Lessons in Leadership

I was once asked these questions:

Who is the best leader you have ever worked for?  How did this person make you feel?

They are good questions.  And I had an immediate answer.  Being led by someone that you like and respect is of course a memorable thing.  Perhaps because, sadly, it is all too rare.

As a subject, vast numbers of words have been written about leadership.  Traits.  Qualities.  Theories.  A trawl through professional networking sites will provide you with a plethora of clickbait on the subject, often offering contradictory ideas about what good leadership is all about, what successful leaders do every day, and so on.

When I was asked these questions, we were using the appreciative inquiry model.  Naturally therefore, they are constructed positively.  A valid and useful technique.

But it occurred to me that there is much too that we can learn from poor leadership.  If you flip the questions that were posed to me, I reckon that most people have an equally easy answer.  Who is the worst leader you have ever worked for?  And how did they make you feel?

Ask questions like these and most people have a story; one about something that they have experienced or witnessed.  I know that I do.  Heck, I have worked for an organisation that reserved certain toilets for the bottoms of the Executive team, lest they had to share the seat with the hoi polloi.  That was one interesting piece of internal comms.

For me, some of my biggest lessons in leadership came from observing the kind of leader that I didn’t want to be.  From reflecting on how those people had made me feel, and resolving never to do the same to someone else.

I didn’t want to be the kind of leader who didn’t respond to the needs of my team, or their emails or holiday requests.  It taught me the importance of dealing with the hygiene stuff.

I didn’t want to be the kind of leader who didn’t care about the professional development of the people that worked for me.  It taught me how much this really matters when it comes to engagement and motivation – mine and everyone else’s.

I certainly didn’t want to be the kind of leader who forgot what it was like to be earning the minimum wage but was happy to talk about their executive package in front of others. A lesson from my very first job….. and I have never forgotten exactly how that made me feel as I worried about my student loan repayments.

There is learning in all our experiences, the positive and the less so positive.

As leaders (official or otherwise), we must never underestimate the power we have to be a role model – for good or other.  Which one are you?


It’s my performance review…..

It’s my performance review on Monday.  One of my friends said this to me at the weekend.  The tone of voice was disdainful.  The FFS at the end merely implied.

When you work in HR, people talk to you about their work all the time.  I quite like it.  I especially like to hear from people on the receiving end of the people stuff that I do, so to speak.

I’ve got to fill in a bloody form in advance about what I do.  Shouldn’t my manager actually know that already? And it is called a performance management meeting.  My performance doesn’t need managing.  What am I, 12?


But I wasn’t surprised at anything she had to say.  My first thought was that her manager was probably looking forward to it about as much as she was.  Which clearly wasn’t all that much at all.

Here’s the thing. Lots of HR departments don’t like performance reviews either.  They make us become something that we don’t really want to be; all about compliance.  We monitor how many have been completed, the scores that have been attributed.  But for HR, this reduces the conversation with people managers to being all about the what have you done and the when can I expect.  A percentages game.  And a completed form just tells you precisely nothing about quality, only quantity.  Anyone can do a crappy review.

So in the typical performance review approach, we have something that all of the parties involved have an issue with.  How did it get to this?  I can say with all certainty this is not limited to my friends organisation.  It is everywhere.

Performance meetings, appraisals, annual reviews, 121s.  Call them what you will. They should be a good thing.  Positive. A chance, every so often, to step outside of the operational day to day stuff, and just talk. Talking and sharing. Feedback, learning, what is going well and what is not.  A look back and a look forward.  Not about the form but the person.  A conversation between two people; the most impactful relationship that the employee has on their satisfaction at work.  These are not difficult concepts.  But we have made them so.

So why is the annual review so reviled?   There are many reasons.  Sometimes it is the process itself. It has been made too complex, or includes something as awful as stack ranking.   Sometimes it is a training issue.  Often, I have found it comes down to one simple thing.  We aren’t that good at having meaningful conversations at work.

Oh, we can talk about the agenda and the project plan.  The latest customer complaint and product development roadmap. An update on the financials and just how is that email marketing campaign working out?  Even the price of the coffee in the vending machine. Surface stuff.  Day to day operational stuff.   But personal stuff?  Not so much.

