Jun 19 2020| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
Our latest Leaders Nexus breakfast brought heads of business from across Guernsey together to discuss the very topical theme of “building back better”.
In our work, we have noticed a strong desire amongst leaders to rebuild “better”, challenging previous conventions about what must be done and seeking to create better products, better services and better working environments.
Many people seek our expertise to understand the dynamics in their teams and how that will enable them to achieve change, as well as their own potential blindspots when leading through change.
The insights that we are able to bring via psychometrics are illuminating, enabling tactics to be designed that will take the team - and the whole company - forward. With “blockers and builders” in focus, what must leaders think about if we are to build back better?
It is too easy to immerse ourselves in the immediate, practical impact and application of change and miss the most important thing - why our business even exists. Leaders must keep the big picture on the agenda; why the work is important, what the main objectives are, how the work and effort helps to achieve something “better”.
Ancient wisdom says that ‘without vision, the people perish’. It is the role of leadership to point towards what the future could look like, why that’s a compelling proposition and orientate resources towards achieving those objectives.
In our conversations, few leaders disagree with this yet many acknowledge that creating the time to design and convey compelling objectives too often slips in favour of issues that present themselves with urgency. How can leaders turn good intentions into action? Here are some suggestions:
- Communication is key.
Continually reminding people why the work you’re doing is important, using a variety of communication methods, is crucial. A one-time appeal in a town hall won’t cut it. Consistent reminders that inspire people towards better is necessary.
Some businesses use hashtags or straplines to great effect; one of my recent favourites is Canaccord Genuity’s #cando, which is a platform for external marketing and internal communication. Others use in-person (including via video) communication strong, pulling teams together for frequent conversation and deliberately building in time for informal conversation.
A communication plan, or campaign, is a highly effective way of ensuring that the most critical thing - the purpose and mission of the company - remains front and centre. It cannot be left to occasional chance.
- Include purpose at the top of every meeting agenda
Framing every meeting with purpose, regardless of what the meeting is for, ensures that what truly matters is front and centre.
What’s the purpose of this business? What, therefore, is the purpose of this meeting? If the meeting isn’t supporting or serving the objectives of the business, then don’t hold the meeting!
Lockdown has forced people to review what their standing meetings are for and many have been trimmed down as a result. Others have initiated new gatherings - digitally up to now - that are designed to align people’s attention and time towards what matters to the future of the business, not what mattered in the past.
- Invite perspectives in surveys.
Many companies are using surveys to engage their people in conversations about working from home and the future of flexible working. These are helpful. A handful (only) are also asking about the purpose of the business, what their people hope and imagine the company can achieve in the future. This is excellent and we would encourage every company to include purpose in their people-surveys.
- Deliberately consider your business as part of a community.
See the business as a body comprising not just your own people, but also customers, suppliers, shareholders, employees’ families and more. No company operates completely independently, we live and breathe organically. “Build back better” implies a perspective that encompasses all of these interdependencies. What is your strategy for improving your relations with customers? With your suppliers? With your local community?
I like the word “better”; it can be used as a basis to discuss everything. Better working environment - which seems to be the main focus of attention at this point in time, with leaders hoping to carry forward the benefits of working from home into more flexible working arrangements.
But “better” is more than just flexible working. “Better” includes the products and services that we are providing to our customers, both in terms of improving quality and doing things in a more healthy, sustainable way. How can we use the excellence in our businesses to improve the way we’re living and working? What are the old norms in our industry and our business that we can choose to shed in favour of healthier, “better” practices?
In other words, leaders need to challenge their aspirations for the company’s that they lead, to encompass wider interests than just themselves or their current shareholders. Wealth managers can choose to place ESG (environment, social, governance) investment strategies front and centre; manufacturers can choose to source materials from suppliers that actively minimise their environmental impact; retailers can choose to source product from producers with healthy employment practices.
There may be blockers to thinking like this, but our challenging reply is that too often, the blocks are nothing less than lazy thinking. Change takes effort.
Challenge your aspirations, choose to build “better”.
Many teams - leadership teams, management teams - have worked together for quite some time, yet have discovered that they don’t yet know each other as well as they thought. Lockdown has opened up people’s homes and lives, in many cases helping to build relationships. It’s one thing to know that a colleague has recently had a baby, completely another to meet the child on a Zoom call!
We are all unique, and understanding the strengths in style, motivation, mindset, approach to pressure and more is absolutely critical if we are to get the best from each other. Without sophisticated understanding, it is difficult to build trust and without trust, it is impossible to create the psychologically safe conditions that allow for creativity, healthy conflict and change.
One business leader described how his leadership team used insight from psychometrics to quickly understand each other’s style and key drivers. This, in turn, has enabled them to draw from each other’s strengths in each circumstance, providing the basis for trust and some clear, strong decisions.
