New York State of Mind

Last week I was in New York. I kicked my trip off with a meeting at the Fashion Institute of Technology; then a leisurely dinner with an old friend who was in my team, oh I don’t know how many moons ago. Then I went out to New Jersey to run a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders workshop with the IABC NJ chapter.

In a couple of hours, I will board a Cathay Pacific flight (Isobel insists!) to Hong Kong where will be putting a few new ideas to the test in that important market. So I’m sitting here reflecting on meetings with old friends and new. Is there such a thing as a “New York state of mind?”. Or was Billy Joel completely wrong?

Of course there is the archetype of the typical New Yorker, but let us of focus on the “new”. Is there a mindset or an approach to life that can make a difference in your career? Can you be purposeful? I think the answer is ‘yes’. Let me give you two examples, without giving too much away.

Exhibit one: my ex-team member, Kelly Anson. Moved to NY after a failed marriage and wanted to rebuild her life. She took positive steps to fix a few things, and made it happen. Now she lives in a great house, with a great job, and a great family. She’s got it all! But only because she took some active steps to make changes. Yes, luck is important – or, for Isobel, cleromancy – but you do make your own. And she did in spades.

Exhibit two: a completely new friend, Casper Toms. He came to my workshop at the Vanderbilt residence (more on that later). As you know, our workshops are generally designed for people in comms who want to advance their career. Casper works at a wealth management company, having studied Economics and Sustainability in Europe. So why did he come to my workshop? He wanted to expand his horizons, play outside his comfort zone and meet new people.

This got me thinking. There was a lot of excitement for the IABC world conference in Vancouver last week. A lot of communicators I know where there. I couldn’t go, alas. But I couldn’t help but wonder, are comms professionals over excited about playing in their own professional sandbox? Or should we be more like Caspar and attend things outside our natural home … to learn more about business. Maybe we all need to be a ‘bit more Caspar’ and have a different state of mind when it comes to networking and professional development. After all, if a finance person can come to a comms event, why not the other way around? Dare to be new, I say.

Oh, I promised something about the Vanderbilts. We did our workshop in one of the rooms of their old house: Florham. About an hour west of NYC. An echo of a golden era – I was reminded of West Egg but of course it is really modelled on Hampton Court in London.  Now of course, the house is part of a University and is focused on creating intellectual wealth, not financial. And I bet you didn’t know this: there’s good evidence that Cornelius Vanderbilt started his life as a technical expert (ferry captain in New York) before becoming strategic adviser (to his business partner in the 1810s) and then … famously … business leader.

That, to me, is the true New York state of mind!

From May to June, of butterflies and caterpillars

In our Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders Workshops, we talk about this concept all the time: how do I transform myself from technical expert to strategic adviser? The underlying questions participants are trying to answer are: “How do I grow into my next self? How do I transform myself to the person I want to be?”

Today, let’s look at nature for the answer: the butterfly. That’s the goal. The majestic creature that inspires children and grown-ups alike, attracts all kinds of attention. She shows the way with panache, elegance and sometimes even a bit of whimsy. 

Yet, our imagination rarely focuses on what it takes to make a butterfly: the three stages before.

First, the egg. We are all this at the start of our careers: full of potential and often indistinguishable from our peers in terms of know-how and experience. The employee.

Next ….

Second, the caterpillar. She’s starting to develop a personality, so let’s call her June. She knows her task, she follows her plan, she executes. Think of her as the manager. The one that has spent time in perfecting his or her craft and is a true expert. She is hungry, ambitious and on a growth journey.

And then….

Third, the chrysalis. She stops. She reflects. She transforms herself. When ready to be a butterfly, she takes a step back and looks inward to build a new self. She forms herself into a pupa and, while it looks like nothing is happening internally, she is transforming. She is changing her motivations, her style and her approach to life.

Finally, she becomes…

Fourth, the butterfly. The leader. She’s made it and is the queen of all she surveys.

In this story, nature provides the chrysalis stage, the chance for metamorphosis. But in the real world, too often we see June the caterpillar-manager, jump straight into the butterfly-leader world and are disappointed to see that she hasn’t flourished. June goes about her business in the same way, with no pause and no transformation. And then, inevitably, the caterpillar who didn’t invest in becoming a butterfly fails at flying. Caterpillar behaviour is inappropriate in the butterfly world.