For all the criticisms made of it, to get rid of the performance review, we need to replace it with something better. There lies part of the problem; we haven’t really got anything to replace it with, so we keep plodding on, doing what we have always done. For the most part, what you need to replace formalised performance review processes with, is maturity.  Maturity of leadership, maturity of conversation.

And that is much harder than filling out a form.

172.3 Things Great Leaders Do Before Breakfast

They tell me that starting a blog with a number would get me loads of hits. So I thought I’d try it. Is the number big enough do you think? To get me lots of traffic, plenty of shares and retweets?

Because that’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it?

I’m assuming so. Because the excess of stuff like this sure as hell ain’t helping anyone do the day job.

Lists abound. How to be a great leader, how to be an authentic leader, how to be the bestest ever leader. 5 things, 5 more things, even 10 totally different things. New models new badges new bandwagons. Different definitions on a daily basis.

It’s just LinkedIn like fodder.

So tell me this. When did you last read an article like this and go out and do something different? When did you last read something of this nature and found it was truly memorable? Or did you just scan it, share it, move on to the next one?

Stop the timeline I want to get off.

The lists aren’t helping. We are not helping people. It is not changing anything, improving anything, adding to the debate.

It is time to call this stuff for what it is.

Largely twaddle.

Note, this post was sitting in drafts when Julie Drybrough published this post, which is well worth a read: http://fuchsiablueblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/leadership-is-dead-long-live-leadership-an-experiment/

hrgem for tile

Red Deckchairs

I’ve blogged before the about things I learned from my Father about work and leadership.

When I changed jobs a little while back, he gave me some advice. He told me to leave my deckchairs at home.

It’s a leadership story of his that I quite like, and it goes a little like this.

I’ve got a red deckchair. When I go to the seaside I take my red deckchair with me. I’ve had it for years and I like it. It is comfortable to sit in. When I get to the seaside, I take it to my favourite spot; I set it up and there I sit. I strongly advise you don’t try and sit in my deckchair for it is mine and I like it. One day, I went to a different seaside. I took that deckchair with me. I tucked it under my arm, I got it out and put it right up, even though all the other deckchairs at that seaside were blue. I don’t like blue deckchairs. So I suggested that everyone else put away their blue deckchairs. Because I want them to have red ones. I pushed and persuaded and persisted until everyone else had a red deckchair too.

I think he is talking about habit, and the comfort of having things just how we like them, just how we are used to them. I think he is talking about how easy it is to turn up somewhere new and set up your red deckchairs, and sod the existing blue ones, without even realising it. I think he is also talking about imposing and impatience. About not listening. About the arrogance of the I know best.

Maybe when you turn up somewhere new, those blue deckchairs that you find there are old. Maybe those blue deckchairs are broken. Perhaps a red one would be better. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the blue deckchairs are just right, for that place. Maybe what’s needed is a mixture of the two, or a whole new colour. Later. When you have assessed. When you have considered, listened, learned.

Do you have a red deckchair?

Is it comfortable?

If only.

My early HR roles were in industrial relations. Or employee relations, as it came to be called. It was often said then, that you get the employee relations that you deserve; a phrase I always felt held much truth.

Today, employee relations is a term we use less and less. Instead we talk of engagement and of culture. Today, it would be more apt to say that you get the organisational culture that you deserve, the employee engagement that you deserve. There are of course always some external factors that you cannot control or influence, but in the main I believe that this is also true.

We have a blame culture
We have a culture of presenteeism
We have a bureaucratic culture
It is very hierarchical here
It’s not the sort of place that….

Culture does not stand alone. It is not owned by an individual. It is not a corporate vision, a mission statement, or a list of values. These things do not create a culture, or change a culture. Culture is history, stories, beliefs, conversations, anecdotes, language, leadership shadow. What is said and what is done. Culture is people.

I’ve often seen people, including senior leaders, bemoan their culture and blame their culture for their organisational ills, as if they are not part of it, standing outside of it, not responsible for any of it. If only our people would take some responsibility and make their own decisions they say, whilst asking to be kept abreast of everything, sign off everything, have the final approval. If only our managers would do their performance reviews and give their teams good feedback they say, when they haven’t bothered to do the same and cancel every 121.

