Author Archive

Six Things You Need To Know About Leadership Development Programmes #6

Posted on: October 3rd, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

As TomorrowToday we have the privilege to both design and participate in Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs) throughout the world. We work internationally with some of fineness business schools and blue-chip multi-nationals in this arena. We have seen a great deal: some of it excellent, a lot of it very poor. It is an area of significant spend for the client and there is a real need to get a worthwhile return on investment on your LDP.

Based on our observations and participation, here are six things, shared as a series, that you need to consider when it comes to designing or looking for a strategic partner in the delivery of your LDP:

Ladder into sky# 6: To lead others, you must first lead yourself

You lead ‘out of who you are’. Understanding and tackling this work should be the heart of your leadership development process. There has been too much teaching leaders ‘to do’ and not enough focus and intent on ‘who they are’. There has been too much focus on the skill-set leaders require and not enough emphasis on the leader’s character. Being fit to lead is hard work and although the character ethic has been much written about in leadership literature, it is yet to find a meaningful way into leadership programmes. This is partly due to it being seen as a ‘programme’ and not a ‘process’ as well as the way in which our current programmes are measured. Both contribute to this much needed but much neglected emphasis.

Six Things You Need To Know About Leadership Development Programmes #5

Posted on: October 1st, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

As TomorrowToday we have the privilege to both design and participate in Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs) throughout the world. We work internationally with some of fineness business schools and blue-chip multi-nationals in this arena. We have seen a great deal: some of it excellent, a lot of it very poor. It is an area of significant spend for the client and there is a real need to get a worthwhile return on investment on your LDP.

Based on our observations and participation, here are six things, shared as a series, that you need to consider when it comes to designing or looking for a strategic partner in the delivery of your LDP:

Ladder into sky# 5: Curiosity and questions are more important than certainty and answers

Any leadership development process should be designed to challenge and stimulate your thinking. If you emerge with deeper questions as a result of your process it will have done a good job. Thinking is the place where all intelligent action begins and the translation of this thinking into workable solutions and answers forms the follow-up to the formal learning. This will be your responsibility outside of the formal learning time. You should hear the term ‘rethink’ a lot throughout your programme. ‘Time to think’ and the cultivation of that habit should form part of what you do in such programmes. Sadly, it seldom is embraced and some of the reasons it isn’t is the pressure of the participants themselves, unfamiliar with such reflective disciplines and practice, rebel against its inclusion. It is a costly mistake. Learning how to think as a leader is the means by which you are able to challenge your assumptions and theory. Mark Twain said that, ‘it isn’t what we don’t know that gets us into trouble but rather, what we know for sure that just ain’t so”

Six Things You Need To Know About Leadership Development Programmes #4

Posted on: September 29th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

As TomorrowToday we have the privilege to both design and participate in Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs) throughout the world. We work internationally with some of fineness business schools and blue-chip multi-nationals in this arena. We have seen a great deal: some of it excellent, a lot of it very poor. It is an area of significant spend for the client and there is a real need to get a worthwhile return on investment on your LDP.

Based on our observations and participation, here are six things, shared as a series, that you need to consider when it comes to designing or looking for a strategic partner in the delivery of your LDP:

Ladder into sky# 4: Leadership is more than a title or position of authority

Leadership is a relational process. This is true of both leadership practice and in how one teaches leadership.  You should have access to plenty of world-class content but more importantly, building a relationship that will provide a context for that content, can greatly enhance the learning experience. Too many of the current programmes are driven primarily by content and curriculum and whilst important, these aspects should be subject to a relational undertow. Learning ‘relationship’ is the leaders primary concern in a Connection Economy. Shaping and conditioning the organizational culture is the leader’s critical responsibility and as it has often been said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast every time’.

Six Things You Need To Know About Leadership Development Programmes #3

Posted on: September 26th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

As TomorrowToday we have the privilege to both design and participate in Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs) throughout the world. We work internationally with some of fineness business schools and blue-chip multi-nationals in this arena. We have seen a great deal: some of it excellent, a lot of it very poor. It is an area of significant spend for the client and there is a real need to get a worthwhile return on investment on your LDP.

Based on our observations and participation, here are six things, shared as a series, that you need to consider when it comes to designing or looking for a strategic partner in the delivery of your LDP:

Ladder into sky# 3: How we learn differs from person to person

Learning styles differ and development programmes need to incorporate a variety of methodologies and mediums to enhance the learning process. From reading to experiential; from formal to informal; from offline to online – there should be plenty on offer to both challenge and stimulate your learning in mediums that provide both variety and flexibility. The majority of current programmes generally lack imagination and play-it too safe for fear of poor ratings (that are normally done at the time of the module) or the fear of ‘upsetting’ the participants. More disruption is required if real learning is to take place.

Six Things You Need To Know About Leadership Development Programmes #1

Posted on: September 25th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

As TomorrowToday we have the privilege to both design and participate in Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs) throughout the world. We work internationally with some of fineness business schools and blue-chip multi-nationals in this arena. We have seen a great deal: some of it excellent, a lot of it very poor. It is an area of significant spend for the client and there is a real need to get a worthwhile return on investment on your LDP.

Based on our observations and participation, here are six things, shared as a series, that you need to consider when it comes to designing or looking for a strategic partner in the delivery of your LDP:

Ladder into sky# 1: Learning leadership is an ongoing process

Smart companies understand the need to invest in developing their people – and especially grooming their leaders. They find appropriate ways to do this and increasingly this means looking ‘outside the norm’ when it comes to leadership development. The learning contained within an LDP process needs to be well supported both prior to and following the formal programme. It is ultimately a ‘process’ and not a ‘programme’. Stop seeing it as a ‘programme’ and measure it’s effectiveness well after the formal learning has ended. The lack of support (or process) surrounding the LDP is responsible for what often amounts to a serious lack of tangible benefits to the company having made such a weighty investment. Attendance at an LDP is often regarded as an intrusion or unnecessary interruption to what really matters; it is often interrupted by issues back at the office; and often puts the participant on the back-foot given performance measures that don’t take into consideration the time and energy demanded by the LDP.

Six Things You Need To Know About Leadership Development Programmes #2

Posted on: September 24th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

As TomorrowToday we have the privilege to both design and participate in Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs) throughout the world. We work internationally with some of fineness business schools and blue-chip multi-nationals in this arena. We have seen a great deal: some of it excellent, a lot of it very poor. It is an area of significant spend for the client and there is a real need to get a worthwhile return on investment on your LDP.

Based on our observations and participation, here are six things, shared as a series, that you need to consider when it comes to designing or looking for a strategic partner in the delivery of your LDP:

Ladder into sky# 2: Learning is the learner’s responsibility

Ultimately, the responsibility to learn – to extract value, rests with the learner. Naturally any content needs to be relevant, thought provoking and delivered in such a way that people both enjoy and understand. It is the teacher’s responsibility to stimulate the learning experience, to create an environment conducive to learning, but the onus to learn, sits with the learner. The importance of this point is often overlooked or neglected with the result that participants ‘get away’ with blaming ‘poor’ teaching or relevance when really, it is they who have missed out. I have seen excellent resources (teachers) ejected from LDPs for no other reason than the participants didn’t ‘like them’. It might have been because they (the teachers) came across as too brash or too confident; too young or too old; not entertaining enough or too maverick. Learning is the learner’s responsibility. Always.