In nature this would make no sense, it does not exist. Transformation is required not only for success, but for survival. In business, we often forget the pause, the chrysalis stage, and then are surprised when the transformation does not occur.

In the UK today, we have watched another political leader fail because — although widely recognised as a pretty successful caterpillar — there was no transformational stage before she got picked to be a butterfly almost three years ago. Being a very hungry caterpillar brought her success. She built her craft, did the hard work. Succeeded where others had failed. But caterpillar behaviour doesn’t work in the butterfly world.

If you are ready to transform into a leader, recognise that a radical transformation is needed and that the unsung hero is the chrysalis stage. When the time comes, leave your craft, your hunger, your systems and approaches behind and embrace the journey of becoming a butterfly. 

This is how leaders flourish, and successful careers are built. One natural state at a time. If you try and ‘hack’ the chrysalis stage, others might not think you can hack leadership. Your colleagues will gang up on you and force you out of the corner office. 

With Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders, we provide a fun, meaningful space for you to pause, learn and get the tools you need to transform yourself into the next version of you. If you want to find out more, drop us a line. 

A learning experience for all

I have a five-year old nephew. His name is Hugo and he is a-ma-zing. The other day I picked him up from school for some special uncle-nephew time. It was a Friday and he was staying with me for the night. I told him we could do anything he wanted, and I expected him to shout “Let’s go swimming!” “Let’s have ice cream!” “Let’s go to the zoo!” I’m used to kids shouting out ideas and building on that energy. To my surprise, Hugo said “I need to think about it. Can I tell you when we get home?” I was taken aback. 

On the 10-minute walk home, while Hugo pondered the million choices ahead of him, my mind wandered back to the office. For those of you who don’t know me, I am HR Director of Globocorp, the wearable tech company. My job is to help all our employees grow and flourish making the company the best in this business. We run an internal academy of learning with lots of interesting courses to help our employees move through their own career paths. Two weeks earlier, Kendi, my head of learning, sent me a video with a note: “Watch this and we’ll talk on our weekly catch up next week when we will discuss Globocorp’s academy for next year.”

Hugo’s response and Kendi’s gentle nudge, opened my eyes. I’m a musician, an extrovert and I love thinking and working out loud. I forget not everybody around me does. Kendi’s nudge … Hugo’s pauses … The universe was teaching me something. 

Where does learning happen?

Great learning happens at the liminal zone between comfort and discomfort, so our job is to take people to the edge of their comfort zone and help them explore new territory. This the space that business simulations, like Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders, occupy. 

We use simulations, play and scenarios to explore some of the key challenges faced by functional specialists working in HR, legal and communication. We make it real by getting participants to walk in my shoes for a bit. Or Carmen’s or Lloyd’s. We also develop scenarios based on real-life events that happen in companies big and small. This makes our sessions realistic, improving the learning potential.

Besides, it’s more fun this way. And, as some of you know, I earned my PhD proving the link between having fun and improving learning outcomes. (If you’re interested, this article is a good place to start).

Give them the silent treatment

Hugo reminded me that it requires more than game-playing to help people develop new skills. To help embed the learning, we must mix active play with theory and self-reflection. 

I think too much teaching caters for extroverts. Teachers and facilitators think they are doing a good thing by building in Q&As or group discussions or syndicate work. While these are often a welcome break from “talk and chalk”, we must recognise that some people prefer thinking time and a chance to reflect quietly, process what they have learned, and reflect it back later. So I’m working with Carmen  to ensure our programme design allows people to get the most from their time with us.

An excellent starting point to understand the power of introverts is Susan Cain’s work Quiet Revolution. I find her free resources very useful.

Even introverts need to play

When we got home, Hugo told me that on Saturday he wanted to go swimming and then for ice cream… and… could we set aside some time for him to finish his drawings? Of course he got what he wanted and we had a great day.

Back to work the next Monday, Kendi and I decided to roll out an “Inclusive meeting protocol” and agreed we would try to reshape my weekly standing meetings in which I ask people to shout out solutions. I realise now this accidentally gives more air time to extroverts. Now we post the questions a day before so those wanting time to reflect are comfortable too.

And when it comes to playing Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders, we have introduced some quiet time so that participants who prefer to reflect are comfortable. We also have an online voting system, so extroverts aren’t over-rewarded for yelping the answer first and loudest.

