To achieve greater success, what should you stop doing?


According to Jim Collins writing in Good to Great, successful organisations and individuals don’t just have ‘to-do’ lists, they also have ‘stop doing’ lists. Collins cites Kimberley Clark as a classic example. In order to focus on growing its core business of consumer products, the company took the tough decision in 1991 to sell its long-cherished paper mills. This decision was a key contributor in helping the company achieve record growth throughout the 1990s.

Why is ‘stopping doing’ such an important leadership skill?

First, stopping doing liberates energy and resources for the things that are of greatest importance. As Spencer Johnson puts it in ‘Yes or No’, “to make a better decision, you must first stop proceeding with a poor decision”. Second, stopping doing provides a vivid example to the wider organisation of the qualities of commitment and self-discipline. Qualities that the leader seeking excellence needs to actively encourage in others.

What makes ‘stopping doing’ so difficult?

I believe the principle reason is that stopping doing confronts us with a sense of loss. The existentialists remind us that this can trigger negative feelings which most of us naturally seek to avoid. Throughout my publishing career we stopped doing all sorts of business ventures which were all good in their own right and to which there were strong emotional ties, yet which distracted us from what was of greatest importance. In fact we became rather good at stopping things: halting publication of a popular range of fiction, closing a distribution facility, pulling out of an Asian market, to name a few.

In general the longer we had been engaged in the activity, the more attached we were to it, and the harder it was to stop. On occasions our very sense of identity seemed to be threatened by the decision; certainly we had to re-think who we were and come to terms with a new understanding of ourselves and a changed place in the market.

What can help us to ‘stop doing’?

First, practice with the small stuff. Successful leaders regularly take the time to ask themselves, what am I doing today that I could live without? What is taking our time yet adding the least to our overall success? You might for example add a ‘stop doing’ heading to the agenda of team meetings, or to your own personal to-do list. Once people discover that life continues after the change, further change gets easier.

Second, when stopping doing something that the organisation has invested time and effort in, recognise and anticipate a sense of loss. Grieving is a natural human response and as such should be allowed a reasonable time and acknowledged. Collectively marking the end of the era can help to establish the change in people’s heads.

Third, and most importantly, ensure that you have a robust commitment to what you will start doing, or start doing more of. (Without such a thought for the future, what reason could there be to stop doing anything!) Then, once you are clear what is going to contribute the most to your long-term success, or to that of your organisation, commit the resources and energy to doing it. There is nothing like a clear commitment to the future to take peoples’ minds off the past.

As a Chinese proverb puts it “If you want a hot cup of tea, you must first empty the cup”. Happy emptying!

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What stops people making decisions?


“The Eurozone must have a decisive plan”, declared David Cameron this week. And of course he is right. The EU has signally failed at reaching conclusive agreements and taking decisions.

I am struck by the large number of people I have spoken to in the course of my recent work who face similar challenges in making decisions, whether individually or collectively within their teams.

What is it about decisions that makes so many of us put them off until things reach crisis-point, and we can no longer sit on the proverbial fence? Looking at the origin of the word ‘decision’ provides some insight. It shares its roots with the word ‘incision’, but rather than meaning to cut into, it means to cut away, literally to cut off our options. And this is the heart of the problem; to take a decision always means facing up to losing something. In the case of Europe this is clearly the integrity of the currency, or the continued inclusion of Greece, or the need for financial restraint. Whichever way the decision goes, something that is valued will be lost. So until things reach absolute crisis point, it’s easier to put off the decision.

And this is equally true for us at a personal level. Avoiding making a decision may well allow us to feel that we’re keeping our options open, that we’re avoiding getting it wrong, or that we’re avoiding having to deal with the fall-out from the people we’ve had to disappoint. Yet while we may feel better in the short term by avoiding our fears, the one thing we can be sure of is that we are no longer taking a lead. Rather, events will start leading us.

To cut off options of course demands courage and the willingness to deal with the anticipated negative consequences. As such it lies at the very heart of good leadership.

"Be willing to make decisions” said General Patton. ”That’s the most important quality in a good leader." And for those of us involved in developing young leaders, whether in our own or our clients’ organisations, creating the conditions where they can practice making decisions and cutting off their options in relative safety is absolutely key.

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How to deal with your harshest critic


Who is your harshest critic? If your answer is yourself, then you are in the company of a great many people!

I am struck over and again by the otherwise successful and high-achieving people I meet whose impact and influence is diminished by their self-judgement. Or if not by their self-judgement, at least by that which they semi-consciously imagine others are making of them.