On leadership: If I don’t see you again, have a good life

Posted on: September 23rd, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

“If I don’t see you again, have a good life” was how a participant on global leadership programme  in Guangzhou ended a conversation with me as we parted. The comment immediately resonated especially as it had been said with a sincerity that made it seem as though it wasn’t something said without much thought or meaning as is often the case with most conventional greetings.

Good life image“If I don’t see you again…”. How easy it is to take our tomorrow’s for granted. The assumption of another meeting, of a ‘next time’ underpins the majority of our lives and schedules. When we might realize that there won’t be a ‘next time’ it immediately deepens the moment and significance. Things come into sharper focus, what really matters shoves out the insignificant distractions and we become alert and absorb all there is to in the time we have as we realize the passing of the moment or occasion.

Of course we cannot live in this intensity 24/7 but I wonder how much richer would be our appreciation, our presence, were we able to at least cultivate such an awareness more deliberately?

Being intentional is an important leadership trait and it is something that ought to extend beyond the ‘important things’ leaders do to ‘everything’ you do as a leader. It starts with a curiosity about others and a style of approach and inquiry that acknowledges those around you. We have all met people who are dismissive and talk to you without seeing you. They are the kind of interactions that can be soul destroying and are usually built on false or shallow understandings of status, position and power.

The other ‘lesson’ for leaders to take from, “If I don’t see you again” is the importance of ‘presence’. The discipline of being fully engaged, attentive – aware of both oneself and of the ‘other’ at the time of being together. I have often witnessed leaders engaging in work avoidance in the face of a difficult or unexpected situation. In other words, avoiding the real work that the situation requires and in so doing, failing to be truly present. There are times when they would not even be conscious of their disengagement and the impact that it has on others. Being present is a discipline that savvy leaders intentionally cultivate to the point where it simply governs all their interactions, be that with the Chairman of the Board, the janitor or a little child.

“…have a good life” – simple words that cut across boundaries of class, culture, gender and generations. Simple words that can be understood, owned and that can serve to both guide and evaluate. In a memorable closing scene in the movie, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Ryan, as an old man, visits the grave of the soldier to whom he owns his life and who, before he died charged him to live a good life. Overcome with emotion, Ryan turns to his wife standing beside him, and imploringly asks if indeed he had been a ‘good man’. There would be many ways to interpret what having a ‘good life’ means but it would have to be one that extends beyond a serve-serving orientation and motivation. A ‘good life’ is one lived in service of others; a life underpinned by meaning and purpose; a life that finds joy but that also brings joy to others.

Great leaders have defined what a ‘good life’ looks like in the context of their leadership practice; great people have done so in the context of their life as a whole. Whatever your picture of a ‘good life’ it will serve as a compass; it will sound as a definitive voice in the thicket of life’s journey when ambiguity and doubt cloud the light.

How will you review a life lived should you ever be afforded the opportunity for such self-appraisal? Will you be able to declare your journey a ‘good life’?

“If I don’t see you again, have a good life”…as it turns out I did bump into my friend again before departing the hotel. I mentioned that his greeting had struck a chord and had led to a blog – one I would send to him. I am grateful for some well-chosen words that gave pause to reflect. I hope my Friend that you continue to use such words in the knowledge of the gift that they have been to me…and now perhaps, in some small way, to others too.

If I don’t see you again, have a good life.

Leadership Reflection: Goodbye and Aloha

Posted on: September 16th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

I am about to embark on another stint teaching in the East West Center’s renowned, Asia Pacific Leadership Program (APLP). This will be my 13th straight year teaching in APLP, a programme that is itself only 14 years old. There have been additional leadership programmes added to the mix and I will also teach in these settings whilst there. Of course the thing not to be overlooked is that APLP is located in Hawaii. Moving on…

EWCThis years participants come from 26 different Asia Pacific countries including China, India, Vietnam, USA, Iran, Nepal, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Malaysia, Micronesia, South Korea, Philippians, Vanuatu, Marshall Islands, New Zealand…well let me stop there! (Note to self: remember to pack Springbok jersey! I once had to perform the Haka in public as a result of a lost bet at APLP!).

It is undoubtedly the most diverse classroom I have the privilege of teaching in. The range of worldview, culture, language, religion and background is staggering, if not daunting. The participants also come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds including education, engineering, law, government, philanthropy, business, health care, environmental, technology, media, development…and, once again, you get the picture!

Participation in APLP hasn’t always been to TomorrowToday’s direct financial gain. The fees paid by the East West Center (as an educational institute) cannot match the standard corporate fees we usually charge. However, our gains have been immeasurable! We have been able to ‘test’ our thinking and message with smart people from the backgrounds I have already mentioned. This has been invaluable in the other global work we do through business schools and directly with clients around such topics as global trends, leadership, diversity, talent and strategy. We have developed solid relationships with influential people from places we never ordinarily would have had the opportunity to ‘link’ with and learn from. We have learnt so much through this relationship with APLP and we would like to think that we too have given back; that we have served their agenda well in the process. Otherwise, why would they keep inviting us back!?

So, once again it is almost time to say ‘aloha’ and return to a place that has almost become a second home for me. Being so far removed from my normal destinations and in a place where the rhythms, sounds and tastes are so different is a gift in itself. Being in Hawaii always affords time to reflect, take stock and gain perspective on not only TomorrowToday, but on life’s journey itself.

Last year I sat on the beach in Waikiki watching the season’s premier of ‘Hawaii 5.0’ with personal appearances of all the show’s stars. My wife still hasn’t quite forgiven me for not bringing ‘Steve home’.

I am sure this year will carry with it further surprise and learning but now, all that is left to do, is pack. Where are those baggies?…

Aloha.

Seven insights to help you become a great leader

Posted on: September 3rd, 2014 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Compass ConceptThe contemporary challenges facing corporate leaders are well documented. The context for leadership is one filled with complexity, ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty. They are challenges that aren’t going to go away or change anytime soon and if leaders hope to thrive in this new reality and context, new thinking and behaviour is required.

Here are seven things that as a leader you need consider should you wish to be a ‘great leader’ in such a context.

1. Think about how you think about leadership.

Driven by a relentless deluge of ‘how to’ insights and easy applications, the ‘leadership market’ has become one of short-cuts, ‘5 things to do’ and a host of effortless add-ons that make light of the responsibility that is leadership; reducing it to a mere role and responsibility.

Authentic leaders think about how they intend to practice and live their leadership. They understand the importance of an underpinning leadership philosophy that steers all they do.

They make sure that when it comes to the fuel to power their thinking they dare not run dry. Smart leaders understand how they think and they know when the way in which they think will prove helpful – and when it won’t! They are not lazy when it comes to building the insights and capacity to understand their own leadership and the demands being placed on them as they exercise that leadership.

Albert Einstein once said that thinking was the ‘hardest work of all – that is why so few engage in it’. Meg Wheatley has written that ‘all intelligent action starts with thinking’.

So when last did you take some intentional time out to think about your approach to leadership? What have you learnt in your leadership journey and how did that learning occur? What might need to be rethought when it comes to your leadership understanding and practice? What isn’t working – and why is that?

