Thursday, October 31, 2019

Have You Ever Contemplated Your Own Demise?

Guest post from Nick Liddell:

Imagine that three years from now your career will be in tatters. You will have no job and your prospects of future employment will seem bleak. Your carefully manicured career path simply won’t materialize.

Now ask yourself: What are the most likely reasons for things going wrong?

And now ask yourself: What could you start doing today to prevent those reasons from happening?

Whether it’s a career plan or an organizational strategy, we tend to feel far more comfortable developing positive, purpose- or mission-driven strategy. It’s what some people call ‘backcasting’: setting a vision and then working back from it to identify the steps you’ll need to take in order to achieve it. It’s our go-to approach to strategy development because it helps us to break down long-term growth planning into practical, incremental activity. During implementation, progress can be measured against the plan and corrective action taken. Backcasting is positive. It’s practical. It’s logical. But in the real world, it’s far from a guarantee of success.

Failure is commonplace.
Which is why in 2007 research psychologist Gary Klein pioneered the idea of a pre-mortem: imagining that a project has failed and using the thought experiment to identify flaws in your plans. Pre-mortems function the opposite way to backcasting; rather than thinking positively about how to achieve a desired outcome, teams are tasked with identifying potential sources of failure and finding ways to mitigate those sources to make the strategy more resilient. In many respects, pre-mortems are the perfect complement to vision-led strategy planning.

There’s also a cultural upside to embedding pre-mortems into your (or your team’s) approach to planning: a 2017 study by researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina found that people tend to avoid precisely the type of feedback that pre-mortems are designed to elicit. One of the biggest issues with vision-led strategy development is that it encourages us to seek out confirmatory feedback; the moment we establish and communicate a plan, we create a strong incentive to search for evidence that it’s a good plan and that it’s working. Conversely, we tend to avoid disconfirmatory feedback because it fails to confirm our own view of how good a job we’re doing. Pre-mortems have a cultural benefit because they create a safe space for disconfirmatory feedback.

What’s the worst that could happen?
Like many things in life, strategy is rarely perfect the first time round. And even the most carefully conceived plans can go awry. As Mike Tyson famously observed, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ Whether your plans are personal or organizational, they must eventually confront reality – and reality always wins. Contemplating the worst that could happen to your plans won’t turn you into one of life’s great cynics or pessimists. It will demonstrate to the people you work with that you’re realistic about your human fallibility, that you’re open-minded about outcomes and that you value alternative points of view – particularly when they differ from your own. Introducing pre-mortem thinking won’t just make your strategies and plans more resilient: it will make you more resilient, too.

Nick Liddell is co-author, with Richard Buchanan, of Wild Thinking: 25 Unconventional Idea to Grow Your Brand and Your Business. He is Director of Consulting at The Clearing, helping global brands grow and make a difference. For more information, please visit:

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Is your Leadership Development Developing Leaders?

Soft skills are increasingly important in creating successful leaders

Guest post from Gary S. Shamis:

One of the most gratifying experiences in writing a leadership book is the introspection
youallow yourself in the process. You are able to hold a proverbial mirror to your successes and failures, and view them both more objectively. If you are honest with yourself, the experience can yield a treasure trove of teachings.

As I wrote Building Blocks — Case Studies of a Serial Entrepreneur, I realized that over the years, I toiled with many of my failures, but I never analyzed the variables of the successes. It wasn’t until I could put those lessons into play as a consultant that I realized their value.

I managed a national top-forty accounting and consulting firm (SS&G). In thirty years, I grew it from 20 people to 500 with revenues of $80 million before it was acquired by BDO. Several of our initiatives set the industry standard for successful firm management.

Today, I help (mostly) professional services firms — law, accounting, insurance, architecture, finance — attain growth, productivity, and profitability. Together, we identify deficiencies and implement solutions.

Remarkably, the most consistent area of incompetence pertains to developing leaders.

Culture Club

Talent was our greatest asset and as the industry became more and more competitive, the urgency with which to attract, hire, and retain exceptional professionals became paramount. The cost of turnover was too great. We analyzed, overanalyzed, and re-analyzed what future leaders, Generations Y and Z, sought in a desired employer.

In turn, we adapted our culture to meet their needs — casual dress codes, flextime, healthy lifestyle options, community involvement, challenging work, more defined advancement. As a result, our voluntary turnover rate hovered at six percent, significantly lower than the industry average of 25 percent.

While it didn’t take long to weed out incompetence, we recognized that technical ability alone was not reason enough to promote professionals to managers. Inept managers were responsible for losing talent with leadership potential. And in a competitive marketplace, it cost us dearly.