HR can be guilty of this too. If only the managers, the exec team, the employee, the trade unions, would do this, that or the other. Then everything would be just fine. Like we have no part to play in the change we want to see.

If you are a leader, and you see something in your organisational culture that you want to improve or change, it starts with you. And if you don’t like what you see, it is always worth asking yourself, if you are part of the problem.

Can you fix it?


It sounds good doesn’t it? Like something we would want in our organisations. Something worth striving for. Aiming for.

We need to empower our people, says the books, the articles, the leadership courses.
We say that empowerment is something we want. But whilst it sounds good, some managers, some organisations, some cultures, don’t really want it at all, underneath all of the positive words. They think they do, say that do, maybe then even believe they do. But they can’t live it, support it, make the change.

Because too many of us, deep down, like to make the decisions. Because we think we have all the answers because we’ve been there, done that, own the experience t-shirt. Because we think we know best. And in HR particularly, we are used to being the fixers. And this means that we are part of the problem.

If you really want empowerment, then first there must be trust. There must be a willingness to relinquish control. But most of all, we must get out of the habit of trying to fix everything, for everyone.

We all do it. Someone comes to us with a problem. We go straight into fix mode. Offering solutions, advice, wisdom, experience. As managers and leaders we can sometimes take on roles without even realising it. The parent, the advisor, the agony aunt, the solver of all the problems. In HR, we do everything we can to spot potential problems and fix them before they even arise. We write policies, issue guidance, put procedures in place. We prescribe how situations should be dealt with. Quote the precedent of how we dealt with it last time.

We do it for the best of reasons, but with the worst of outcomes.

Because we take away the responsibility, the ownership, the opportunity to learn and grow. We take away the person’s chance to think for themselves.

So here’s the thing. I’m a fixer. My CV is littered, right to the start of my career in HR, with roles where fixes were needed, challenges abounded. I was required to solve stuff, improve stuff, fix stuff. I did it. And I am still doing it. I have a medical bag in the office in case anyone feels ill. I always have an extra pen in case someone needs one. I’ve always got a tissue. I’ve always got the answer, or so I think. It happens at home and it happens at work. So I’m going to try to be better. To coach more than I tell. To listen more than I talk. To question more than I impart.

If you genuinely want empowered people, a culture in which people will take on the responsibility, make the decision, fix it for themselves, then first, we must put away our toolbox. Even if we think we know best.

Because as leaders, we can’t fix everything, and nor should we even try.

Never Mind the Buzzwords

If you’ve read my blog before, you will know I get a little frustrated about how often we find ourselves making simple concepts difficult and generally jumping on the latest bandwagon or shiny new thing.

Lately, I am seeing more links and articles, books, books and checklists on authentic leadership. The concept has been around for a while I know, but there’s been plenty in my timeline of late.

There is plenty of information available tell you how to be an authentic leader. A quick Google search will give you a multiplicity of definitions for the term. Apparently it is all about being real, genuine, honest, open, true to yourself and your values. It is all about building trust.

One of the suggested explanations for what authentic leadership means, talks about bringing your true self to work. I like to think that I bring my real self to work every day: heck, I have a One Direction calendar up in the office. But what if my real, true, genuine self, underneath it all, authentic self looks a bit like this:

I will never get round to doing your performance reviews
I will sit on your expenses form and holiday requests for weeks
I will never get round to returning your calls or responding to your emails
I value a big fat pay cheque
I need lots of ego stroking
It’s all about me!

Because the problem with authenticity as a concept, is that it does not necessarily mean good. You be authentic and crap, all at the same time.

I’m not suggesting good leadership isn’t important. Of course it is. But we need more terminology, more checklists, more buzzwords, more versions of the same and new wine in old bottles like we need a hole in the head.

There is however one part of the dictionary definition of authentic that does feel right to me when it comes to leadership. Not a copy. Just like I’ve blogged before. Take that HR thing, that work thing, that leadership thing, and define it for yourself, where you are. Take the learning, the insights, the good examples, and make it your own.