2. Disengage the autopilot: Be intentional in everything you do.

Intentionality is one of the basic principles of a powerful theory known as ‘Invitational Leadership’. Sometimes leaders are doing the ‘right thing’ and it is working but they don’t really know why it is working. They get used to cruising on autopilot in such circumstances. The problem is when what they are doing stops working for them. Because they didn’t know why it was working in the first place, they subsequently don’t know how to ‘fix it’ when it doesn’t work quite so well. Being intentional allows a leader to better understand what works and what doesn’t, and why. Being intentional directs and guides leadership action and activity in a manner that produces results and focuses effort. Intentionality is built off the platform of a determined leadership philosophy that helps ensure that not very wind or current is considered as the ‘right one’. Intentionally draws purpose out of the mundane and provides meaning to the ‘routine’.

When last did you sit down and map out a series of ‘intentional activities’ to guide your day, week or month as a leader? That targeted conversation that appears totally informal? That intentional cup of coffee served in a way that sets a powerful example? That intentional ‘seeing’ of someone who doesn’t expect you to notice him or her, even less, pay attention to the role they play in your organisation?

3. Understand how you see – and where that is helpful and not so helpful.

Your worldview determines how you interpret the world around you. If you don’t understand your worldview – the lens through which you see, you are incapable of recognising your own biases, prejudices and blind spots. Understand your worldview is the ‘inner work’ that leaders need to do. It is that interior landscaping that results in a deepening self-awareness that is the bedrock of emotional intelligence. There is simply no short cut to this work and it is fundamental if you are to lead successfully in a world of difference and diversity. In part this is why I love to travel to the places I go, places so different from ‘my world’ that they expose my own worldview and all its shortcomings. Places where basic constructs and understanding is so different to my own ‘normal’ and ‘logic’ that learning and unlearning is simply not optional. Seeing how you see is a leadership imperative in a world that is both connected and complex. I have seen senior leaders in global leadership programmes located in foreign and exotic locations away from what they are used to, refuse to see any differently to how they would were they back home. The result is a refusal to learn, grow and engage which invariably leads to a judgemental disposition that merely highlights their ignorance and just how ‘stuck’ they truly are. Fortunately, I have seen the opposite and the results can be quite spectacular!

What are your lenses that influence how you ‘see the world’? Age, nationality, culture, education, gender, health or physicality and experience would all be influential lenses that determine how you see.

Can you think of an occasion when your worldview was challenged? How did it come about? How did it make you feel? When last were in a situation where you realised that the ‘way you see things’ was totally inadequate? What did you do about it?

4. Get rid of the dog: Perspective is your best friend.

For leaders leading in today’s context, one described by futurists as a ‘VUCA’ world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, – perspective is essential. In the adaptive leadership model a distinction is made between the ‘dance floor’ and the ‘balcony’. Being on the dance floor, and the expertise you displayed there is what got you noticed and promoted into the leadership position you hold. The problem is that too many leaders are spending too much time on the dance floor because that is what they know, that is what they are good at and so the lure of the dance floor remains a strong one. However when one is on the dance floor you cannot see the entire area or dance floor. Your sight or perspective is restricted to your immediate surroundings and therein is the problem. In a world of exponential and non-linear change, being on the balcony from which you can see the entire dance floor, is essential. Smart leaders know the difference (between the dance floor and the balcony) and when they need to be on one or the other. I recall sharing this powerful analogy with a CEO who immediately added his own insight: he said the reality of his day was spent running up and down the stairwell between the dance floor and the balcony! Maybe you can relate to that situation!

What constitutes ‘your balcony’? It can be a place, a habit or even a way you think. Accessing your balcony can be done in the midst of a meeting or discussion; it is a place that affords you perspective that you otherwise wouldn’t ordinarily have and it is essential for leaders. How can you cultivate the ‘balcony’ within your leadership team both personally and collectively?

5. Leadership is lonely only if you make it so.

You often hear the refrain that ‘leadership is lonely’ or ‘it is lonely at the top’. I don’t think that needs to be the case. It depends on how you see leadership. There is no doubt that leaders are required at times to make unpopular decisions or to say what no-one else is willing or able to say – and at that moment it might seem a lonely place to be, but that ought not to characterise the entire landscape or leadership journey. Smart leaders stay connected both inside and outside their leadership domain; smart leaders seek out mentors and forge relationships where they can be vulnerable, open and honest. Smart leaders know that to be lonely is ultimately their choice and not automatically the cloak that accompanies the throne they now occupy. Lonely leaders can be dangerous leaders as ultimately is erodes feedback, loosens bonds of accountability and can lead to a narrowing of perspective that can prove to be dangerous for both themselves and those they lead.

As a leader, are you lonely? If so, why? What can you do to change this and if you aren’t lonely as a leader, what can you do to safeguard this situation?

6. Know what to keep, what to discard and what to rearrange: your future survival depends on it.

Evolutionary biology embraces three things in the evolutionary process: what to keep; what to discard; what to rearrange. These simple, yet very complex questions form the key to helping you lead the change you need in order to thrive into the future. Leaders lead through change and todays context is one of continuous change. Ensuring that your organisation has the DNA to enable it to be nimble, agile and quick is your chief responsibility as a leader. It starts with you as a leader. Understanding how these three questions – what to keep, discard and rearrange, can form the backbone to all you do and the processes you follow, will go a long way in ensuring that you are able to adapt to whatever disruption is sure to come your way. The challenge is that too many leaders cling to past success, the way things were and change is often regarded as the enemy. A simple yet profound perspective when it comes to leading change in an organisation is the maxim that the fear of not changing must be greater than the fear of the change.

So, for your organisation to be ‘futurefit’ – to be able to thrive in the uncertain future, what is it you need to keep, discard and rearrange? With whom should you be having these conversations?

7. Respect: you need to earn it. Period.

Too many leaders today go on about the ‘loss of respect’ and mourn the change in attitudes and behaviours that they believe has eroded respect, as they know it. The challenge is that ‘respect’ is viewed differently from one generation to another. For an older generation respect is given by virtue of position and status. For a younger generation respect is earned. ‘It doesn’t matter that you are the boss, the adult, the parent or the teacher…you need to earn my respect’ is the basic construct for the younger generation. You can immediately see why this (the different approaches to respect) is problematic – and is so misunderstood! Almost every corporate values list incorporates ‘respect’ in the list somewhere; I delight in asking those on the inside just who’s respect are they referring to when they list respect as a corporate value? It invariably leads to some interesting conversations! As a leader don’t assume that your position gives you respect. Far better that you intentionally go about earning it on a daily basis regardless of the ages of those reporting to you. Of course the matter of respect plays out in cultural settings in addition to the generational one mentioned.

Why not reopen the internal conversation around respect in your company? What it really is and how it could be more meaningfully understood and lived? Where has ‘respect’ as you have understood it, proved limiting and has been open to misunderstanding?

In conclusion, just a thought I would like to leave you with for your consideration: Each of these ‘seven areas’ invites deeper exploration; an exploration that will require bold and courageous leadership. Before you might be tempted to embark on that journey with others (your team), may I suggest you first spend time engaging with the points yourself. Doing so might provide some deeper insights and wisdom as to how best to approach and start the journey with the others you have in mind. Don’t hesitate to contact me should you wish to chat further around any of these areas – and please do let me know how it goes!

On Leadership: The real innovation needed.