We’re still learning and trying new ideas. If you work in people and organisational learning, we’d love to hear ideas on how to cater for introverts. In the meantime, be sure to check out our public events where you can have a taste of our game and maybe even meet me.

No Women’s Day Parties at Globocorp

Last year, I was in Guadalajara having a strategy session at a smart wearable plant. On International Women’s Day, I got to the office and found a bouquet of flowers on my desk. I also had an invitation to the Women’s Day Celebration’ luncheon held for the staff. The female staff. And I got mad. Our local, mostly male, staff meant well. But I felt they were missing the point.

International Women’s Day is a day to shine the light on gender inequality and the real life-threatening struggle for women around the world, for equal rights and opportunities. No more, no less. 

It’s a useful tool to focus our attention on pressing issues – from access to clean water and sanitation, maternity health, to the gender pay gap – and the gender data gap

We need more women to thrive in tech, in business, in the economy. If you still need convincing about the business case for diversity, or have been living under a rickshaw, check out Delivering growth through diversity.

However, exactly how to build the diverse workplace is not so clear cut. Too many efforts centre on changing women or giving them access to senior positions. That’s not enough. Not only do women need a seat a the table, we need to fix the table.

Here are the things Globocorp is not doing today:

  • We are not just throwing a party.
  • We are not just aiming our diversity programme at women.
  • We are not just donating to a woman’s charity.
  • We are not just running campaigns that give women a voice for a day.

We are, however, changing the business:

  • I’ve talked to Marua so she reviews the data we use to develop wearables and make sure that our default model is not a fictional average white white male with big hands. Reading “Invisible Women” was a wake up call for me, and we will address this gap in our company.
  • Flexible working policies for all – based on balancing the needs of our business with the needs of our trusted talented people need.
  • Giving line managers the tools to spot, speak about and address bias. Not just gender bias but age, race and sexual orientation. Making decisions based on our prejudices -professional or personal – is an issue in all companies.

Now that last point has me and our HR Director, Hugh Mann, deeply intrigued. We want to give our teams what they need to eliminate bias, but the evidence around the impact of unconscious bias training is mixed. So what we’ve proposed is to play more games, and simulate scenarios where we feel bias can play a role in decision making to give employees — male and female — the language to discuss it. 

Playing to know, playing to win

Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders is a very useful for tool for this. Playing and having fun opens your brain to learning, relaxes you and breaks down defense mechanisms. Working with fictional people like me allows you to have tough conversations in a safe space. At Globocorp, Corporate Snakes and Corporate Ladders for diversity is an experiment in pilot phase, and I hope to roll it out across the business soon. 

Speaking up to eradicate bias takes three things: the language to spot it, the courage to name it, and a corporate culture open to changing its ways. Since it is very complex and engrained into a person’s history and culture, it has as many shapes as there are stars under the sky. 

You can’t address it with a one day workshop, as much as my CFO would like me to. Instead, we can give people the tools to recognize when they suspect bias is at play – and practice ways to put it on the table, and deal with it. 

Today, we commemorate the progress made and the changes needed to address the fact that globally, as humankind, we’ve build a world that marginalises half the population. Half the market.  

The world of simulation might help you navigate the waters of tricky conversations. Now that’s a way to mark International Women’s Day.

The ‘how to say no’ menu: dessert

Carmen Spinoza profile card
Follow @CarmenSpinoza11

Yesterday, inspired by a session at #EMENAcomm, I shared my tips on how to say no.

Once the conference ended, I was invited to dinner with some of the speakers. Over drinks and lovely Indian food at the Maharaja restaurant, the subject of saying no and negotiating your time came up again.

“There isn’t a team in the world that can take on all the work, all the time” Zanya, a brilliant agency owner from Belarus confessed, “So saying no is a skill few of us master in time.”

So these two articles are an attempt to share what I’ve learned and maybe sparking so culinary adventures in my readers.

Part 1 covered the beginning of a meal:

• appetisers which are simple and easy to use approaches,

and

• main courses, or slightly more robust sophisticated ways to say no.

They all respond to two questions:

How do you say ‘no’ without annoying your customer or stakeholder (internal or external)?

How do you manage your time effectively so that you are focusing on the right things, at the right time, for the right result?