Professional advisers, whether coaches and trainers, or lawyers and consultants, are especially prone to such concerns. As they interact with their clients and see how they respond, the instinctive question many ask themselves is ‘how is this going down?’ On further investigation this question commonly turns out at its heart to be a deeper personal question along the lines of ‘am I good enough?’

Writing in The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander draw a stark contrast between life lived from this place of self-judgement, with life lived as a contribution. Ben writes “unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. All at once I found that the fearful question, “Is it enough?” and the even more fearful question, “Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?” could both be replaced by the joyful question, “How will I be a contribution today?”

This is a wonderful idea which offers great liberty to those, including myself, who are plagued with self-doubt, fear and criticism. In re-inventing ourselves as a contribution rather than as professionals to be harshly judged, remarkable powers seem to be released. Conflicts may be transformed into rewarding relationships, clients are best served, and our own well-being is most deeply enriched. Writing in the book of Romans, St Paul speaks of something very similar using the wonderful notion of ‘grace’ – a word that has generally fallen out of common use, yet which captures the essence of the liberty that ‘being a contribution’ implies: “you are not under law, but under grace”.  

So whatever the circumstances you’re confronting, and especially when the stakes are high and you’re most anxious about your performance, experiment with these steps from Ben Zander:

1)      Declare yourself to be a contribution

2)      Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why

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Whose ideas do you like the best?


This question frequently gets raised in workshops on leadership and management, and the answer quickly comes back: “your own”. Yet even though this characteristic of human motivation is intuitively known by us all, it’s still surprising how much management time is spent prescribing to staff exactly how they should go about their tasks.


Let me clarify. I’m not saying that people should not be instructed in basic skills and procedures, nor that there are times, especially during emergencies when the details should be clearly spelled out. And it goes without saying that people need to helped to understand exactly what goals they are working towards. It’s simply that if you want to motivate somebody and get the best from them, you’ll get better results by drawing out their own ideas. Yes it’s true; we like our own ideas the best!


It was interesting to hear this finding backed up and quantified in a research experiment reported by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. The researchers ran a lottery with a difference. Half the participants were randomly assigned a lottery number. The remaining half were given a blank piece of paper and a pen and asked to write any number they would like as their lottery number. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. The question researchers wanted to answer is, “How much more do you have to pay someone who ‘wrote their own number’ versus someone who was handed a number randomly?”


The rational answer is that there should be no difference, given that a lottery is pure chance and every ticket number, whether self-chosen or allocated should have the same value. The actual finding was that wherever the experiment was conducted, and with whatever population, the researchers always had to pay at least five times more to those who wrote their own number.


So the truth that this reveals about human nature is that when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome — by a factor of five to one! So for all leaders who want to drive up engagement levels, enhance performance and drive change, the message could not be clearer.

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As a leader, how ‘presidential’ should you be?


I’ve been pondering this question for some time, having been asked it by a young leader, new into his first significant leadership role and keen to make an impression. It seems that having observed other leaders acting ‘presidentially’, he is weighing up the potential advantages in acting in a similar way himself. Let’s face it, with a demanding role to fulfil and potentially unpopular changes to make, who would not be attracted by the notion of having staff and colleagues acting deferentially? Who wouldn’t be drawn by the idea of casting a spell over the people you most need to influence?

As I’ve considered this question, I’ve instinctively known that it is fraught with difficulties. That the ‘power distance’ that the presidential style creates between leader and followers is likely to generate compliance rather than real engagement. And that the presidential leader is likely to be kept away from hearing unpalatable truths, or at least will need to expend much greater effort to stay in touch.

It was therefore of interest to find out this week that Jim Collins had addressed the subject, albeit without using the ‘P’ word in his book Good to Great. In this he describes his research into the core characteristics of organisations that turn from being ‘good’ (that is with steady yet unexceptional growth) to ‘great’ (this being exceptional growth over a sustained period of at least 15 years). In every single case and in stark contrast to the comparison organisations studied, the researchers discovered a distinctive leadership style they termed ‘Level 5 Leadership’.

This style is characterised by a blend of ‘extreme personal humility with intense professional will’; where individuals are self-effacing and modest, look to others to receive the credit for good work, and do pretty much anything to stay out of the limelight. And yet they display a fierce resolve to ‘do whatever it takes to make the organisation great’. Their ambition is for the institution, for their colleagues, and for the highest standards, yet not for themselves.

By contrast a more presidential style of leadership was found in organisations which showed exceptional short-term growth, but which subsequently floundered. Under the leadership of Lee Iacocca in the 1980s and 90s, Chrysler experienced a phenomenal turn-around and terrific growth, with the big ego and rock-star type personality to match. Yet the business did not long survive his departure in one piece. Similarly Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party provides another example of how the presidential style can have a big impact during the tenure of the leader, yet result in a weakened organisation after their departure.

