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.