So, can’t we just focus on making management and leadership better, and never mind the buzzwords?

And some more thoughts on the subject from Doug Shaw here.

This thing, leadership

Not seen as often as we would like, the real leader. Much mentioned. Described in detail. In the classrooms, the course, the books, the blogs the magazine specials. The top 10 leadership qualities. Leading for the future. The authentic leader. Lessons in leadership. Leadership for dummies. The laws of leadership. 10 things great leaders do before breakfast.

We’ve read the books, been on the course, and got the t-shirt. You could spend your life reading leadership books, frameworks, checklists. Trying out the new approaches, the latest thinking, the recent best seller. Scratch the surface and so many are just dresing up the same old wine in new bottles. But despite the plethora of information, the investments made, so many people, so many organisations, are still getting it so wrong.

People who think they can, think they do, think they are. People who pretend. Read a book, tick a box. Read a list, check it off. Got a problem im your company? We will send people on a two day course, of course!

We all want good leadership in our organisations. We certainly spend enough time talking about it, spending money on courses to deliver it. But do we know what it really means, to us, where we are, in our own organisation, day to day?

If the strived for true leader turns up tomorrow, at your place, would you know it, recognise it, feel it? How would you know you had got it, anyway?

I hear talk of leadership, everywhere. It is the ‘thing’. The term is so overused I barely know what it means anymore. No one can seem to agree on its definition, what the qualities are, how you show it, how you live it, which type is best. But then again, if we did, the books would stop selling. The links would stop circulating.

I do know that the answer isn’t in a top ten list. I do know that I can’t put it in a checklist and tell people to follow it. I do know that a quick course isn’t a cure all. Leadership isn’t universal, it is contextual. What it means to me, to my organisation, my industry, the people I work with, is different to you and yours. So define it for you and your place.

Create your own leadership list.

Creating the best workplace on earth

I’m listening to the opening keynote at CIPD13 by Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee, who are talking about creating great places to work.

They argue that effective leadership excites people to exceptional performance, and exceptional performance is not a luxury for organisations, but a necessity for survival.

People want effective leaders, and they want those leaders to be authentic. But authentic leadership needs authentic organisations. The new task of leadership is to create organisations in which employees can find their authentic selves, and follow their dreams. People spend most of their lives at work – so employees need to be able to be themselves there.

Leaders must be able to answer the question: ‘why would anyone want to work here?’

Goffee and Jones believe that employees want these things, in their dreams.

– Difference. Not just diversity, but a chance to be different, to celebrate difference. Cohesion without homogenisation.

– Radical honesty. To know what is really going on. No spin. No sanitisation. Share information, don’t hoard it. Tell the truth before someone else does.

– Extra value. To be able to work in an organisation in which your strengths are magnified. Employers and employees adding value to each other. Letting people grow through what they do.

– Authenticity. To know what the organisation stands for. Not a wordy mission statement sitting unread on the corporate intranet but a real sense of where the company has come from and where it is going.

– Meaning. To do work that really means something. Meaning comes from many sources; connections, community, cause.

– Simple rules. To work somewhere free from stupid rules. Have good rules. Simple and agreed ones that make sense to people, and feel fair.

So, could you answer the first question: why would someone want to work in your organisation? And if you are a leader, why would anyone want to work for you.

How does the organisation you work stack up against these criteria?

Can we DREAM of creating a great place to work?

Let HR lead the way.

Please Sir, can I be empowered?

I attended a networking event recently, where I found myself talking to a business leader who bemoaned to me that his people didn’t take action. Didn’t take the initiative. ‘They just need to be empowered’, he said to me. I asked him what this would look like, how he would know when he had it, when he had been successful in creating this empowered organisation. He looked at me for a while. ‘They’ll just get on and do stuff, without waiting to be asked’, was the reply.

The problem with the conversation was twofold. Firstly, look at his first statement. There is no recognition, that he, as a senior member of staff, has the responsibility for creating this environment, this belief within his team that they can and they should. That it will be okay, and there won’t be any blame, repercussions, liability.

There are some people that will just make the decision for themselves to take the ownership, make the decision, assume the power. To JFDI, if you will. But they are few are far between. Most people need to be told that it is okay. They need reassurance and guidance, a signal. And this is the responsibility of the leaders of the organisation.