For those who want a bit extra, I’ve pulled together a couple of advanced tactics.

They come with a warning: Don’t eat too often from this part of the menu! These are more controversial and slightly riskier.

Give normal

This is a polite version of ‘computer says no’. It goes like this, “I know you have asked for X, but our system can only do it in this way. So this is the normal output. I wish I had time to produce a super customised report for you, but this standard format has all the info you need.”

Negotiate

Let them ask for the output but you define how it is to be generated. Produce the analysis in a way that is convenient for you. You can do this under the guise of ‘Normal’ above.

No

What happens if you just say ‘no”? Will we end up in court? Will our most valued employees leave? Will part of our organization fail to achieve its objectives? Will part of our strategy miss the mark? Will you get fired? Think about the consequences … you might be surprised at how small they are.

Neglect

Sometimes the problem will go away. I find this a lot with emails when I am on holiday or on a site visit. Sometimes, when I get back the issue has resolved itself, or the person managed without whatever it was that was oh-so urgent. Of course, this tactic doesn’t always work: sometimes they will come back and chase you … in which case you need to switch tactics (“so sorry I never got back to you! mea culpa”).

Like I said, these are more controversial so use them with care.

Remember to go back to your personal stakeholder map so you ensure you have enough reputation points in the bank to take a risky gamble.

And remember, practice makes perfect so try out these techniques in low-risk situations too. So you feel at ease with each course of the meal, and maybe you can even whip up a dessert of your own.

Simulations and role-playing are a perfect way to flex your negotiation muscles. When you play Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders, you get to put yourself in my shoes and learn how I say no to Buck, Isobel and Marua from time to time. So consider joining us for a game.

Do you have any other strategies? Please do share!

I’m all ears at @carmenspinoza11

An open letter to Carmen Spinoza

Dear Carmen,

Being the director of communications, you’re undoubtedly interested in language, and I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that that might extend to semantics too.

That’s handy, because there are some practical insights to be had through looking at what lies underneath some of the terms used to define your job. Let’s start with what’s on your business card:

Director

The root of the word is ‘to guide’ – and that’s a key to how the world’s top directors operate.

Etymology of Director

Etymology of director

It might be tempting to think that it is all about calling the shots (or shouting ‘cut’ as the cliché goes for movie directors). In truth, directors are part of a team – and the best results come when you work with your colleagues to find a shared way forward.

How might you do that in practice? Well, as the origins of guide imply: a little bit of wit might not go amiss.

Etymology of Guide

Etymology of guide

In practice this doesn’t mean cracking jokes all the time. One definition of wit is: ‘the capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding; keen intelligence.’

So it is about staying level headed when the going gets tough – and recognising that there is strength in numbers. And with the strength, there should also be room to allow for a little humour along the way. It can help you and your colleagues break a deadlock – and look at a challenge in a new way.

Now I mentioned numbers. That’s because you’ll now be part of the senior management team / senior leadership team / the executive management team. There are lots of terms and these are often shortened down to SMT, SLT and EMT but that just makes it even more vague. What is it all about when it comes to purpose and behaviours in a group like this?

Is there perhaps a single short term that can help us inform some of the what, how and why of a group like this?

I propose we take a closer look at the word…

Board

When you look at the root it becomes obvious why so many people talk about getting ‘a seat at the table’. The good people over at Fidelio even have a programme you might want to look at – called exactly this.

Etymology of Board

Etymology of board

What else might we learn from the root? Well, that when a board operates in unison, it really can be like facing a broadside. And boards operate at the sharp edge: they’re there to resolve issues that can’t be solved at lower levels of the organisation.

Now Globocorp operates all over the world, so there are management boards, supervisory boards and subsidiary boards (and a few more in-between). We’ll look closer at these another time.

You might end up serving on more than one – directly, or perhaps as part of a committee – and while the legal framework and statutory requirements will vary, there are some shared principles. The Financial Reporting Council’s updated guidance on board effectiveness is not a bad place to start as you start thinking beyond the function you came up through (so to speak).

Here I’ve pulled a few quick principles to whet your appetite:

FRC Guidance on Board Effectiveness - cover
FRC Guidance on Board Effectiveness

“Effective directors will understand their duties both collectively and individually.”

“A sound understanding at board level of how value is created over time is key in steering strategies and business models towards a sustainable future.”