Enabling teams to build understanding and trust, applying insight from psychometric surveys, is at the core of our work. Time and again our clients find the insights illuminating, mutual understanding and respect increases and they learn to work together effectively rather than rub each other up the wrong way.
Another leader summarised succinctly; ‘The people we might sometimes consider as blockers are becoming supporters in this uncertain world. Understanding that they are seeking security and stability - which are good, valuable things - helps us to engage them positively in our decision making conversations.’
Practically, we are working with our clients to build understanding in a variety of ways:
- Consistent support and challenge individually, highlighting from psychometrics the positive and counterproductive habits of thought and action that are likely to be playing out;
- Team programmes over 6 to 9 months, comprising a mix of group learning and individual coaching. These are highly effective in helping teams to form, strengthen trust, focus on the most critical objectives.
- Offsites to raise clarity around vision, dynamics organisational health and culture, strategic priorities and more, with ongoing support and challenge.
- Training in understanding self and others, designed for the whole business at an accessible cost. For example, we’re running half-day foundation courses, see [here] for more detail.
Watch your language! This is not an appeal against swearing (although bad language is rarely helpful). This is to say that the words that we use carry different meanings for different people. It’s important to clarify what’s meant, to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction. For example, “flexible working” can mean different things; one person will approach flexible working from their own perspective, what it means for them, whereas others will be thinking about the wider business. Still, others will presume that “flexible” means working from home, whilst others will be thinking about holidays, parking spaces, lunch arrangements, commuting and more.
Even the title of this article is problematic. As soon as we label someone as a “builder” or, perhaps worse, as a “blocker”, we will start to treat them accordingly. It becomes all too easy to exclude people perceived as blockers from the conversation, even though they will have a valid contribution. Our biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are often expressed in the words that we use. This is a deserving subject in itself, see [here/unconscious bias article] for some of our perspectives.
Tactically, what can you do that will help to raise clarity? Here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t rush the conversation; take a little longer to linger and observe people’s responses. Rushed conversations almost always create misunderstanding.
- Ask clarifying questions, respectfully. A simple, ‘can you tell me what flexible working means in this context?’ is more constructive than ‘do you get what I mean?’.
- Be explicit about your expectations for next steps, don’t assume that they understand what you’re thinking. For example, if you have a timeframe in mind, state it.
- Constantly remind yourself that you are further along in the idea than most people; you’ve thought about it for longer and have made some decisions. They are unlikely to see what you see and need to catch up. Two analogies can be helpful. 1) a bungee cord; you’re pulling at one end, they have yet to catch up. What do they need to know in order to do so? 2) a jigsaw puzzle. You each have all of the pieces, but you have placed more into the picture than they have. Are you assuming that they can see as much as you? What do you need to help them see?
One of the easiest ways for trust to evaporate is a sense of exclusion, whether perceived or real. It is easy even in normal circumstances for people to feel left out, let alone in a fast-changing, uncertain environment.
For example, one CEO cautioned our group to pay attention to a staggered approach to bringing people back to work. His business has been operating on-site for over five weeks, with a staged approach to bringing people back in. Some of those in the later stages felt left out when compared to the first movers.
We have noticed that some of the leadership teams that we work with presume that they must take responsibility for all decisions. Often this is borne from a desire to manage information and minimise disruption and worry - laudable, but can create a condition whereby others in the business, including senior managers, simply wait to be told what’s happening rather than bring their creative ideas to the table.
There are a number of ways to build inclusivity into your company, for example:
- Set up a working party from across the business to discuss, research and recommend on business issues. Flexible working provides an immediate opportunity for this. This can also include reviewing products, services - even the purpose of the business. Clearly, leaders will need to listen and respond to suggestions, but the invitation to contribute is the beginning of creativity.
- Ask open questions rather than give answers too quickly. I’m a strong advocate for asking good questions throughout the business, especially in environments where too many people are just waiting to be told what’s happening. ‘What would you like in a flexible working policy?’, ‘What can you do practically that will help us achieve our objectives?’, ‘What’s working well at the moment?’, ‘What do you think needs to change?’ Questions like these provoke thought and hopefully creative ideas that help to take the company forward.
- Formally invite perspectives from outside of the business, e.g. customers and suppliers. They can be engaged via surveys or invited to meet with management. They will bring perspectives that might not otherwise be considered by the leaders of the business.
- Add a standing question to every agenda - ‘who have we missed in this discussion?’ A simple prompt like this can help to avoid accidentally excluding a person or group from the decision making process.
Today’s conditions are not just an opportunity to build back better; it is essential that we do so for our businesses and communities to survive and thrive in the future. What will you do to build back better? How can we help you to achieve this?