When people ask me for permision to do something simple, everyday, straightforward, I see it as a failure. A failure that I have failed to communicate to them previously that it okay for them to make their own decision, just get on and do what they think is best, weigh up the pros and cons and crack on.

Telling people it is okay is just the start. You need to continually show that you mean it. Recognise people for trying, deciding, getting on with it. Encourage those that step forward first. Inspire the rest to do the same. Even if the whatever it is doesn’t work out quite like it would have done if you had done it, made the call, signed some formal approval document, then embrace it just the same.

If you really want empowerment that is. it’s a nice sounding word. Its sounds collaborative, engaging, like the sort of thing a good leader should want. But not everyone is ready for the reality of handing over their power to others.

Leaders. If you want empowerment then it is your job to create it. Create the culture in which people feel that they can. Power is vested within you by virtue of the role you hold, your job title with the important sounding words. Only you can give it away to others. Let them know the parameters in which they can work, and then get the hell out of their way.

Be brave. And let someone else JFDI.

Being the change

I wrote a blog earlier this week, about how one individual, standing up and speaking out, can make all the difference. Can start something, all by themselves. So today, I decided to take my own advice, and start the change I wanted to see.

Like plenty of companies, the building in which I work is fairly bland, uninspiring. It’s grey. We went for the practical carpet (grey). Then we added some practical filing cabinets (also grey). And then some practical furniture (much of it, grey). It wasn’t quite 50 shades, but it wasn’t far off.

I wanted to change it. Inject some colour, some energy, some light. I wanted to make it a nicer place to come to, for everyone.

I could have got some quotes for the work. Written a business case. Requested some Cap Ex. Got the official sign off and engaged a contractor.

I could have waited for all the time that process would have taken. But I didn’t want to. I wanted it done, now. And more importantly, I would rather spend my budget on something less boring instead.

So today, I painted the office. I went off to the DIY store and got some brightly coloured paint. I roped in a dozen other willing people, and for three hours this morning we painted the communal areas in our building. Pink, purple, blue.

I put out an internal comms asking for help. I promised nothing but biscuits, and a sense of doing a good thing. A something for the common good thing. And a willing few answered the call.

For three hours we came together as a team. People that donn’t normally work closely together, came together. We played music, we sang and we laughed while we painted. After three hours of hard work, our offices are a nicer place to be.

And it felt awesome.

Be the change you want to see…
at work
at home
within yourself
as a leader
every day.

Let HR lead the way.

Reasons to do Nothing.

Have you ever seen a messed up, mixed up organisational culture? I’m fairly sure you have. If it’s not your own, there have been a fair few in the news lately. Organisations, or parts thereof, that are unhealthy, unpleasant, ailing, even toxic. Where bad practice or bad behaviour lives and breathes.

When culture is broken, minimisation, metaphors and excuses abound.

It’s always been like this.
It is what it is.
It isn’t that bad.
It’s just how it is here.
It’s their (someone, anyone’s) fault.

When there is something broken within an organisation, it is usually in plain sight. Whether it is leadership, culture, behaviour or just one single individual, it’s rarely hidden. You may not always understand the cause, but you know when something stinks. It is easy to tell ourselves that if we witnessed something wrong we would take action, but research consistently shows that we are actually much more likely to ignore it, look away, minimise it, do absolutely nothing.

Most people, when faced with a challenging situation, become passive observers. Sitting on the side-lines, watching the drama. And then when the shit hits the fan, people queue up to say that they saw it coming, that everyone knew all about it, that it was the way things have always been around here.
So what stops people making changes, speaking out, challenging, changing? What holds people back, what makes them wait for permission, for someone else to take charge?

Some of the answers to these questions lie in social psychology.

You may have heard of the bystander effect. This suggests that the greater the number of people who are present to witness a problem, the less likely it is that any one individual will actually do anything about it. They will simply stand and watch. The effect has been researched many times, particularly in relation to people’s unwillingness to get involved in an emergency situation. There are multiple examples from both research and real life, where bystanders just do nothing, even when others are in severe physical danger. Applying this to an organisational context, employees are more likely to stand at the water cooler and bemoan the problem than help make an improvement, engage in solving a problem.