Posted on: September 2nd, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Innovation has been a business ‘buzz’ word for some time now and has, in and of itself, become ‘big business’. Everyone wants to be innovative; everyone wants to be associated with the perceived benefits of innovation; everyone knows that they simply have to be innovative because the future will be unlike anything we have encountered in the past.

Light bulb moneyAs far back as 2005 The Economist identified the need for ‘business model’ innovation rather than that of mere product and / or service innovation. In other words, the real need when it comes to innovation goes far deeper that surface issues such as product and service. This ‘finding’ was reinforced by some research done by IBM in 2008.

To innovate your business model is not easy.

It represents a fundamental rearranging or dismantling that more often than not proves beyond the capability of most companies. Kodak’s failure was not because they didn’t see the arrival of digital; their failure was that they were incapable of shifting their business model. The Kodak slogan was, ‘You press the button and we will do the rest’ and it was in ‘doing the rest’ where the gravity of their business model was centred.

Professional service firms are currently experiencing a similar challenge. One in the pillars supporting their business model is longevity of their professional staff; by retaining staff you add increasing value to the business as they grow their ‘book’ or client base. However, with the reality of generational churn and a younger generation who do not embrace career building in the same way that allowed the current business model to prosper, there exists a very real and future danger to the professional service business model.

Innovating your business model might mean ‘cannibalizing’ the very thing on which your business is built.

It takes extraordinary courage and foresight to even begin the conversation and process to this end.

For leaders a helpful motivator and message might be communicating the understanding that the ‘fear of not changing’ needs to be greater than the ‘fear of changing’ as you lead such a process.

Leading in a Changing World

Posted on: August 26th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Much of the work we do as TomorrowToday revolves around this particular theme: leading in a changing world. We help leaders both understand and respond to an exponentially changing world.

Leading in a changing worldLeadership is always context specific and this is why leaders cannot afford to ignore or turn a blind eye to what is happening ‘out there’. The ‘out there’ will always impact on the ‘in here’ (internally within the organisation) and it is the leader’s responsibility to be the hinge between the external context and the internal realities.

All to too often leaders get too absorbed in the internal challenges and concerns at the cost of paying attention to external disruptions that could prove to be game-changers.

The other area of shortsightedness that characterizes much of corporate leadership is the sole focus on industry norms and orthodoxies. The real disruption is likely to emerge from outside of your industry as you currently know it and the danger of ‘benchmarking’ is that the focus is only on those running in the same race as yourself. The ultimate winner of your race might well be someone that is yet to lace their boots!

My colleague Graeme Codrington and I will soon have a book published under this same title: Leading in a Changing World. It will be available in both print and digital versions and we are looking forward to the launch given the subject matter that the book addresses. From our global experience we know it is a real issue for leaders everywhere.

Our book is underpinned by a popular TomorrowToday keynote presentation (yes you guessed it…also titled, Leading in a Changing World!) that we anticipate will work hand-in-glove with one another.

Looking out the window and bringing coherency to the ensuing conversations is the difficult work that leaders need to do.

The second step involves instilling and cultivating the appropriate adaptive leadership mind-sets and behaviours amongst those you lead.

To succeed in these twin challenges is to build an organisation that is ‘futurefit’.  Failure to do so means that you are running on borrowed time.

The smart move is not to ignore China

Posted on: August 19th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

I have the privilege to do repeated work in China. Frequent and regular trips have grown a respect, awe and amazement at what I see and encounter. My ‘Chinese experience’ and continuous education has fueled a deeper curiosity and appreciation for the unfolding story that is China. We are living in a time that history will judge as the ‘Chinese Century’.

China keyboard buttonOf course it is a nation that has tremendous challenges, but then again, what country is free of challenge? It is a country better understood as regions given its vastness and diversity; it is a country renowned for its ‘cheapness’ and ability to copy…both of which will soon end (if that is you take to heart Shaun Rein’s messages in his two excellent books, End of Cheap China & End of Copy China). It is a country that has rapidly consumed the global economy, gobbled up leading brands (Volvo and Hoover to name but two) and will soon be the front-runner amongst nations when measured by the economic yardstick.

The sheer numbers emanating from China are hard to comprehend. In 2013 China became the largest trader of goods in the world, overtaking the USA with the value of imports and exports reaching $4.16 trillion. Africa has been a major benefactor of China’s flexing of its economic muscle. In 1950 China’s trade with Africa was $10 million; by 1980 that had grown to $1 billion and in 2012 that figure reached $220 billion. China’s direct investment in Africa has grown at an annual rate of 20.5% and trade between China and the Continent is expected to top $385 billion by next year (2015). Most of China’s Africa imports are mineral products (80%). Whilst China has signed significant railway contracts with both Nigeria and South Africa the country has also invested heavily in infrastructure projects across the Continent.

The whole point is simply this: get used to China!

Smart leaders understand the need to both understand China and build relationship with China. This much is simply not optional. Chinese interests in both Africa and elsewhere might well polarise opinion as to whether they represent a threat or opportunity. The reality is they might well be both a threat and an opportunity and which one you experience, might well be determined by you!

Here would be nine simple ‘truths’ that have underpinned my Chinese experience / education – something that still has a long way to run and one that I suspect will never come close to reaching complete comprehension:

1. Engaging with China is not optional

2. You can’t understand China using your own ‘frame of reference’

3. To understand China one has to understand ‘Guangxi’ – what it is and how it operates

4. There is no excuse not to equip oneself with knowledge about China. You cannot read any business publication that doesn’t reflect something of the emergent Chinese story. Read those articles!

5. Find Chinese sources for developing your knowledge and understanding In other words, don’t merely rely on western interpretations and understandings when it comes to deconstructing China

6. Ask questions and listen carefully to what is said (and not said) in response

7. Explore China ‘beyond the obvious’ and adopt the posture of an ‘Observer’ in order to get beyond the superficial

8. Be slow to ‘judge’ and be open to the possibility that what you ‘know’ about China might need to be unlearnt, deconstructed and even dismissed entirely

9. Read about China’s history and culture

China knows a lot more about the ‘outside world’ than does that world about China. For example, to test your knowledge about China, see if you can answer the following basic questions?

• Who is the president of China?

• Can you name one major Chinese sports star?

• Can you name a popular Chinese musician or music group?

• What is ‘Alibaba’?

• Excluding Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, name three other Chinese cities

• Can you name two Chinese provinces?

• What countries share borders with China?

• Can you name any three leading Chinese’s brands?

When it comes to China the message is clear: Up your game.

It is the smart move!

Blackberry: Time of death…?

Posted on: August 12th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

John Chen, the CEO brought in to arrest Blackberry slide into oblivion believes that Blackberry has turned the corner and can be saved. In an article by Nic Fildes in THE TIMES Business (6 August) Chen was quoted as telling staff that the worse was over although there was “no room for error” as the former giant tries to regain some sort of equilibrium.

RIP BlackberryBy the numbers, the fall of Blackberry has been nothing short of spectacular: From a market share in 2011 of 10.3% to one of 0.8% today; from a staff compliment of 17 500 in 2011 to that of 7 000 today; from a market cap of $78.3bn in May 2008 to that of $4.75bn as of August 2014 *. Falling off the cliff doesn’t get much more dramatic than that picture!

