I am Salma

Many of you are participating in our #testingtimes postcard game. If you playing, watch out for round 4 which is coming out next week. You will be able to explore your preferred influencing style, according to the RECIPE model.  Meanwhile, round 3 was all about the different types of strategic adviser, and here are some reflections from one of our participants, Charlie Mounter.

My adviser archetype is Salma the Sommelier (with a dash of Martha the Maître d’ and a soupçon of Christiane, the Chef). I have ‘a strong sense of client focus’ and my approach balances ‘expertise and relationship building’. I recognise that such exercises can help us think through the more nebulous aspects of our work lives and give us something to chew over. After I met my deadline this week, I did just that – with a glass of wine, naturally.

In the advisory part of my work as an editor, I can be a lot like a sommelier. The first thing I do is to listen, as carefully as I can, to the clients (who tend to be the author and the publisher). I need to stay approachable and really concentrate to learn all I can about their project, but also their styles, preferences, and to what extent they want to take the lead or follow mine. Some clients are certain of their taste, they know exactly what they want and will entertain no deviation. If that’s the case, I serve their vision – after all, it’s their wine. With others, there’s more opportunity to innovate. This can change along the way – one has to stay open minded and adaptable.

The chief concern as editor or sommelier is that the readers or guests understand and enjoy the result. There might be dozens of people at the table, each with their individual wants and needs, and they can disagree vehemently. When I bring together the content for a complex book (which might have maps, photography, illustrations, captions, peer reviews, etc.) I have to work within limitations. Ultimately, whoever is paying has the upper hand, but the best way to mollify concerns is to give sound, evidence-based advice that I have already adapted for the client. Both editor and sommelier deal with complex products but we don’t bring the entire wine list, or content, to bear at once, or it would be overwhelming. The introduction and conclusion – or aperitif and digestif – can carry a lot of this weight by framing the experience. Everything in between is just as important, but people remember bookends. So, like the sommelier, I’m a mediator realising the qualities of the wine and its terroir, communicating the relevant parts of what I’ve learned and the context of the ideas and their implications, and trying to please the end consumer – if I lose sight of that, all is lost!

Editorial projects, and especially books, can take yonks to come to market. Just as a sommelier needs to manage the fluctuations of guests eating a meal, I have to maintain  energy and spark inspiration along the critical path. An author must keep sight of the story they’re telling, but some want to learn all the editorial nuts and bolts, too. Giving that advice is as much an experiential process as a results-driven one. Like a sommelier, I explore in order to discover; I judge when to interrupt, when to step back. The proof might be in the pudding but, as my Archetypical feedback noted, I can become demotivated if metrics outweigh all other concerns. Editorial margins and mark-ups don’t only apply to budgets.

Just as in the world of wine, independent study and research forms the basis of my trade. There’s always so much more to learn. Augustus, the virtual restaurant we advisers work for, might be closed for the pandemic, but that’s my takeaway.

 

New views from New Jersey

Hundreds have played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders around the world – and we like to check in with people. Last week, Stephen spoke by video with Rhonda Sciarra, current IABC New Jersey president and an associate director of global external communications at a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. 

Rhonda at our last event in New Jersey
Rhonda Sciarra

 

Stephen:      Hi Rhonda, thanks for agreeing to chat. Before we start, please tell me about your leadership and involvement in IABC.

Rhonda:       Thanks. In my nearly 20 years of experience as a communicator, I have found IABC to be a valuable community locally and globally. I appreciate how IABC aligns business communications with organizational goals – and then measuring outcomes. I have worked both in internal and external communications and find IABC to be relevant and contemporary – it is also an organization when you give a little, the returns are immense. 

Stephen:      Your IABC New Jersey Board helped organize, and you attended, a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders workshop in New Jersey last summer. What was it like?

Rhonda:       When we look for professional development ideas, any experience that is engaging from the start and promotes learning while doing is ideal. Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders did just this. The exercise and workshop promoted some great discussions. By immersing ourselves in the simulated world of Carmen Spinoza and her colleagues, we were able to have detailed discussions and hear from different perspectives. Because we came from different disciplines, not everyone had the same view.

Stephen:      What three words would you use to describe the event?

Rhonda:       Dynamic, fun, thought-provoking.

Stephen:      Tell me about the last. How has the event changed your perspective?

