doing what I know to be right.

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Making it ok to ask for help.

In an ideal world we hire great people, we set them on the way to success, we support them and our people do great things. The employee feels appreciated and rewarded, as leaders we experience the sense of satisfaction that comes with making good hiring decisions and our organizations thrive.

In the real world, while the objective may be the same, the reality is often quite different. A myriad of roadblocks, issues, and challenges get in the way of the utopia. And as leaders we attempt to deal with them. Dealing, leading or managing through an issue however is possible only if you are aware. What happens when one of your team is struggling and you are not aware? Why are you not aware?

Too many times people are afraid to ask for help. The reasons for not asking for help can be categorized into a few broad categories

1. Fear. This is by far the largest category and include fear of being labeled weak in an environment that values self sufficiency. Fear of retaliation, of not being taken seriously, of not being supported, of being ridiculed or bullied often have us hold our tongues.

2. Don’t know we need it. Sometimes we don’t know that we need help until a problem has escalated.

3. Need for control. Noone can do it better than I can…right?

As leaders there are a number of things we can do to create an environment where it is ok to ask for help.

1. Model the behaviour. Openly engage others with more expertise than yourself. Leadership is not about knowing everything, its about bring resources to the table in a way that creates an optimal result.

2. Make it safe to ask. Personal judgement and disrespect play no part in the workplace. Employees need to feel comfortable that they can ask a question and be responded to with respect. A response may be an answer, guidance or a coaching moment, each perfectly valid responses, but in each case the employee should feel supported in their efforts to find an answer.

3. Do not take questions personally.

4. Ensure that all employees understand your organizations escalation process. Show your support of the process.

5. Create opportunity for employees to ask for help. You have informal daily, and hopefully, regular formal touch points with your teams. Ask them what you can be doing to support them. Are they experiencing any road blocks that you can help remove? Become a servant leader.

6. Demand and demonstrate an environment of open communication, personal integrity and respect.

If we as leaders can remove the real or perceived stigma associated with asking for help we foster an environment that not only allows employees to safely seek and find information, we also create a more collaborative work environment that taps into the knowledge of many and it encourages healthy risk taking and innovation. All things that support the ideal world we strive for.

Next time: Asking for help – doing it effectively

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Talent Gone Bad – Bad Luck or Bad Leadership?

In a casual conversation today I encountered the term “talent gone bad”. The reference was specifically pointing to the number of seemingly talented individuals that had been brought into a project but then didn’t meet the expectations that had been attributed to them.

Bad talent, at its core, is dangerous and expensive. Individuals that fall into this category may demonstrate a number of behaviours ranging from low productivity to subversiveness. Bad talent can sink organizations and sink leaders. Common sense and in fact common practice is that bad talent is removed from the organization as soon as possible. A leader who manages bad talent tends to be seen as having a high level of credibility – sending the message that poor performance is not acceptable and that they will not tolerate the impact of bad talent on the organization, on their team or on the bottom line. I buy in. Over the years I have had my fair share of bad talent discussions where I’ve led people down the path of self realization that perhaps this wasn’t the right organization for them. Those discussions however have always come at the end of a due diligence process. A process that involves honest communication, the opportunity and support to shift performance against expectations, and frequent feedback. Rather selfishly, at the end of the day, I want to go to bed with a clear concience knowing that I “did the right thing”. This level of integrity is my baseline. All other is gravy.

Bad talent can be attributed to any number of things including, but definitely not restricted to

1. A poor hiring process.

2. Incompetence

3. Bad cultural fit

4. A change in the employees circumstances negatively impacting work (illness, death, financial)

5. Lack of direction, goals and feedback

6. Low productivity caused by lack of focus, procrastination and motivation

As hiring managers we occassionally get one wrong. Over the past fifteen years I can think of two instances where I over-rode my inner “talent radar” to bring someone into my team. The first time I felt sorry for the gentleman. He so badly wanted to develop into a learning role and I was offering a six month developmental position. Given that he some relevant experience, was smart and motivated there should have been little risk. But in the back of my mind sat a kernel of questioning. During the 6 months that kernel grew into a tree of whining, unproductive, and excuse making mess. I had made a mistake and the impact was not only negative on my credibility as a leader but also on the gentleman himself. He was not able to move to a position of success. He was bad talent but I also owned a share of that responsibility. In case you’re wondering the second time wasn’t as spectactuarly bad but it was bad enough in that we brought someone in that couldn’t be, and wasn’t, successful in the particular choas that we were hiring into.

We all have our stories. Most of us  can count these on one hand and they serve to not only make us better leaders but also better hiring managers. But what happens when talent going bad becomes a common occurance? At what point in time do we cast our eyes and focus on the process, leaders or system rather than at the individuals themselves?

If you are finding that your attrition, regretted, assisted or otherwise, is higher than normal in any group or any given project then the red flags should be dancing brightly in front of your eyes. As leaders we need to be asking ourselves a number of key questions, no matter how uncomfortable they are:

1.Is my hiring process robust enough? Are we asking the right questions to properly identify the behaviours we need to see? Did we know what we were looking for? Did we properly articulate the expectations to the candidates throughout the process?

2. Have expectations changed? Is this really a case of talent gone bad or have that needs have changed in a way that doesn’t allow this candidate to now be successful? We should maybe ask whether the expectation are realistic? What yardstick am I measuring against?

3. Have we provided clear goals, direction and frequent feedback?

4. Is there a common hiring manager. This is one of those tough questions but we need to be looking for two things. Firstly the logic behind the hires and secondly the ongoing management of the employees. A gap or issue in either of these areas may very well result in unmotivated, disengaged and hence unproductive employees. When I see multiple cases of talent gone bad, especially when performance was initially applauded, I look very closely at the management/ leadership involved. Multiple people don’t “go bad” but mulitple people may have a negative reaction to a bad environment or a poor leader.

If you have a case of multiple “talent gone bad” on your hands odds are you also have a case of low employee morale on your hands that goes beyond the poor performers. There will be others in your team who have not spoken up, who have gone quietly under the radar and who are suffering through the issues because they feel they have no choice… the multiple “talent gone bad” may actually be a gift. They are visible and offer you the opportunity to identify and address the systemic issues. “Talent gone bad” occassionally happens. Mulitple cases of talent gone bad is caused.

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