“The boardroom should be a place for robust debate where challenge, support, diversity of thought and teamwork are essential features.”

“Openness and accountability matter at every level.”

As you can see immediately, this calls for working well beyond the comms department. It requires for you to be a true guide when walking into the boardroom.

Now how might you practice some of these skills in a safe environment, exploring scenarios and testing out approaches?

Get a seat at the table. Help guide.

Play Snakes & Ladders…

Good luck!

Michael

Michael Ambjorn has led people for over 20 years. He has run organisations, chaired boards and developed changemakers. You can find him on LinkedIn or follow him @michaelambjorn

 

The Claire Underwood school of leadership

Last Sunday, after a week putting out metaphorical fires in South East Asia, I managed to book myself a “me day”. I’m in Kuala Lumpur, in one of the suites of the Mandarin Hotel, enjoying the familiar smell of their newly pressed linen (as the ads say, “I’m a fan.”).  After a run through the Perdana Botanical Gardens and a long, long bath I powered my laptop up: Claire is President and I need a binge-watch.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may be forgiven. The world’s realpolitik has become so ‘entertaining’ that it’s almost OK to forget the dark mischievous world of House of Cards, the Netflix series that used to belong to the maligned Kevin Spacey (still I believe one of the best actors of his generation). Season 6 was just released with Robin Wright in the role the first female president of the U.S.

Here is the thing, after the first episode, I got a text from Hugh Mann, our HR Director. He needed to confirm things were OK for next week’s Exec Team meeting. I said “Yes. Now I’m going to lose myself in House of Cards, have you seen it?” “Yes, but I quit watching after the first episode. Once I realised she was only playing her version of Kevin Spacey.”

This totally innocuous comment got me thinking about the topic of women in leadership. No matter how you play it, someone is probably trying to see if you measure up, especially if you’re playing it right. Because, given the limited examples we have of women in positions of power, I believe there is less understanding of diversity and different styles of leadership in women. It’s normal, we are only just beginning to experience what a female leader looks like, is, and how she acts and reacts. The trouble is, when it comes to men, we can see leaders of every shade and tend to judge the person and behaviour. When it comes to female leaders – trust me, I’m one – the starting point is always – consciously or unconsciously – gender.

How, you might ask, have I handled the obvious pressures of being a female leader? I’m still grappling with it, every day. But here are four things I use to guide me in my journey:

  • A mirror – It can be a mentor, a colleague or your right-hand person. It’s someone who can look at you and give you the encouragement and/or the reality check you need. It is someone who knows you from your pre-leader days and can cut through the trappings of power. See: IABC UK’s mentoring programme
  • Noise-cancelling headphones – I use Globocorp’s own “STFU” brand (available at all our stores), the best in the market (of course). You need them to mute and silence the critics. Particularly the ones within. I don’t get the impression that effective male leaders replay every meeting and pull apart every decision they make to imagine a better reaction. In my experience, women tend to do so, we ruminate. So brush off that voice and only listen to her when it’s time to reflect. Brené Brown has some very useful tips on how to silence the inner critic.
  • A compass Sometimes I get lost in the power-jostling, life-balancing, decision-making maze I call my job. Should I fight for that extra million for a new campaign? Should I get involved when I see Buck cutting the canteen budget in our operations? Should I push back when my CEO makes a ridiculous request? How to know? I consult my compass. My true north is the purpose we -as a company- are here to fulfill. My decisions should always align with it. Frankly, sometimes I go off-piste, but that’s OK. The compass is there to bring me back.
  • A skills lab – A safe space to flex your decision-making muscles.  Would you get on a plane with a pilot that hasn’t successfully landed lots and lots of planes in simulation? Would you let a surgeon who had never used a scalpel take out your appendix? Many of us have prepared organizations to respond to crisis through simulations, stress testing a team’s response to media and organizational pressures. It works. We know it. But why should ‘crisis’ have a monopoly on simulations? When was the last time you took your team on a simulation to build their skills in other areas?

I’m still watching the last few episodes House of Cards, so no spoilers, please. I think Robin Wright is delightful in her complex back and forth between total evil and vulnerability, but ask me again after I finish watching. In the meantime, let me know what you think.

And if you want to put your toe into the waters of leadership and learn in the process, I can be the head of your skills lab. Bring a session of Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders to your team.