Given that we live in an age of celebrity, and that the media focus strongly on the cult of personality, there is perhaps greater pressure than ever for leaders to ‘make it all about themselves’. And yet the evidence suggests that the leader who can resist this temptation, stay focussed on building up the capabilities of her colleagues and wider team, and remain passionately committed to the long-term viability of the organisation, will ultimately be the one to achieve lasting greatness.

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Are you leading with effort or with strain?


In the gym this morning I was sorely tempted to ask the man who was noisily lifting weights close by whether he understood the difference between effort and strain. It’s probably a good thing for my sake given his size and demeanour that I resisted the urge, but it sparked an interesting train of thought.

Some of the most effective managers and leaders I have met seem able to have the impact that they want, often in the face of extreme resistance, without showing signs of strain. While others who experience difficulties in achieving their goals may display signs of struggle and strain. In coaching conversations with some of the latter their language is often peppered with words such as ‘concern’ and ‘struggle’.

So what is the difference? Rick Carson in Taming Your Gremlin defines strain as “toil dominated by tension”. That’s it! The effort may be the same, but it is infused with anxiety and extraneous muscular tension. Paradoxically, it tends to impede progress towards goals, in part at least by generating a negative response in others.

Here’s another example taken as I waited for transport home late one evening this week outside Heathrow’s Terminal 5. I watched as evening shift workers left the building; saw their bus waiting in the distance then ran the 100m to catch it. Some folks put their heads down, strained their bodies and pelted – probably absorbed in their own anxiety. Others lifted their heads and ran quickly but with a relaxed gait that seemed to get them their faster. And even if the faster bit was just my imagination, they certainly arrived in better shape with less stress.

So when facing circumstances that you find challenging and you find yourself straining to achieve, what are some of the things you could try? What might you do to ensure that your efforts and those of your colleagues do not get consumed by the intensity of your emotional state? 

The first and most important answer is to start simply noticing; to observe yourself, to pay attention to your tension and your thoughts as a third party might watch them in a movie.  As someone once said, whilst this may sound very simple, it is far from easy. Simply noticing in this sense is the single most important step towards breaking the negative influence of strain and stress.

The second most important thing is to remember to breathe! It is a surprise to many people to discover that their tension stops them from breathing fully or on occasions at all. And stopping breathing then has all sorts of negative consequences for a person’s capacity to respond and be resourceful.

A third step I’ve found immensely helpful is to look up and to smile. This seems to work wonders on my capacity to think positively and creatively in otherwise stressful moments.

So the next time you see someone grunting and straining in the gym …..

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How should I manage my personal brand?


This question has come up in several conversations over the last few days, prompted perhaps by the growing discussion about how we should all be actively managing the impression we create online.

While the whole idea of ‘personal brand’ will turn some people’s stomachs (“what, you mean I should be marketing myself like some commodity?”) there is an aspect of it that is valuable to just about all of us, whether we have an active online presence or not. The truth is that reputations are not fixed – they are always growing or decaying. And for those of us whose success depends to any degree on the effect we have on others, it’s good at least to have some understanding of how we are coming across!

So do you really know how you come across to others? Almost all human behaviour creates some kind of impression, either positive or negative. A surprisingly small amount is neutral in its impact. As part of the coaching I provide to leaders and managers, I frequently get the opportunity to speak to their colleagues about their experience of the individual. In the hundred such conversations I’ve had in the last couple of years, every single provider of feedback has been able, with help from the questions asked, to give richly textured, specific and balanced insights. It’s just amazed me how much data is out there – if only we were brave enough to ask!

So what can you do to find out how you come across? Assuming you don’t have a coach on hand to gather the data and to offer their own observations, why not simply invite a few colleagues to answer a set of questions such as these:

1.       How have you experienced me to be effective?

2.       How have you found me to be less effective?

3.       What do you enjoy about working with me?

4.       What would you recommend to me to do differently?

The very fact that you ask for such feedback will have an impact on how you are perceived – a positive one, provided you ask with good intent and a receptive attitude!

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Raising levels of performance: a matter of confidence?

How do you get a group of battle-hardened professionals to continue to improve their skills and to stay at the top of their game?

This challenge is no more pressing right now than in the public sector where headteachers, police chiefs, nursing managers and many others are facing budget cuts, a workforce worn down by continual change, and ever-increasing expectations from the ‘customer’. How can anyone motivate, engage and nurture high standards of performance in such an environment?

I have the privilege of working with leaders addressing this question. I see new targets being set, training provided, staff being encouraged to ‘raise the bar’, support being offered, and much time and effort being expended by highly committed team members.  And yet it is striking how in spite of such effort, many organisations are seeing very little improvement in performance, and at worst some are seeing standards deteriorate.