Rhonda:       The event reinforced how we should think about leadership in a different way. As communications professionals, we have the chance to think about the big picture and take care to reflect the business strategy in our conversations with teams we work with. That wider perspective and focus on outcomes, versus just outputs, allows us to act more as strategic advisers.

Stephen:      We’re in the process of developing an on-line version of the workshop. What do you think is the main thing to keep in mind as we do?

Rhonda:       Try to find a way to have some levity and get people active beyond just sitting at a screen. As I mentioned, ‘fun’ is one of the key words for the workshop that I experienced in person, so be sure to keep that when moving the simulation to this new virtual world we are in. 

Stephen:      That’s a great point. Thank you. In the meantime, tell us about Rhonda outside work? What do you do when you are not working?

Rhonda:       Well, I live outside New York City and am really appreciating my Peloton, while trying and get out running when I can – mask on and physically distancing. My puggle is entertaining, and I am keeping in contact with family and friends back in St. Louis and Kansas City. 

Stephen:      Great, thanks for your time – hope to see you in person sometime soon.

Rhonda:       Me too! Take care. 

If you want to get to know Rhonda (we recommend it!) follow her on Twitter @Rhonda_Lea or connect with her on LinkedIn

What type of adviser are you?

Welcome to this week’s blog post … with a twist.

Those of you who are playing our #testingtimes postcard game will know that we have developed an on-line self-assessment tool to help you explore your own advisory style.

As strategic advisers, we work with our clients (internal or external) in different ways. Here at Archetypical, we have developed a taxonomy to help you explore your own style and think about how you work in different situations.

To find out more … and to complete the self-assessment survey … click here.

Meanwhile, stay tuned to our blog because next week we will be interviewing one of our favorite alumna.

 

 

 

 

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  1.  

The story of a career workout in #testingtimes

Charlie Mounter, freelance editor, joined the #testingtimes challenge and here are her reflections on taking on our career bingo.

Just as it pays to step away from the screen, taking time to really think about what we are doing can save us from making mistakes. Listening to the economist Tim Harford’s podcast Cautionary Tales reminds me of many basic principles that bear on aspects of life under a pandemic: question authority and your own assumptions; beware of ‘hot states’ when hungry, anxious, tired or under pressure; design your systems to anticipate human error; arrange information to be used in the order it is needed. Nobody can see into the future, so we need to remember that forecasts are tools for discussion, rather than edicts we must accept. 

Everything has changed, yet we can’t leave our homes to explore it. As a freelance editor I cope well with lockdown, but the boundaries between work and leisure have become more blurred than usual. Though the internet is essential to both, when I’m online I find myself reading a lot of news, where there are no end of updates and few conclusions to be reached. Time can be squandered that way, so my husband and I decided to turn off our wi-fi for two hours every afternoon. This means we can pay full attention to challenging books we were putting off reading. Being focused takes our mind off things and brings us some structure and resolution. 

Looking again at my CV, I realised that some of my skills have new implications. For instance, although I regularly manage projects there are now degrees in project management with methodologies I know nothing about. To address this, I signed up to a free course in the Fundamentals of Project Management that I can follow in small increments at my own pace. I hope I will learn to be more systematic and gain insights into other ways of working. 

Constraints can give us the impetus to be more imaginative, as can starting somewhere new or adding randomness. Back in the domestic sphere, for a while now I have been sprouting mung beans, which need daily rinsing and draining and to grow in the dark. The large jar with muslin and an elastic band that I had been using for this was a bit unwieldy and needed to be kept in a dark cupboard, which meant I sometimes forgot about it and the sprouts spoiled. When I went to put away my travel coffee cup, I realised that its lid, drinking hole and closing tab make it an improvement on my old sprouter, and its opacity means it can be kept on the counter. The cup has been salvaged from redundancy but it can fulfil its former function when the lockdown lifts. 

The new challenges and applications I’m taking on are practical. They help me reintegrate different modes of thinking and better equip me for life after limbo. Many options have been shut off, which has nudged me to make new choices. Sometimes we don’t try till someone or something makes us.

You can connect with Charlie on LinkedIn. She will continue to guest blog for us in the next few weeks.

If you would like to share your experience taking part in the #testingtimes challenge, get in touch!