There are reasons why people don’t act, or don’t feel that they can. One of the key influencing factors is the extent to which people feel that they have a degree of responsibility; is it really up to them? Do they feel sufficiently engaged with an organisation, individual or situation to do so? And won’t someone else just come along and do it anyway? Someone more qualified, suitable, whose job it really is?

They think the issue is Somebody Else’s Problem. This is a psychological effect whereby individuals dissociate themselves from a problem or issue, even when it is in critical need of attention, because they make assumptions that it will be done. But not by them. By the often fabled but rarely seen Somebody Else. The notion that whatever it is, it is Somebody Else’s Problem releases the individual from the need to act. Responsibility is diffused. Somebody Else will do it.

This all sounds a little negative so far. But there is one big positive. What the research also shows is that if just one person acts, it can have a big impact. Once someone acts, engages in the solution, others will follow. The paralysis is broken. So if you want to see change in your organisation, stop waiting for Someone Else. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see. If you see something broken, wrong, in need of attention, then speak up, speak out, be brave enough.

Take the responsibility. Let HR lead the way.

Fear and FOMO


Recently, I’ve not been too well. A stomach thing which turned into a horrible thing.

Pain that left me prostrate on the floor, often weeping. It would come without warning, and then leave again just as fast, leaving me exhausted, unable to eat, uncomfortable. Fearful.

The Pain was one thing, but the Fear was another.

Fear of when it would return, Fear of leaving the house just in case, but mostly, Fear of its cause. I became consumed. I researched my symptoms obsessively. I cut food out of my diet, gave up dairy, wheat, spicy food. (I didn’t give up wine of course. I was scared, but I wasn’t that scared).

I constantly thought of the worst case scenario. Fear consumed me. The Fear was huge in my mind.

After much prodding, poking, scanning and pints of blood, it’s nothing serious. Just a dodgy gallbladder. It needs to come out.

And just like that, the Fear was gone.

Why? Two reasons.

The Fear went away because I had knowledge, information, power. I was able to make a plan. Ignorance feeds fears. They thrive in the gaps of knowledge and communication. Knowing nothing is scary. Information, knowledge, truth. They set you free. If the news is bad, good, indifferent or unexpected, knowledge is control. Knowledge gives you power.

This applies to the employment and organisational context too, not just the health one. Think of the employee who has heard the rumours of redundancy, closure, merger. Even if they find out that yes, their position is impacted, you can finally plan, take action, own the situation.

You can’t guarantee the future. You can’t always have good news. But you can tell your employees the truth, even if it is unpalatable. Yes, a few might exit stage left, by either scouring the job adverts or just engaging a bit less. But most of them will thank you for it, dig in with you and endure the tough times. They will recognise your authenticity.

Leaders. Take away as much fear as you can. Tell the truth, unless you have got a very good reason not to.

One final thing. The second reason that the fear has gone, is that I have booked into a hospital that has WIFI. Apparently I was the first person to ever ring up and ask this. Maybe I should reflect on that a little…. but I probably won’t!

The Culture Tree


‘Culture is a slow growing tree. In the beginning it needs protection. But after a couple of decades the culture will be stronger than you are. You need to work with it, not against it. Culture is a powerful but fragile thing. If you burn down the culture tree, it takes a long time to grown another one’.
Wally Bock

This might be less a blog than an extension of someone else’s metaphor; but a metaphor that creates for me the most vivid image.

Organisational culture is made of up many things. It includes our beliefs, values, behaviour, norms. The history, the narrative, the past and the present. How we do things around here. That which is shared. The way we collectively are.

Just like a tree, culture is strong, deep rooted, slow growing, but always changing. Trees bend, shed leaves, can be healthy or diseased. They may thrive, but even the strongest can be felled by the wind. Or someone can just take an axe to it and chop it down.

Whatever the organisation, most trees will outlast the individual leader.