People leave managers, not companies. But more often than not, we do a poor job of preparing them for the role and its responsibilities.

Getting Soft

The issue with leadership development is that there is too much emphasis on the hard skills (technical knowledge, teachable, easy to quantify) and not enough focus on the soft skills (interpersonal skills, subjective, harder to measure).

Ninety-one percent of HR professionals surveyed by LinkedIn believe soft skills are very important for the future of recruiting. In its 2019 trendsreport, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) stated that workplace soft skills are important for the future or recruiting talent and exceedingly valuable for competitive organizations.

Even the nation’s top business schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wharton, Berkley) are injecting soft skills into MBA curricula to support new management models such as remote teams, emotional intelligence, predictive analytics, passion and purpose, and mindfulness in the workplace.

Increasingly, executives are beginning to realize the benefits soft skills offer their organization and are placing equal importance on both. By ignoring the benefits of soft skills in leadership programming, companies are sacrificing the ability to identify strong leaders, whether innately or by coaching their mastery, let alone keep and grow them.

At my firm, we identified the professionals we wanted to invest in, those with the potential and desire. We included courses on working a room, presentation styles, dressing for the occasion, writing etiquette, and creating your brand, and offered a complimentary physical bootcamp to support wellness goals, teamwork, communication, and trust.

Leaders Over Lifers

As you move people up in the organization, ask yourself on what grounds they are being promoted. According to Gallup, “…two things that usually earn a promotion to management have nothing to do with great management ability: tenure and mastery of a previous, non-managerial role.” “This is a flawed strategy with serious consequences for an organization’s engagement, financial performance and long-term sustainability.” Many are generally minor performers. Few, if any, have had soft-skill training in actual management topics such as difficult conversations and delegation.

Employees who possess soft skills can directly impact the bottom line (SHRM). Professional development supporting those skills can be one of the most impactful investments you make.

So how does an organization go about creating a culture that distinguishes between leadership development and developing leaders?

Create a program that addresses the importance of the soft skills (effective communication, difficult conversations, constructive feedback, delivering presentations) necessary for success in the role. LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Report found that the four most in-demand soft skills are within leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management.

Then, consider:

External Development. While it’s most cost effective to create in-house training using senior-level employees, go outside of the organization and tap into true, dedicated expertise.
Personalized Learning. Some will be better than others at developing and enhancing certain skills. Recognize that the experience is an evolution and confidence is gained by practice.
Measurable Outcomes. Performance evaluations should ensure that these professionals are at the very least meeting the expectations the organization has established. Take into account that once-a-year assessments conflict with consistent accountability.

As with all good strategies, the execution, measurement, and evaluation are imperative. Curricula that effectively develops capable leaders is the most vital means with which to ensure their success. Only when developing leaders becomes a natural part of your culture is it successful.

Gary S. Shamis is CEO of Winding River Consulting and the author of Building Blocks—
Case Studies of a Serial Entrepreneur. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Why Dumpster Fires at Work are Powerful Teachers

Guest post by Maki Moussavi:

We've all been there. We've experienced the situation at work that pops up and is immediately followed by thoughts about how our day is suddenly going off course, that priorities have shifted in favor of the fire that needs putting out. Of course, this is to be expected from time to time. 

But what if the thought that bubbles up is a variation of "Here we go again"? When chaos is cyclical, reacting to and addressing the fire is reactive and only addresses the symptom of a much larger problem. This is the equivalent of treating recurrent heartburn with a pill instead of searching for the underlying issue that's causing your discomfort. It's a bandage on a wound that requires more than a surface solution. 

Many of you are either very good at (or have a team member or leader who is very good at) going into damage control mode to quickly triage a situation. All of the energy in the room gets funneled in the direction of applying the bandage, and even if there are important observations about an element that contributed to the fire that needs to be addressed, it's all too easy to set that aside in favor of the immediate actions that must be taken. Once the chaos has subsided, you may have a debrief and make a plan to correct underlying issues, but the reality is that plans of that nature tend to be put off for the future, or to be derailed by the next situation that pops up. 

One of the most frustrating aspects of managing cyclical challenges is that the cycle itself can create a false sense that there's no good way out of the pattern. That you're fighting a losing battle, and the powers that be don't get it and won't make the necessary changes to avoid the same issues in the future. You become resigned to fighting the fires instead of preventing them in the first place. All kinds of limiting mental chatter crowd into your head that reinforce your sense that you don't have the authority to make people listen or to create change. You and your colleagues may even get together to vent about this very thing, further reinforcing the idea that you have no power to make it better. 

Let me say that again: You get to the point where you believe you have no power to change the situation. 