Looking at things from a different angle

“It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens (Alice had once made the remark) that whatever you say to them, they always purr.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Welcome to the second challenge of our #testingtimes campaign. If you’re reading this, you might have successfully completed challenge one; if not, it’s not too late to sign up, just send us your physical address and we’ll pop a card in the post.

Today we’ll focus on taking a looking at things from a different angle. We think it’s a useful skill to have if you want to grow your career. Because to be a senior adviser you need to be better than a lawyer that only sees legal problems or a human resources expert that only sees people issues. What you want is to be is an enterprise-wide thinker, who solves business issues bringing in a wide range of perspectives. Alice, in the quote above, is sharing the frustration we sometimes hear from leaders, so don’t be a kitten to always purrs; sometimes you need to roar — or even bark or chirp from time to time.

A first step is to step back and learn to see things from other angles. Exercise your creative muscles. Artists do it, philosophers do it and now you can too. Creativity can be focused and learned, just like any other skill.

So here’s your second career workout:

  1. The warm up 

Full disclosure, we borrowed this idea from London’s premier contemporary art gallery, the Tate Modern. They use it in their creativity for artists class. We asked you to pick and object, and then photograph it from an entire different angle.

Check out our Twitter feed for our own examples, in the meantime here’s what we did:

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In this example a sculpture became a candle holder and it made me think of Frida Khalo and my travels through Mexico. And then, looking closer a cactus turns into barbed wire.

2. Exercise your core

The key learning comes through reflecting on the process:

  • How did the search for a new angle made you feel? Energised? Stressed?
  • Was it hard? Was it easy?
  • Did it invite you to create something new?
  • Could you find a new use for the object after seeing from a new angle?

Through this objects take a new life; ideas expand and even sparks of joy flow in the process.

3. Stretching

Now let’s put it into action at work. Is there a piece of work on the ‘back boiler’ that you could re-purpose to address a current need? For example, we had an old competitor analysis that we never properly finished, and we’ll now use it to help us figure out how to take Archetypical from a face-to-face business into a virtual facilitation one! (Watch this space for more.)

Creativity is a journey and we thank you for joining us in this #testing times

If you really like the idea of flexing your creativity muscles, here a few things we really like:

As always we would love to hear from you in this #testingtimes.

Your career workout for #testingtimes

Great! If you are reading this, it means you’ve completed the first postcard challenge.

We are all going through extremely testing times. Work is fluid, merging into home life. Some of us find ourselves looking for new ways to fill up the time we’ve recovered from no longer commuting, others face the challenge of even less time to spare, either because they play a role in their organization’s COVID response (more work!) or having to balance work with looking after children at home; or in some cases, both.

There is flurry of articles on how to deal with working from home and about looking after your mental and physical health while keeping the trains of work and home life running. Some of the ones we’ve enjoyed are at the end of this blog.

However, we have declared this space to be COVID-free space. Our mission is to bring you a little bit of joy and inspiration, while continuing to grow your career as a strategic adviser. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably signed up to our postcard #testingtimes campaign and so your challenge is to try to put one of these suggestions into action in the next two weeks. If you’ve not signed up: email us your physical address for the next few weeks. It’s not too late to join the game.

Here’s three ideas that might help you flex your strategic muscles.

  • 1. Play outside your sandbox – To jump from being a technical expert (in comms, legal, human resources, or other functions) you have to leap into a wider body of knowledge, to understand how other professions see business. This is the time to open up your mind to new fields with the strategic intent of improving how you perform in your own.
  • 2. Learn to look at things differently- The world was already volatile before COVID, now we need to be even more flexible. But to a hammer all problems look like nails. So how do you step away from the hammer? Try approaching a familiar situation from a new perspective. 
  • 3. Nurture your boundaries – Healthy boundaries – permeable, flexible ones, are the key to a healthy life and a healthy career. Limits are good. Know what yours are, only then can you decide which limits to push. 

But how?, you might ask. Keeping our promise to be fun, without further ado, we present the #testingtimes bingo: a quick reference guide to keep growing your career without leaving home.