Will Blackberry achieve a turn-around and live to survive another day and provide Chen with another ‘turn-around’ notch on his belt? I doubt it.

The problem is that Blackberry is competing in an industry that has experienced significant churn over the last 30 years and one where getting back in the saddle once knocked off, proves very difficult indeed. In 1983 Motorola’s DynaTac was seemingly untouchable. By 1995 Nokia had captured 40% of the market only to be knocked off their perch by RIM (Blackberry) in 2002. 2007 saw Apple crash the party with the iPhone and in 2013 Samsung outmuscles the iPhone 2:1. These are choppy waters with unforgiving currents in which Blackberry is trying to regain something of its stroke. Their problem is that that have formidable competitors and that is not accounting for the sure to come ‘new entrants’ into the market. When you have taken on board the water Blackberry has, making up the gap is almost impossible with others swimming so strongly.

Chen has been able to bring on board some significant partners including Amazon who have committed to inject 200 000 apps on to the Blackberry phones. There has been robust internal restructuring and much external beating of the chest and loud war cries. Time will of course tell what, if anything, this will all amount too but these are the things that are providing some glimmer of hope.

That said, I will continue to ask for a show of hands of those in the audience who own a Blackberry before proceeding to tell them to enjoy it, as it most likely the last they will own!

RIM…RIP? (maybe that is why RIM ditched its name in favour of ‘Blackberry?)

*The figures quoted are taken from Fildes article as mentioned.

Don’t trust Deutsche Bank…well when it comes to football at least!

Posted on: August 11th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Before the 2014 FIFA World Cup, analysts within Deutsche Bank developed a computer model to forecast the results.  The winners? Why, England of course.

It should be pointed out that they were after all ‘foreign exchange analysts’ which might just be submitted as mitigating evidence in their defence.  Another piece of mitigating evidence is that their calculations were in part, based on the high number of Liverpool players present in the England team. The last time this happened, England won.  Can’t fault that logic can you?

England world cup despairNonetheless, they got things wrong. Very wrong!

Hedging their bets somewhat (just being good Bankers I guess!), they said that both Brazil and Spain could also emerge as winners. Well, we all know how that turned out!

Hindsight might indeed be an exact science and it is easy to be smart after the fact. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to encounter those analysts flipping burgers someplace, maybe one lit up with a giant ‘M’ – which, in their case, could be taken to stand for ‘Mugs’!

Today in business we need to be careful who we listen to, who we trust. Contrary to popular opinion, statistics and analytics don’t always ‘tell the truth’ of the matter and there is much to be said for common sense or even better, an honest, “I don’t know” from leaders when being asked to foresee the uncertain future!

Leadership Magazine finds its inspiration from the TomorrowToday Message

Posted on: August 7th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

In the July 2014 edition of Leadership, South Africa’s premier leadership magazine (it also happened to be their 350 publication – congratulations!) there appeared an article by Dr Rene Uys, titled ‘Connecting the Dots: the Connection Economy demands a paradigm shift in leadership’. In the article Uys acknowledges that TomorrowToday coined the term ‘Connection Economy’ in 2004.

Furthermore, there is strong evidence that her thinking and words have been significantly imprinted by what we in TomorrowToday, through our keynotes and articles, have been saying on the subject over many years. Clear examples would be the two foundational questions we pose in our keynote that addresses the move into the Connection Economy, both of which Uys has inserted into her article: Why should people want to buy from you? Why should people want to work for you? Another example is that of the gender leadership thread running through the respective economies which Uys refers to in her article.

TomorrowToday originally got onto this track through the work of Rolf Jensen in his book, ‘The Dream Society’. Inspired by his strong argument for the transitions through various economic eras we then added further dimensions to his well articulated framework that resulted in our popular keynote presentation: Balancing Today and Tomorrow: Competitive advantage in the emerging Connection Economy which dates back to 2003. It was a presentation that we were invited to present both locally and internationally and one that posed powerful questions to both leaders and organisations alike. Balancing Today and Tomorrow proved to be the forerunner to our more recent keynote presentations, TIDES of Change (which uncovers five key disruptions that help explain the ‘why’ and ‘how’ underpinning global change) and our latest offering, The Enemy Within (which navigates what needs to change within organisations in order for you to be internally driven, externally aware in the context of ubiquitous and exponential change).

Essentially we suggest that if the world is changing, leadership needs to change; the world is changing! Our extensive international work (work that spans from Iran to China; Kenya to the USA and India to Switzerland) in leadership development programmes across a wide swath of industries, has only served to underscore this essential need to rethink leadership. It is a challenge that keeps us up at night – partly through being on an aircraft heading off to one of those destinations! And partly because of the sizable challenge this poses as well as and the alarming consequences resulting from ignorance, neglect or failure in addressing this leadership challenge).

Peter Drucker has suggested that it is not the turbulence that poses the danger but rather acting with ‘yesterday’s logic’ in engaging the turbulence that is the real danger. In TomorrowToday, we suggest that turbulence is the new contextual ‘norm’ facing leaders and businesses and that periods of uninterrupted and sustained economic growth, will prove to be the exception, not the rule. A recent Harvard Business Review cover simply titled, ‘Talent’ carried the alarming subtitle: ‘Experience is overrated’. Yet, the reality is that the only weapon many leaders have at their disposal in engaging this new reality – in navigating the future is that of experience (yesterday’s logic).

Smart leaders know they need to be thinking like a futurist; that ‘learning from the future, rather than the past forms the new curriculum. They know that cultivating adaptive mind-sets, behaviours and skillsets will be the requirement for thriving into the future. As a smart leader you will know that this starts with you but that ultimately, it needs to translate into your entire team and organisation’s DNA.

This is the very work we do in TomorrowToday! To this end we have produced a dynamic 30-part video series titled FutureFit – how to become a better adaptive leader aimed at helping leaders develop both the mind-sets and skillsets necessary to thrive in the emerging Connection Economy.

Change is hard – I’ll be ready tomorrow

Posted on: July 23rd, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Having breakfast with a CEO recently and talking about organisational change, he came out with the memorable line, “change is hard – I’ll be ready tomorrow”. It wasn’t a personal reference but rather the unspoken response he seems to encounter from his senior leaders at every turn when it comes to the organisational change he knows is necessary and that cannot be delayed.

changeAs TomorrowToday we have done extensive work globally and across multiple industries helping leaders and companies ‘look out the window’ and bring coherency to the ensuing conversations. Looking out the window is important work for leaders to do and those that fail to do so often end up running their company into a dead-end alley of oblivion. What we have found however is that for the most part companies know that, (1) they need to change and keep pace with an exponentially changing world and, (2) they may even know ‘what that change is’ or looks like but…

But, they often seem incapable of realizing the change they need. There are internal inhibitors that militate against the ‘real’ change needed. Of course they appear to be changing but the unspoken reality is that the more they change, the more things stay the same. Things are shifted, given different names and maybe even a fresh coat of paint but the real change needed, change that is often all too apparent, remains untouched. The structures that need dismantling; the policies that need erasing; the experimenting being called for; the honest feedback to leaders; the revisiting of core elements, are all ignored.

If we’re honest, perhaps the biggest reasons for this inertia around real change has to do with leaders fearing the loss of control and / or an erosion of their own personal position both financially and status-wise. These are difficult barriers to breach and often constitute the ‘enemy within’ when it comes to the kind of meaningful change that is required in response to the dynamic and challenging external context.