We talk of the wisdom of the crowd. For me, the culture is the crowd, and the crowd is the culture. Culture is owned and created by everyone in the organisation: each individual leaf on the tree makes up the whole; who the organisation really is.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to tend our culture tree. Fail to look after it, fail to act, and the damage will be long lasting. We must never forget it isn’t about us, the short term decision, the immediate operational priority. Employees have long memories. They will not forget is you cut down your tree, ignore your espoused values, ignore who you say you are. In the challenging business environments that many of us face every day, we may forget that as leaders at the top of own trees we have the power to influence all the way down, through, around. Trees cast long shadows.

Look after your culture tree. Do not water it with fears, distrust, disconnection, poor communication, poor leadership, lest it bear a toxic fruit.

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From A Poison Tree by William Blake

And I watered it with fears
Night and morning with my tears
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles

And it grew by day and night
Till it bore an apple bright
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


Have you even felt scared at work?

Scared of things changing, or staying the same.
Saying yes, or saying no.
Taking the job or staying put.
A new manager.
A new team.
A new challenge.
Standing up, or speaking out.

Leader, C-Suite, HR, everyone else.

We are all scared at work, sometimes, by something, someone, some change.

Churning stomach, sleepless nights, sweaty palms. Tension in the back of the neck.

Fear makes us quiet. Fear makes us weak. Fear makes us resist change. Fear makes us shut down.

Instead choose courage.

Stand up for what you believe in, what is right, what you want, who you are. Tell your self-limiting beliefs to fuck right off. Say yes not no. Embrace the risk, the change, the challenge. I dare you.

Choose to act.


The most important leadership competency of all?

Caught in the Shadow

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‘A dark area produced by a body coming between rays of light and a surface’.

You have probably heard of the shadow of the leader. Put simply, it means that the actions of leaders within organisations have a significant influence upon its culture. Leaders cast shadows. Their behaviour, attitudes and values flow down through an organisation whether or not they intend them to, or are even aware of them.

When we stand in the sun we cannot help but cast a shadow, and a leader cannot help bust cast one too. We should never underestimate the power of the leadership shadow.

In Jungian theory shadow can mean two things. It can mean the unconscious – everything of which a person is not fully aware, or it can mean an unconscious aspect of the personality which the individual does not recognise in themselves. We don’t always know what shadow we cast. But we can find out.

So what contributes to shadow?

Everything. Your tone of voice, your attitude, your facial expressions, your presence or absence. What you say and how you say it. Aware, or unaware.
Every, single, thing that you do.

The concept of shadow can have a negative connotation. We think of darkness, gloom, even ghosts. But what can be finer on a summer’s day than sitting in the cool shade? Your shadow as a leader can be powerful, positive influence. Turn up to work with you best self, your positive self, your collaborative self, and you will influence the people around you to behave and feel the same way.

So whatever crap you are going through, whatever pressures you are under, whatever hassle you are getting from your boss, make a choice. Don’t let it flow into your shadow. If you are a leader, you have a responsibility to make being in your shadow a good experience.

The idea of leadership shadow is obvious, if you take a moment to think about it. What isn’t so obvious to our own selves is the nature of the particular shadow that we cast. Jung says our shadow is unconscious. But we can bring our leadership shadow into consciousness. We can become self-aware; understand the shadow that we cast, its depth, its reach.

You can choose the type of shadow you cast.

So consider, inquire, reflect. What do people say about you when you are not in the room? If they hear your name, what is their first thought? How do you behave, every day, ever minute? Our natural tendency is to ignore, reject and deny, those things that we find hard to hear, those things we don’t want to accept about ourselves. Honesty is key here. Look in the mirror.

And if you don’t know how people percieve you, what it feels like to be caught in your shadow, then maybe you should ask.

I sit at my desk, therefore I am.

Why do we persist on judging people on the amount of time they sit at their desk, rather than the contribution that they make? Presenteeism is alive and well in 2013.

You may have seen the recent research showing that a quarter of women feel that they have suffered discrimination or disadvantage at work when they have a child. Am I surprised by this? Sadly, no. Over the course of my HR career I have heard expressed many negative opinions of women, and men, taking time off for family reasons, that it would be hard to be so. I heard recently of an example where someone with a young child applied for, and was granted, a flexible working request. The employer said yes, but the person was subject to a wave of snarky comments from colleagues of the ‘it’s all right for some variety’. Why? Why do people assume that flexible working means taking it easy, sloping off, not pulling your weight, or working from home equates to watching the Jeremy Kyle show?