Tip If you have more time than usual If you have less time than usual
Play outside your sandbox
  1. Sign up for a free online course in something unrelated to your field (Accounting and Design Thinking come to mind).
  2. Follow the news, stock price and commentary of a sector you are not involved with. Fashion? Aviation? The Arts? (Stephen  is a member of the Royal Academy in London: you can sign up to regular emails here.)
  3. A couple of years ago, Casilda did a creativity course at the Tate Modern. Here’s a new idea.
  1. Call up someone (a friend, a new colleague) who works on a different area and just take 10 minutes to ask what their regular day is like. 
  2. Follow a company outside your sector on social media or on the digital newspaper of your choice. 
  3. Talk to your children about what you do, pay attention to their questions. They are very revealing of what’s important.
Look at things differently
  1. Try doing “opposition research” on your organisation. If you were an NGO, what issues would you raise?
  2. Now do “opposition research” on yourself, how would you turn your weaknesses into strengths?
  3. Read an interview with Karl Rove and David Axelrod on opposition research. 
  1. Get a friend or your partner to give you feedback on a piece of work they’ve never seen before. Don’t explain, just listen. 
  2. Listen to an episode of Cautionary Tales by Tim Harford
  3. When/if you are out for your daily exercise: think about the first car you see and create an imaginary biography for it.
Nurture your boundaries
  1. Understand what healthy boundaries look like. We like Brene Brown’s advice
  2. Try setting a schedule put your phone on “flight mode” no interruptions for an hour or two a day. 
  1. Block a 30-minute pause time in your calendar a day. Just for you.
  2. Try saying no to at least one non-essential request. Read our tips on how to say no. 
  3. Unsubscribe from redundant mailing lists.
  4. Turn your phone off for an hour. Go on, I dare you.
Three of the many, many resources for working from home and mental health

The next instalment of our #testingtimes campaign will come in two weeks. 

Everyone’s a Yannis

Always could believe all the things you tell to me
Always could believe the advice you give
Every day I bless the day you started to guide me
But lately, baby, I wonder if you’ve gone too far.
These days, everyone’s a Yannis, that’s the truth.
Giving advice is such a thrill. But sometimes it’s not right.

(with apologies to Errol Brown and Hot Chocolate … and Bootsauce)

“Everyone’s a Yannis.” What’s the truth? What does it mean?

Viral epidemics are no joke. We need to take them seriously. And many business leaders are struggling for a response. So it is no surprise that they turn to their strategic advisers for guidance.

Here at Archetypical, we have identified five types of strategic advisers. They are best explained via the analogy of a restaurant (click here for more details):
• Yannis the Yelper who provides the solution immediately.
• Martha the Maître d’ who is responsible for your overall experience.
• William the Waiter who takes orders.
• Salma the Sommelier who engages you in a chat about ‘solutions’.
• Christiane the Chef who is the technical expert you may never meet.

Many HRBPs and communication professionals complain that they are put into William roles, relegated to the job of order-taking and not adding value beyond telling managers (customers) what the soup of the day is.

Lately, though, we are seeing a surge of the Yannis archetype: advisers who feel that their role is to ‘instruct’ or ‘tell’. A ‘Yannis’ always knows best and positions themselves as the expert: he or she ‘knows’ the right solution. For example, here are some recent posts in my Linkedin feed:
• 5 Communication tips on how to deal with Covid-19.
• 10 ways HRBPs can reassure employees about Coronavirus.
• How to be productive while working at home.
• A checklist for employee communications around Coronavirus.
• Check out our blog to effectively lead during and after the outbreak.
• etc.

A Yannis is a good person to have by your side in a crisis. He or she will always have the answer and help you short-cut a complicated process; removing doubt and uncertainty. Sometimes it is helpful to have the decision taken away from you; let Yannis do the work – do what he says and you won’t go wrong.

A Yannis backed up by expertise is even better. When a medical professional appears on TV and plays Yannis; you will get reassurance and clear instructions.

However, there is a downside.

The challenge of the Yannis role is that s/he doesn’t know anything about your context, your circumstances, the specific situation of your organization, or your culture. When everyone’s a Yannis, you never can explain what’s happening to you.

As a Yannis, it is very tempting to blurt out the answer and share your ideas, but the challenge is that you might not be taken seriously because your advice is not helpful given the specific situation. Because s/he doesn’t take the receiver’s specific situation into account, there is a risk that Yannis gets side-lined and the advice is relegated to ‘noise’. For example, we all know to treat on-line hotel or Yelp reviews carefully and think for ourselves when deciding which reviewer (which Yannis) to listen to.