Dealing with the ‘enemy within’ has become an increasingly emergent and dominant theme as we (TomorrowToday) have worked with leaders and companies in ‘looking out the window’. It has become apparent to us that looking out the window constitutes but half of the equation; it is the response to looking out the window that is where the real challenge is to be found. Having looked out the window and understood the disruptive forces driving the change, the next step is to ensure that your organisation is ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

We have called this task dealing with the ‘enemy within’ and it constitutes our latest TomorrowToday framework (as both a keynote address and a workshop). It is something we are excited about taking to our clients and market. It is about helping companies understand that it is not merely their strategies that need to be overhauled nor is it simply about greasing the wheel by way of a change management process – it goes far deeper than both those elements; is about changing their DNA. It is about ensuring that we have the DNA that will allow us to thrive into the future. In any biological DNA evolutionary process three fundamental things happen: the metamorphous is shaped by what to keep; what to discard; and what to rearrange. ‘What to keep, discard and rearrange?’ is the underpinning question to be engaged if your company is to successfully meet the challenge that the unfolding future poses.

But what does this all mean for you as a leader? How do you lead in such times?

Of course there is no simple answer to that searching question but there are three pointers for you as a leader that are worth noting.

  1. Experience is overrated.  This was the provocative subtitle on the cover of a recent Harvard Business Review on Talent. It is true. In a world in which the challenges that leaders are encountering are nothing like those previously encountered, the past offers little help in finding solutions. This is what Ron Heifetz of Harvard refers to as an ‘adaptive challenge’. An adaptive challenge can be defined as, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’ and as such, any solution requires ‘new learning’.  In an adaptive challenge even the problem itself requires ‘new learning’ – or it needs to be defined because the very nature of the problem is not immediately apparent. It is about getting to the ‘real problem’ – and the first step demands thorough diagnosis. The danger is that too many leaders believe that they can solve adaptive challenges through their own – or the companies, experience. In fact to suggest otherwise is not always kindly received and it is often taken as an insult or interpreted as being dismissive of the road travelled and the many lessons learnt along that journey. To say experience is overrated is not to imply this nor is it to be dismissive of the past; it is merely saying that tomorrow’s challenges will not be solved by yesterday’s solutions. Instinctively we all know this and yet we cling to experience as the means to navigate the future. It is like driving down a fast paced highway looking only in the rear-view mirror! It is only a matter of time before we have a fatal accident.
  2. Questions are the answers. Smart leaders ask a lot of questions and I would go as far to say that the quality of the questions you (as a leader) are asking will determine the quality of the solutions and strategy going forward. The willingness to pose questions that go to the very heart of purpose, motivation and objectives; questions that are given permission to venture into territories that previously have had large ‘no entry’ signs posted; questions that go both ‘inwards’ and ‘outwards’ – these will be the means by which we find our way forward through the turbulence, complexity and ambiguity that obscures our way. Questions serve to open the conversation and thinking. They invite others into the conversation and as we get more used to asking them – and more comfortable, so too will we get better at ‘holding’ them, engaging with them and strengthening the process towards new learning and solutions.  Do a ‘questions audit’: At your next meeting, pay attention to the number and quality of questions being asked. What does this reveal about your team and company’s readiness to be what we in TomorrowToday call, ‘futurefit’?
  3. Adapt or die. Smart leaders understand that they need to become an ‘adaptive leader’. They know that they need to build organisational cultures that are agile, nimble and responsive and they are preoccupied with how best to do this. Well, the short answer is: It starts with you. You need to be an adaptive leader; you need to model what this looks like and by so doing, give permission to others to follow suite. It is about becoming ‘futurefit’ and as in any attempts to ‘get fit’ – hard work and discipline is required. Unlike the many ‘magical’ or quick-fix solutions being offered to get in shape physically – becoming futurefit is not something that can be achieved overnight but it is possible and is attainable when given an intentional focus. It will require both a mind shift as well as behavioural practice before it roots and becomes something that is recognisable. Achieving these tangible outcomes may be better served by acquiring a ‘personal trainer’ and that is why we have developed a ‘boot camp’ – a drip-feed digital programme to help leaders become futurefit. The programme is to help you become an adaptive leader and not merely a ‘good leader’ but rather a ‘great leader’.

Leading in today’s context is tough and it is not going to get any easier. The kind of organisations that we have built from the past will resemble little likeness to those that will stand in the future. There are too many things changing for us to really believe that what has got us here will be sufficient to get us to where it is we need to be. Technology, societal value shifts, globalisation, new threats and opportunities and a host of other forces and elements will ensure that our current ways of managing our enterprises will have to change.

Recognising this reality and shaping the future is the leader’s responsibility. It is your responsibility and a fair question to be asking is, ‘so what are you doing about it?’

Please do look at our ‘Futurefit: becoming an adaptive leader programme offer as we would really value the opportunity to help equip you as a leader in becoming futurfit

On Leadership: The not-so-simple matter of translation

Posted on: July 21st, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Recently I had the privilege to attend a graduation ceremony. It was of course wonderful to see young people rewarded for years of hard work and was a forceful reminder of the importance of the academic contribution to our knowledge base. Theory forms the base that informs, guides and on which practice – of whatever kind, is built.

Rubics cube lettersHowever, there was one, well in truth two, moments that caught my attention and drew an immediate leadership thought that is the subject of this blog. A PhD graduate had the following read out as his thesis topic: Fine structure of the Isoscalar Giant Quadrupole Resonance and 2+ level densities in spherical to deformed nuclei across the isotope chain 142, 144, 146, 148, 150 Nd using the (p,p1) reaction.

I know, I know…I felt the same way!

Then without a moment to ‘recover’ and unscramble my confused cerebellum, the following dissertation was presented: Ontogeny and cranial morphology of the basel carnivorous dinocephalian, Antheosaurus magnificus from the Tapinocephalus Assemblage zone of the South African Karoo.

There comes a point when raising the white flag of comprehension is no disgrace and constitutes the better part of valour! The poor Academic tasked with announcing the dissertations will have sleepless nights following his mangling of this particular one although there should be no shame in that as those in the audience rendered silent prayers of thanks that they weren’t in his shoes!

The point is, when it comes to leadership and communication, your message needs to be crystal clear.

Formal leadership studies and business schools have more often than not been guilty of unwarranted complexity and business leaders and learning and development people within organisations are often complicit in this complexity. I am not saying that matters such as leadership and development are simple; they are not. But, as a leader you need to find ways and means to connect, to simplify your message and provide clear direction on matters that are complex and of importance.

Watch-out for the layers of business speak babble and terminology that is as sterile as it is meaningless. Start to challenge such terminology in your own team meetings and when fed to you in the belief that it is what you want to hear.

Yes, we need the deep knowledge that allows sound business and leadership practice to follow. But, as important as that part of the equation is, it still is only half of the equation. The other half is to interpret the theory in ways and means that make people want to live it.

As a leader, that is your job!

On Leadership: Failure Guaranteed – sometime, somewhere, somehow.

Posted on: June 17th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

There is a remarkable cricket statistic than not many who love the game would believe or even dream possible. Yet it is.