It's easy to fall into the trap of this belief. After all, the culture of an organization is a powerful factor in the way chaos is handled. If all you see is how it's mishandled, you will naturally believe that future situations will be similarly mishandled. But where are YOU in all of this?

The next time a dumpster fire shows up, you can handle it in a way that empowers YOU, even if the desired outward change is slow in coming. 

Your to-dos:
  • Become an observer. Yes, you may be feeling some pressure, but do your best to truly see the situation. Are there key players who tend to be part of the cycle? What repetitive elements do you notice? How is this time the same or different from last time? Did something go unaddressed between the previous and current situations?
  • Note your mental chatter. What are you saying to yourself as this unfolds? Note the thoughts alluded to above that reinforce the cycle by telling you there's no way out, that the cycling is inevitable. Even more importantly, note how you feel personally. Are you feeling powerless? Anxious? Resigned? Frustrated? Ask yourself what you have been tolerating and accepting even when it's clearly not working for you
  • Take inventory. Have you ever taken a proactive approach to the solution in the past? If so, what did you do and how did it go? Did you involve others? What could you do this time, taking your observations into account, that may make a difference? Whose help can you enlist? 
  • Create a plan. Get through the chaos and then approach the people from your inventory exercise to create a way forward. You have no guarantee that it will work, but it is a proactive (empowered) rather than reactive (disempowered) way to build some positive momentum. From there, work with those you trust to chip away at a system that's not working. 
  • Know your limits. Go back to your mental chatter - what have you been tolerating? What do you no longer want to put up with? How long are you willing to put in effort toward change, and what will you do if you don't see it? There's no rule that says you have to stay in an organization that operates in chaos. If you truly run up against leaders who are unwilling to make changes, that's helpful information to have as you consider your career path.
  • You have a choice. You always have a choice. If you decide to stay and tolerate what's not working for you, that's a choice. If you tell yourself that there are no better options out there for you, it's a choice to believe that. One of the most powerful decisions you can make is to consciously catch your disempowered thoughts and reset your perspective to an empowered one. It takes practice, but your entire life will be better for it. 
Maki Moussavi is a transformational success coach focused on helping people create lives defined by their desires rather than societal or familial constructs of success. Too many put up with a life spent surviving rather than thriving. Maki’s passion is helping people discover their personal programming and the patterns in which they operate in order to break through to a life where they unapologetically live according to their own expectations, not those of others. She specializes in providing a process around transformation to streamline the path to change.
Maki has a Master of Science degree in genetic counseling and counseled patients before embarking on a 12-plus year corporate career prior to becoming a coach.
Her upcoming book, The High Achiever’s Guide: Transform Your Success Mindset and Begin the Quest to Fulfillment released on October 15. This book challenges unfulfilled higher achievers to examine what drives them, how they hold themselves back, and what it takes to define a new vision of life by facing their fears, using their voice, trusting their instincts and committing to a new way of being.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Ethical Leadership for Sustainable Wellbeing

Guest post from Dr. Ian Hesketh and Sir Cary Cooper:

Which style of leadership behaviour is the most effective has been the challenge for most executives for many years. Trying to meet the challenges of modern-day working practices and the demands of a 24hr global demand under increasing constraints is a real conundrum. Ethical Leadership is proven to improve employee wellbeing and promotes extra-role effort. Further, ethical leadership can decrease emotional exhaustion and increase work engagement. It can also result in a willingness from employees to make suggestions to improve the organization. Our experience is that the concept of feeling trusted in the workplace magnifies ethical leadership and can also result in further extra-role effort.  So, what are these concepts and how easy is it to implement them?

The great news is that these are easily learned and adaptable to all workplace settings. Ethical leadership is the notion that the leadership approach involves promoting ethical standards in organizations and encourages followers to behave more ethically. Although historically it is born out of the philosophical concept that it improves wellbeing, it has been popularized of late due to questionable business practices and huge corporate scandals; together with evidence that it improves both employee wellbeing and organizational performance.

Here is why. Ethical leadership leads to increased extra role effort. That is, what employees are prepared to do that is above and beyond what is expected of them by their employees. It also leads to employees feeling trusted to make decisions on their own that are appreciated and acknowledged by their employees. Further, it leads to reduced occurrences of feeling emotionally exhausted, that is the cognitive or physical strain that one feels from workplace pressures. It also leads to increased employee engagement, this is the way employees view their work as a positive challenge and are prepared to interact, to suggest new ideas and feel part of the organization. For example, employees are more likely to speak highly of their employer, both inside and outside of work. Employees are more likely to promote the business; and encourage other colleagues to do so also.