If you decide that Covid-19 constitutes a crisis for your organization, then Yannis can make a contribution. But if, on the other hand, you are still in the ‘taking precautions’ or ‘prevent’ phase then maybe you need Salma the Sommelier instead.

Salma – like all good wine waiters – operates quite differently from Yannis. She has equal (if not better) expertise but instead of telling the customer immediately what wine ‘solution’ to have (“here is my list of 10 wines you must have”), she’ll have a conversation and help you determine the best response, taking into account your specific context and requirements. She might have the checklist in her head but rather than blurting out the whole thing like Yannis would, she’ll guide you to one or two best answers for your business. Just like a sommelier will help you choose the right wine for you.

As strategic advisers, our ‘win’ is when leaders or clients listen and act on our advice. The challenge is to frame your advice in the best way to create success. Sometimes it is right to play Yannis. But there are other times when you need to play a different role.

Enter Salma.

“When everyone’s a Yannis, it’s no joke.
But baby, it’s amazing how wonderful it is,
when the roles we like to play can often change.”

Notes from Amsterdam: Where was the strategic adviser?

André Manning

Guest post from André Manning.

Editor’s note: a version of this blog, in Dutch, originally appeared here, the blog of the Logeion, the Dutch association for communication professionals.

One of the most challenging roles during my career in communications has been the Trusted Adviser one. And I guess it might be the same for many of my colleagues. In my view this is because this role goes beyond the technical skills of the communications professional. Being a trusted adviser is about the ability to influence your internal stakeholders (eg. the executive board) with the right communications advice to support the long-term organizational objectives. It is about the key characteristics of an executive management role, which can be quite challenging. The right coaching by peers or training during management development programs might certainly be of help. Though I have to admit that the time spent on this topic during these training programs is still relatively limited. This is why projects like Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders are so interesting: they give people the chance to practice what it is like to be a Trusted Adviser.

During my international career at companies such as Royal Philips, Booking.com or Amcor I played this role most of the times successfully. But honestly, sometimes I was wrong or there was at least room for improvement. Most of the times it was fun to be consulted as a Trusted Adviser. But there have been occasions it was only fun afterwards! And while in the beginning of my career gut feeling or the use of descriptive data was enough to convince my peers nowadays the use of prescriptive data or evidence-based research is becoming more important.

The challenges of the Trusted Adviser role were demonstrated once more when my wife and I were watching the Dutch 8 O’ Clock news recently. During one of the items a commercial director of a holiday resort was interviewed about a recent two-day teacher strike in the Netherlands. The commercial director proudly stated that he and his organization had cleverly responded to the fact that many parents had to make a virtue of necessity. Because teachers went on strike on both Thursday and Friday, parents were obliged to take time off work. They had to find a solution to entertain their children in – for example – an indoor ice rink park, a commercial playground or a holiday park. And the “smart” commercial director that I am talking about, was convinced (or was it greed?) he could make some extra money easily by raising the prices of a long weekend at his resort.

After all, he argued, these parents (and their children) would come anyway. In the same news-item, other entrepreneurs, with a different view, were interviewed as well. They had not given in to the sudden opportunity and chose for the opposite; they reduced the prices of their amenities.

I can’t help it, but I can’t get this news-item out of my mind. Not only as a consumer but also as a communications professional. What drove this man’s decision? And why did he choose to appear on the 8 O’Clock news to talk about it with pride? And was there a communications professional who advised him to do so?

Believe me, I am not against market forces, but I still think that I would have done things differently as an entrepreneur. And more importantly, I also would have taken another business decision into account as a trusted communication adviser. I’m still puzzled and don’t understand why the manager of the holiday resort didn’t go for the opposite and meet those parents who were hit by the teachers’ strike. Why didn’t he choose to make a special offer to the parents impacted; to show empathy and understanding (which is so important in communications) instead of focusing on short-term profit maximization? And… where was his “trusted adviser” in this case?

As we all know, a communications adviser is expected to be able to play multiple roles. And one of the most difficult roles as I said in the beginning of this blog, is the one that in management literature and practice, is called “the Trusted Adviser”.