Amongst all who play the game internationally, having your name inscribed at Lords Cricket Ground, the home of cricket, for either a batting hundred or an innings five-wicket haul if you are a bowler, is a highly prized achievement. Over the years many have had their name added to that list and some several times on both counts.

LordsHowever, were I to tell you that this honour has eluded four giants of the game I doubt very much that you would be able to name them all, especially given that we are talking here of players who would be considered the best of all time. The four who would all, without exception, rather not be in this elite club are: Sachin Tendulkar (India), Ricky Ponting (Australia), Jacques Kallis (South Africa) and Brian Lara (West Indies).

Hard to believe I know!

Yet it is true and furthermore, the highest individual total that this list of dignitaries of the game could muster at Lords was a paltry 54 (Lara).  As expected their respective averages at Lords don’t make pretty reading: Both Tendulkar and Lara averaged 21 (in 9 and 6 innings respectively), Ponting 8 (in 16 innings) and Kallis 10 (in 5 innings).

Really is hard to believe isn’t it?

Each one of these cricket geniuses with the willow failed miserably at the place where arguably it mattered most. It is however a mere blimp on their overall records and achievements in the game.

So what is the leadership lesson here?

Leaders fail; it is to be expected. No leader can finish with a 100% record and knowing that failure is part and parcel of the leadership journey is important. It is what will help keep you grounded, humble and a learner. You might wince at the failure and it might be something that will always leave a little scar or regret but never underestimate how important failure is to success. None of these great cricketers would try to hide their failure at Lords, they would perhaps give a shrug of their shoulders and point to their outstanding careers outside of this one context. And so they should.  Undaunted by their Lords failure these cricketers built reputations over the long haul; it is the overall picture that will be remembered and their Lords failure will never detract from all they achieved in the game.

Smart leaders understand the big picture; they keep perspective and accept personal failure for all it teaches. Tendulkar, Ponting, Lara and Kallis have no one to blame other than themselves for their Lords anomaly. Good leaders never shrink from the responsibility that is their failure and they come back another time, elsewhere, somehow to write the script that is the bigger picture.

Still, it must hurt when they look at the Lords honour board and see many a ‘lesser batsman’s’ name there whilst theirs is

Reclaiming the Village: 4 Lessons from the San Bushmen

Posted on: June 3rd, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments
Image source: Getty

Image source: Getty

In his amazing book Future Primal, Louis Herman, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii-West O’ahu, articulates how we should respond to our converging crisis of violent conflict, political corruption, and global ecological devastation. Herman’s sweeping synthesis is to point us back into our deepest past in order to recover our core humanity. He uncovers how important clues for our recovery can be found in the lives of traditional San Bushmen; the hunter-gatherers of South Africa and the closest living relatives to the ancestral African population from which all humans descend. This brilliant book reveals how we ought to draw from the experience of the San and other earth-based cultures and weave their wisdom together with the scientific story of an evolving universe to help create something radically new. It makes for compelling and challenging reading.

Embedded within this unfolding narrative Herman talks about the Third World Conference on Hunter Gatherers that took place in Paris in 1979. The consensus to emerge from that conference was to empathically contradict the prevailing Hobbesian assumptions on which the institutions of modernity have been founded. In brief Hobbes held that the natural condition of human beings was antagonistic and without strong government mankind was condemned to lives of violence and misery. There was need for a ‘greater authority’ if we are to co-exist peacefully. Furthermore Hobbes held that the causes for such quarrel were competition, diffidence and ‘glory’ with the dominant aims of man being gain, safety and reputation. It was this philosophical foundation that supported and justified much of modernity.

There are four illuminating insights that we can take from studies of the San and other such tribes. Four insights, that not only challenge ‘what we know’ (or think we know), but that offer a glimpse into ‘another way’, perhaps even, ‘a better way’. They are certainly not ‘new’ in that we talk and write about them all the time; it is just that somehow they have become dislocated from who we are and how we live and work. They have become concepts stripped of both meaning and application in contemporary living and we are the poorer for it.

The areas covered by the four insights are:

  1. Balance: Although poor in personal material wealth, these people had more leisure time than any society since. This is rather sobering is it not? We work so hard to enjoy the ‘fruits of our labour’ and we strive in order to enjoy ‘things’ together with those important to us, yet the exact opposite has emerged. The San worked for what they needed, no more, no less. Their balance was something we constantly strive for and yet the more we talk about it and work for it, the more illusive it becomes. For many, ‘life-work’ balance is a myth, a dream beyond reach. The lack of internal and external balance has dire consequences at both a personal and global level.
  2. Community: The world of the San was not a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world as we so often are led to believe. Rather it was a world of self-sustaining communities, resilient and in harmony with those with whom there was a shared interdependence. Utopian by today’s standards? Perhaps, but no less instructional nonetheless. Understanding our businesses and the people within as communities where we strive for a measure of self-sustainability would evoke discussion and action that might just substantially change things for the better. The machine metaphor, a legacy of the Industrial Era, which characterises our business form, thinking and language, is on life-support. The machine needs to be turned-off and we need new thinking, new expression and new descriptors to take us into the future. Seeing our business as a village, or as a community, is a good place to start such a journey.
  3. Caring: Theirs was a community, a society, based on mutual caring and sharing. The San understood that their very survival depended on such and it was entrenched in how they lived. The Native American ethos is similar where there was no personal ownership but rather a collective understanding that resources were to be used for the common good. Immediately you might be thinking of the grand experiments of socialism and communism, neither of which worked as political dispensations, yet are not entirely without merit when stacked against where it is that rampant, unchecked capitalism has taken us. Without getting into deeper debates around such issues, seeing our businesses as ‘communities’ makes caring and sharing unavoidable. As human beings we know this is important – after all we practice it in our family units daily; how would it look were we to extend it to those with whom we share a common purpose through the work that binds us together? An honest engagement with such matters, although seemingly impossible or utopian, would have a dramatic impact on the way we do things and I suspect, incur multiple benefits.
  4. Decision-making: Decisions were collective practice and there were no powerful chiefs. Again, taken in its ‘raw form’ this is hard to imagine and even harder to think about implementing. However, in the adaptive leadership model – finding solutions for new problems or ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’ necessitates all the stakeholders being involved. The adaptive nature of the challenges we encounter requires that all the stakeholders have a voice and share in the new learning that is essential if progress is to be made. This is a fundamental shift from situations where an authoritative voice held sway or there existed a ‘command and control’ type approach. All too often leadership practice is understood as and based on title, position and authority – and the ensuing results are plain for all to see.

If the world has changed we need to think and act differently. The world has changed. Corporate leaders know this but are struggling with forces within and without that refuse to move, change and adapt. There are legacy constraints that resist the needed innovation, experimentation and flexibility. Of course, change is not optional if we are to survive and ultimately thrive into the future. Leaders will have to look in new places for their inspiration as they lead through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that characterises our current context. Asking the ‘right’ questions and knowing where to look, will make the difference as to whether your business lives or dies. It is that simple, it is that complex.

The San Bushmen might just be the place to start. ‘Future Primal’…Louis Herman points the way but forging the pathway, well that is our responsibility.

China: “It’s not pretty but it’s the bloody reality”

Posted on: May 28th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

I was listening to the head of a large multinational that have significant investments in China speak about the challenges and opportunities that is China. The one line that caught my attention? “It’s not pretty but it is the bloody reality”. That about sums it up for western businesses trying to make their way in the China market. Most it would seem are learning the hard way and the smart ones understand the potential of ‘joint ventures’ as difficult as they may be.