My experience suggests that many organisations are missing a vital first step; a step that is essential in creating the conditions where target-setting, training, and performance management can deliver results; a step that is commonly over-looked or to which mere lip-service is paid.

In a nutshell, this first step is for individuals’ strengths to be recognised and to be made use of at work in a way that is regular and conscious.

In their book First Break All the Rules, Buckingham and Coffman provide a list of 12 questions that, when answered positively by a group of employees, indicate a strong working environment where high performance is likely. Of the top four questions, two are:

  • At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  • In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?

Having gone through much change in recent years, how many established teachers, nurses and policemen still know with absolute confidence and certainty what they do best? How many can describe specific occasions over the last month where they have done something for which they feel a sense of pride? How many of their bosses know exactly what these things are? And then how many bosses provide recognition for them, by offering praise and also by giving further opportunities to utilise and develop these strengths?  

Until leaders help to generate such confidence amongst their people, their attempts to motivate towards new targets will continue to have limited success.


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A new approach to influencing the debate on Scottish independence?


Watching British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking on the subject of Scottish independence this week, I was struck by what seemed to be a change of approach to the debate; a change that holds a greater probability of achieving an outcome that is good for the UK.

There was a complete absence of the threatening and emotional language that has formerly typified the debate. Gone were the any denouncements of the idea of independence, or forcefully-made points about Scotland being worse off alone. Instead there was openness to the idea that Scotland could be successful as an independent country, enthusiasm for having the debate itself, and acknowledgement that his voice was just one among many.

Some might interpret this as Cameron going soft and failing to stand up and fight his corner. How will he succeed if he won’t defend his position and attack that of his opponents? Of course the truth is that he could never succeed at bullying or arguing the Scottish nationalists into submission; such an approach would only generate more resistance and entrench opinions further.

Instead Cameron has taken an approach that acknowledges the nationalists’ views; he has acknowledged that they do have the right to decide; and he has acknowledged the limits of his influence. He has thus achieved two important things. First he has provided his ‘opponents’ with recognition and acceptance – exactly what many Scots feel that Scotland lacks in the UK. And second he has cleared the ground of negativity and fear, creating a setting in which his own views can be heard and create an impact.

And that is exactly what he was then able to do, expressing what is important to him about keeping the UK intact, demonstrating his personal strength of feeling on the subject, arguing why he believes the country is so much “better together, stronger together, more influential together”.  In expressing his own feelings after his acknowledgement of the position of the nationalists, they packed a far greater emotional punch than would otherwise have been the case.

Clearly this debate has several years to run and will continue to arouse strong reactions. Yet the more that individuals can manage their own natural defensiveness and truly acknowledge the views of others, the more likely we are to create a future that is bright for all the people of these islands.


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Can you be friends with your team members and direct reports?

Thanks Colin for raising this question today; one that I am often asked on workshops and courses. As with many other perplexing questions, exploring what lies behind the question itself can be of greater help than finding a resolution. It can be especially revealing to ask oneself the following:

When I am at work, which takes greater priority for me: a) for me to be ‘liked’ by my team, or b) for me to ‘like’ them?

Most people answer that being liked is their greater concern. This is of course totally understandable as most of us want to be liked and may have a strong psychological desire for the approval of others. The problem in operating from this place however is that in practice we can’t make anyone like us, however ‘likeably’ we behave. And of course the more we act out of a wish to be liked, the more probable it will be to have the opposite effect, even to the point of pushing people away.

On the other hand ‘liking others’ is fully within our control. Many people are surprised by this notion, but if you think about it for a moment you can see the logic here. However unlikable we may initially find another person, it is possible ultimately to choose to seek out their qualities and to demonstrate an interest in them. Of course it takes effort and can be counter-instinctual, but the rewards can be hugely positive. Who is not going to respond well to the person who likes them and shows an interest in them!

So if we consider what it means to ‘like’ somebody, we’re not talking about being soft, yielding, or tolerating of underperformance. Rather we’re talking about showing a respect demonstrated by our careful listening, interest in their opinions, remembering details of previous conversations, and recognising their freedom to choose rather than be coerced.

“But” you may ask, “what about those occasions when I need to be tough with them, give difficult feedback or bad news?” Of course this is likely to be hard if you are primarily concerned about your friendship with the other person. If however, you choose to ‘like’ in the way described above, regardless of their view of you, you are in a much stronger place to deliver the tough messages.

So, can you be friends with your team members? Sometimes this will be possible, desirable and enjoyable. Sometimes not.

And can you decide to ‘like’ them? Always!

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