The Trusted Adviser role is also the one where you sometimes have to stick your neck out. Or, as Dutch emeritus professor Cees van Riel (who is still working within the Reputation Institute) once said, “dare to risk your position”. Now, back to the example I mentioned earlier. I am curious what you would have done in this case, what would you have advised the commercial manager of the holiday resort. And do you feel equipped well with the right advisory or management skills to do so? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Andre Manning has had communications leadership roles within Royal Philips, AkzoNobel, Booking.com and Amcor amongst others. Currently he is the director of Logeion, the Dutch association of communications professionals, with more than 4,200 individual members. Logeion members work both at profit as well as non-profit organizations, communications agencies and as individual consultants. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Feature image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amsterdam-IMG_0051.JPG

Reader, I fired him

Guest post by Marua Kobayashi

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a senior leader in possession of a responsible position, must be in want of a strategic adviser.

Oh wait, sorry. I’m getting my 19th century English writers mixed up. But it does help me tell you a story of when I was let down by one of my supposed “strategic advisers”. As a result: he had to go.

Before I joined Globocorp I was a senior operations manager in a large company in Peru, my home country. I won’t say which company it was but I will give you a clue: Peru is known for two main industries and I hate fishing.

Anyway, to my story… and its lessons for the readers of this blog.

About a year before I left, we were in the throes of rolling out a new on-line management system for my division. I was the ultimate decision-maker. There was a project leader and an in-house team who were working with some developers to design and roll out the software. Everything was going well – we had  planning sessions and had been progressing to plan for a year. (Who knew it took so many people to make a decision and resolve the ‘small questions’? One of the reasons I left to join Globocorp, but that’s another story).

We were getting towards the end of the process – beta versions were bouncing around – when I had a great idea. Or as my friend, Carmen Spinoza, calls them “one of your ‘find the impossible solution and change the rules’ ideas”. I wish I knew her then; she would have advised me properly…. 

Instead I had a dolt of an adviser called Benjamín Wilkin, as project leader. His job title said “business partner” but, after what happened, I know his next business card said “desempleado”.

Looking back, I realised my great idea was going to make a transformational difference to the way we worked. But it did require a lot of effort, and (if I’m really honest) was probably better left for a future release. But I mentioned it in an off-hand way in a meeting with Ben – wouldn’t it be nice if…? – and the damage was done.

Turned out Ben gave my idea to the team as a direct instruction and next thing I know, we’re in a revision process, with people working until midnight, negotiations with key stakeholders about revised deadlines, extra developer fees and a lot of bad feelings all round.

I did that. 

I created that chaos. 

I created family arguments when people in my team had to work late.

I created extra cost. I made this mess.

Or did I?

Ultimately, I suppose I did. But I had no intention to. I just had an idea. I was brainstorming. But the law of unintended consequences always comes to bite you. In two ways.

First, I, as a leader, didn’t make it clear that I was brainstorming. So my ideas were taken as scripture and acted upon. I’m right a lot of the time but not always. I know now to be more clear about how I communicate.

Second, my so-called adviser didn’t advise. I was expecting sage counsel and guidance from Ben.

After all, he was the project owner and manager. A sensible adviser would have talked me through the likely consequences of my actions or at least helped me think about them. Wise counsel I was expecting or even a “that’s a very courageous decision, Marua”. Instead: nothing.

So, in effect, Ben caused the chaos. By shirking his duties.

Was he too afraid to say ‘no’? Did he secretly like creating lots of work and blaming me? Did he think about it and make a calculation and think that gaining a few reputation points with me was worth him losing loads with his team and the agency?

I doubt it. I suspect he didn’t think at all. By just implementing my brainstorming idea, he proved himself a waiter: stand and deliver. I’ve got enough waiters, thanks. (What do I mean by “waiter”? Check out the types of advisers post.) I thought Ben was a strategic adviser and senior project manager. Instead, by shirking his duties and not speaking truth to power, he failed his core responsibility.

So, reader, I fired him.

If you are a strategic adviser then do your job. Advise, counsel, guide, challenge, support, debate.

Your whole raison d’être is to add value via different perspectives and thinking. Yes, it can be hard sometimes to say no to a leader (this blog has talked elsewhere on that topic), but those days are the days you earn your money.

Yes-men and women are ten a peso. The real money is when you have someone – like Carmen is to me now – who can help me be a better leader.