What to look out for? Ethical leaders are people-oriented. They look out for the long-term interests of colleagues and are unwavering in this quest. They authentically promote ethical behaviours, both inside and outside of the workplace. They live their own lives ethically. They make fair and balanced decisions.

To conclude, ethical leadership is good news for all business and for successful organizations is being proactively sought after. If you have leadership responsibilities or are concerned with human resource management and are recruiting or promoting your next tranche of leaders, look for the qualities outlined in this short article. These qualities in leaders can result in sustainable high performance. In this high performing environment you will witness employee pride in working for a reputable organization. One in which people are attracted to be part of and speak highly of both inside and outside of the organization. If this is your goal, ethical leadership is the way to go.

Ian Hesketh, PhD and Sir Cary Cooper, CBE are the authors of WELLBEING AT WORK: How to Design, Implement and Evaluate an Effective Strategy. Both are associated with the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work (UK). For more information visit:

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Great Leaders Focus on the Why and the What—Not the How

Guest post by Steve Coughran:

In my two decades of business experience, I have encountered many different flavors of leadership. Some leaders are strong-willed and autocratic, some are open-minded and democratic, some employ laissez-faire, employee-centric leadership styles, and most fall somewhere in the middle. While leadership style varies, in my experience, leaders across the board provide employees with a sincere depiction of the Why, an explicit description of the What, and freedom on the How.

Many of you reading are likely familiar with Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. His premise suggests that great leaders motivate with the “Why”, a deep-rooted purpose, before defining the “What”, the product or service, or the “How”, the process.  Expanding on Sinek’s thoughts, I believe that not only do great leaders deprioritize the “how,” but the most influential bosses leave the “how” to their employees to figure out.

Have you ever been in a work situation where your boss or manager is explaining in specific detail how to do your job? It’s frustrating when managers live in the weeds. Poor leaders provide specificity around how to complete a task but fail to share the big picture, the why, behind the request.  No one likes to be micromanaged. Unfortunately, many leaders result to meddling with the process in attempts to maintain a false sense of power. Micromanagers focus explicitly on the how, which often results in short-term success at the expense of the long-term strategy, overall scalability, and employee satisfaction.

Great leaders give little input on the how. Of course, this approach first requires leaders to equip employees with the tools and skills to solve for the how. They must invest heavily in training to ensure employees are prepared to think through the processes.

Training alone, however, isn’t enough to produce the desired results. After reinforcing the why and enabling employees, they get specific about the what. Great leaders share explicit expectations. When I first launched a high-end design build firm, I learned the hard way the importance of clearly communicating expectations. I was feeling on top of the world as my company flourished; customers were lining up for projects, and I had a diverse and talented staff to uphold my brand. To maintain this status, I was also working like a dog, putting in eighty-hour workweeks to keep up with demand. I jumped at my first opportunity to take a two-week vacation, leaving the company reins in the hands of one of my top managers. We were working on a high-end project, but I trusted my employees. I gave little instruction—my manager knew the business as well as I did—and was off to relax on a beach in Mexico and forget about work for a while.

I returned frustrated with the lack of progress. While I was away, the high-end project suffered from operational issues that led to cost overruns and schedule delays resulting in an upset client and some delayed payments. While I was upset with my team, I too was responsible for the situation. What did I count on my managers and employees to do while I was away? More importantly, how would I ensure they held up their end of the bargain? I failed to create an accountability structure. Through this experience, I learned a critical lesson: strong leaders follow up.

Great leaders build accountability structures that clearly define the desired results. Results are laid out specifically and comprehensively, often incorporating qualitative and quantitative data. By leaving little room for confusion, leaders establish fair expectations, which provide a foundation for equitable evaluation and constructive feedback. They create a “return and report” culture where employees are sent off with an understanding of the overarching strategy and the goals of the assignment. They present their findings after independently problem solving.

Giving employees freedom shows that you trust them (which according to research is critical for workplace engagement and productivity). Additionally, by encouraging employees to think, leaders boost their team’s development. Seeing how the employee problem solves allows his or her manager to clearly examine their comprehension of the task, the big picture, and detect any gaps in understanding or skills. They can then address these knowledge gaps with training and coaching, bringing the employees’ development full circle.

As we all continue along the journey to become the best leaders we can be, keep in mind Simon Sinek’s words of wisdom, “There is a difference between giving direction and giving directions.” Emphasize your purpose, explain your product or service, and leave the rest to your well-equipped team. 

About the author:  Author, CFO of an international billion-dollar company, and management consultant, Steve Coughran has over two decades of experience driving business excellence. His newest book is Outsizing: Strategies to Grow your Business, Profits, and Potential.  For more information visit