Technology now allows us to work anywhere, and any when. I am no longer defined by my desk, the 9-5.

Holding out for a hero

The presenteeism attitude is of course not just about flexible working or respecting people’s rights to find a life work balance. It’s about organisational culture; for so many organisations work must be seen to be done. A hero culture is created around those people that work long hours. They are committed, a good egg, a hard worker, the right stuff. A perception arises that long hours equals superhero, equals the right sort of performance.
The problem is compounded with it is the leaders of a business that are burning the midnight oil. The shadow casts long and wide, leading to the feeling that doing the same is expected.

In HR we talk about engagement, discretionary effort, getting our employees to go above and beyond. But we must not confuse this with working excessive hours. Being passionate about your job does not mean working until midnight.

Working excessive hours is not good for you. This isn’t my opinion; there is plenty of evidence to support it. Working excessive hours also isn’t good for productivity, good decision making…. I could go on. So here is my message to you. If you don’t take a break, take your holidays, but work till midnight, every weekend, never put down the Blackberry, you are quite simply not going to be performing at your best.

Reserve Judgement

If you feel you need to judge me, then do so based upon the results that I achieve. Not the hours I work to achieve them, the time that I sit behind my desk.

If you raise your eyebrows at me, think less of me, because one day I arrive at work at 9.15, then shall I expect you to chase me off home tomorrow at 5pm prompt? Will you pop over to my office to make sure I take my full lunch hour? I guess not.

If you email me at midnight, I won’t think you committed, a good corporate citizen, a hard working hero. I will think you have an issue that we should discuss.

Let us finally make the break the perceived link between performance and the hours people work.

It is 2013, after all.

Do you have a minute?


Hi Boss,

Do you have a minute?

I’m sorry, I know your time is precious.

I was going to catch you yesterday, but you were rushing to meetings, looking busy, a little stressed.

I’d have come in but your door was shut all day.

I was off sick on Monday. I hope you got my voicemail. I’m okay now, just a bug.

I just wanted to remind you my performance review is due. Sorry, I know it’s the last thing you have time for, with the things you have got on.

We had it in the diary, but it had to come out again because of that customer meeting you had.

It would be great if we could reschedule. I could do with a chat to be honest.

I’ve put together some objectives, as I know you won’t get chance. I sent them to you on email, a little while ago. Don’t worry if you haven’t had time to read them yet, with how busy you are and all. I’ll just carry on doing what I am doing, until we get a minute.

I’m sorry to chase, but you have my expenses to approve. I left them on your desk last month. It would be great if you can sign them, when you have the time.

Anyway, if you find you have a minute, just for a quick chat, I’m sat right outside your door.

Thank you.

Your Employee.

Recognise anyone?

Time to bury the performance review

I’m across the pond this week, talking about the need for change in performance reviews. Hope you enjoy!



Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Dear Line Manager,

I couldn’t help but overhear you complaining about HR. We don’t help you, I heard you say to your colleague. We didn’t do anything to help you with your performance reviews last time they were due, or to deal with that person in your team that was the constant thorn in your side. That person needs to go, you said. What are they doing, in the corner office, those HR lot? Nothing, you reckon. Bloody useless, we are. It’s about time we proved ourselves by managing these non-performers, you said. And we’ve done nothing to arrange any training for your team. What is the point in them HR lot?

So here is my response Line Manager.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that here in HR, we haven’t been clearer. Clear that this is your responsibility. I’m sorry if we haven’t made it explicit that it is up to you to do your performance reviews, set objectives, give feedback, deal with performance problems, develop your people.

So let me clear now. You are a manager. This doesn’t mean just operational stuff, resource stuff, making stuff and planning stuff. It’s about your people too. So if you want assistance, guidance, expert advice, support, information, coaching, a partner to work with, then we are here to help you. That’s the point in the HR lot. Just don’t ask us to do it for you.

Whose responsibility is it anyway? I hope it’s clear now.

Yours faithfully,