Confidence, connection, and creativity

I was recently in Manchester, working with John Anthony, Senior HR Business Partner at HMRC (The UK Government Tax Department). He organized this workshop for about 35 people in order to help his colleagues i) improve their connection to the business, and to teach other, and ii) to improve their confidence in dealing with senior leaders on important business partnering issues. But this was a workshop with a difference, and provided an innovative way to re-think how we (and you) can do team meetings.

“We wanted to create a session that would energize and inspire my HR colleagues to think in a different way about their potential to connect and influence at all levels. Our team works with Customer Services business areas in HMRC; it’s high profile as performance is heavily scrutinised by government and the media. Ultimately we didn’t want the event to just be tomorrow’s ‘chip paper‘. We wanted people to come away from the event having had a memorable experience whilst improving their professional skills ready for working with senior leaders, supporting decision-making, and communicating key messages”, says John. “As part of that we invited Stephen to run a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders to help people not only learn new skills but practice them in the safe environment of a business simulation.”

In response to this request, we developed a special version of the simulation, designed for HR Business Partners who want to improve their impact. We connected the scenarios and case studies to the themes of the day. Overall, participants learned about the importance of key concepts in the morning and then in the afternoon got a chance to practice and ‘play’ with them in the safe world before taking their new ideas back to the ‘real’ world. This meant that the whole day catered to different learning styles: some people learn by reading and taking notes, some by watching others, some by playing. There was something for everyone. What was the feedback?

For me, though, the best part of the day was learning from our client about new approaches to facilitating team meetings. John and his team created a really interesting agenda which turned the usual ideas of corporate away-days on their head. I’ve been to a lot of corporate away-days in my time. Most of these start with some presentation about strategy and then, as the day goes on, work down from strategy to team to individual. Typically ending with some version of “what one thing are you going to do differently?”

Sigh.

Instead, why not borrow an idea from John and his team? Why not start with the individual and work up? The first substantive session of the day was people talking about their own experiences, their USPs and (done in a nice way) their blind spots. Because people were all part of the same team, this enabled them to find out more about each other (connection) and have greater knowledge (confidence) in working with each other. “We wanted to start small and finish big. We wanted everyone to get a sense that at each stage they were being elevated up a level, from the personal to the organizational. Firstly, we asked people to start with reflecting on themselves, connecting with their own strengths but also exposing where they felt uncertain about their role and their team. This proved to be a cathartic experience for many, laying bare many concerns but setting a tone of honesty and openness that ran through the whole day. By simply knowing each other better, we began to see ways we could harness others’ expertise to influence across the team and beyond. We are a geographically diverse team so many of us had never actually met each other in person before. As a result, not only did I learn so many new things about my colleagues, their skills, and the extra value they can bring, but also we gained a real sense of common direction. The cohesion in the team feels very real to me now”, commented John.

Then, naturally, a focus on the team itself. But again, why not turn the traditional approaches on their head? How many meetings have you been to where each team member gives an update of progress in their area? Normally PowerPoint, normally dull. What if instead you put some flipcharts on the wall – one per team member, with the title of their functional area or business? Then, invite others to put post-it notes with their understanding / description of what is happening, any opportunities they see, how to support each other, questions or concerns, etc. This way the functional area owners get feedback on how well their work is understood, knowledge of what is on others’ minds and ideas for collaboration opportunities. Much more interesting, much more fun, and much more useful information. Oh, and there is one more benefit: this subverts the traditional ‘hero’ dynamic where each subsequent presenter goes on for longer and longer, and in more and more detail, just to prove how busy they are. (As the joke goes, by the end of the session most of these PowerPoint presentations have no power and no point.)

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.

John says, “we did it this way around because it gives functional or business area leaders a chance to hear some feedback from the rest of the team in a ‘live’ and energetic setting, and to correct any misunderstandings or lack of knowledge of what they are doing. Communication is a two-way process: those functional leaders need to talk about what they are doing, but they also need to get feedback from others, including where we run the risk of silo working. It could have been an uncomfortable experience but in fact the environment was such that the session was positively embraced. We could immediately see some opportunities for creating better connections at an enterprise level, so it gives us a lot of momentum to make things happen.”

So next time you are faced with designing a team meeting, an off-site or an away-days, borrow some ideas from the innovative approaches government HR teams are doing to help make an impact.

And of course if you do want to hear more about our new Human Resources version of Corporate Snakes and Corporate LaddersTM, do get in touch.