The real ChinaManaging in China will entail significant ‘unlearning’ when the learning has been gathered in the west. In China it is not about the ‘what’ but rather about the ‘how’.  Emails don’t work in China; business connection is done via mobile. That way it is more personal. Managers in China are inherently ‘risk takers’ whilst the western managerial DNA is that of ‘risk manager’. When it comes to planning the Chinese manager would rather well, not do it. Their whole orientation is to be flexible and adaptable and how often can you recall a ‘good plan’ getting in the way of what really needed doing! Annual leave is 5 days and many manufacturing companies have set themselves up to operate 24/7 in how they synchronize information, feedback and production across the respective global time-zones. This week I visited TTI, a large manufacturer who bought Hoover, Milwaukee, AEG Powertools and RYOBI amongst others,  and heard a story that encapsulates much of what I have just outlined. It took TTI just three months from initiation to shipment to manufacture a power-tool hammer. The whole process was initiated by a customer call suggesting they develop something like this (there was no such thing on the market). Three months – to conceptualize, design, develop, test and produce! It is anyone’s guess how long that process would have taken in the west!

This is China. This is what western companies will have to realize as they collaborate and compete. Recently a well-known western fashion brand bought the Chinese company that were making rip-offs of their brand. The reason? The rip-offs were of a superior quality and being made cheaper than the real deal!
Stories of China are conflicting, paradoxical and varied. All of them are the ‘real China’. A western delegate on a recent leadership programme in China complained that he didn’t see the “real China”. He was situated in a five star hotel in the heart of Guangzhou. He went to impressive factories, ate out, walked the streets yet failed to comprehend that all of this is the ‘real China’. There would be other ‘pictures’ he could get of this vast country, one better understood as regions than a single whole, and these pictures would certainly have added to his overall picture…but he did see the real China! It is a place of immense contrasts as are most emerging economies.

If you haven’t yet started your ‘Chinese education’ I have only two words for you: ‘Why not?’ Your future will be somehow interlinked with China’s and the sooner you understand that and get to know and experience China the better prepared and equipped you will be.

“It’s not pretty but it’s the bloody reality”. Actually, I think it is rather ‘pretty’ but then that might depend on how you look at this amazing place with all its opportunity and challenges. Maybe ‘pretty’ should read, ‘easy’. Now that would make more sense!

On Leadership: The glory of uncertainty

Posted on: May 27th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Leaders have traditionally been conditioned to be certain. Conditioned to know the answer and instill confidence in leading the way forward. After all, isn’t that exactly what good leadership is all about?

Not necessarily.

CertaintyThe problem with certainty is that it leaves no room for learning. Mark Twain said, “It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, but rather what we know for certain that just ain’t so”. Certainty is the enemy of curiosity and curiosity is the gateway to exploration, learning and finding a ‘better way’. If the world has changed we need to do things differently. The world has changed!

This means that leaders need to challenge the status quo; as a leader you need to be able to hold up the previously unchallenged assumptions within your organization and subject them to review and possible revision. The real task of leadership is leading change and ensuring that your internal rate of change is matching the exponential external rate of change. Jack Walsh once said, “when the rate of change out there exceeds the rate of change in here, the end is in sight”.

Leaders need to know how to hold uncertainty as a means of allowing exploration, curiosity and ultimately, adapting to a changing reality. Certainty in uncertain times leads to an arthritic condition that inhibits adaptability. It invariably proves to be a fatal condition.

How can you as a leader hold open the space of uncertainty in such a manner that allows confident exploration? It might help to interpret ‘uncertainty’ as ‘openness’. Being ‘uncertain’ implies an openness to new ways of seeing things and holding less tightly to the way things have always been done; to loosen the grip on what we think is right. It is willingness to challenge and test assumptions and formulae that have, until this point in time, worked and brought success. It is the foresight to ‘fix’ something before it is broken. It means leading others in a change dance that is as difficult as it is continuous. It is knowing how to pause but recognizing that comfort can be the enemy of movement, and moving forward is non-negotiable.

Being ‘certain’ might just be the thing that gets you into trouble as a leader. I recall seeing the statement, ‘uncertainty might be an uncomfortable position but certainty is an absurd one’.

On Leadership: Chiefs as thin as the rest

Posted on: May 20th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

The San Bushmen have no ‘Chiefs’. Every Bushman is considered “chief” over himself – or herself. This is strange for those accustomed to a society governed by hierarchy. In the unique Bushman societal structure there was a balance between communalism and individuality and no one had any form of formal authority over another.

As I said, a strange concept to grasp for those unaccustomed to such ways.

Bushman artThe San would persuade others through a commitment to conversation in which eloquence, skill and wisdom would serve as guides in whatever was being discussed. Children were included in almost all activities and conversations. To quote Louis Herman, in his masterful book, Future Primal, “Coherence was maintained by collections of stories, myths and teachings – a shared but open-ended cosmology”.

I suspect that leaders could learn a thing or two from such ways!

Against this backdrop, Lorna Marshall wrote, “Chiefs are as thin as the rest”. How far we have moved away from this in most expressions of leadership practice in today’s world. Today, those given the responsibility to lead, see themselves as entitled to more than the rest. After all, isn’t that how it should be? Isn’t that the ‘spoils’ of leadership – just reward for the title? Isn’t that the natural order – leaders given and taking more than those below? It has become an unchallenged assumption and an abused ‘right’. It is justified in all kinds of ways and supported by systems that discriminate, manipulate and distort how we perhaps are meant to be and co-exist. It has happened for as long as we can remember and is “just the way things are”.

But why?

I recall a client where the CEO flew business class and the rest of his executive economy. Not only did he insist on business  class but would complain if he was seated at the rear of business class!  An extreme example perhaps, yet one that is symbolic of all that is wrong with leadership thinking and practice. Something has to give and until leaders understand they are there to serve, such actions will continue.

When it comes to leadership practice there is much we can learn from the San Bushmen and how they ordered their society and relationships. I suspect that we have moved so far from such order that even thinking about any form of implementation would seem extreme. That is a pity but I hope there are leaders bold enough to pause, to think again and see what might be done within their sphere of influence.

Why not?

Meaning & Measurement: The M&Ms of leadership

Posted on: May 19th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

There are two important aspects that all leaders cannot afford to ignore: meaning and measurement. Both are in dire need of being rethought given the context in which we find ourselves.

M&MsMeaning is not derived from work. It can be when your job is saving lives or the pursuit of some obvious noble cause that just might save the planet. However, for many, that is not our day-to-day reality. What then about us?  Understanding that rather than finding meaning in what we do, a healthier option is to bring meaning to what we do. In other words, we are the custodians of meaning. Finding meaning is our responsibility; it is an ‘in-out’ thing rather than the other way round. It is an important distinction to make and one that, if not made, can ultimately lead to a sense of futility or waste when we survey what we have done with our lives. Authentic leaders spend time thinking about meaning – for themselves and those they lead. They understand that linking meaning to activity – doing something because it really matters, is important in the work environments they create through their leadership.

What for you then creates meaning? How can you show up every day and bring meaning to whatever it is you do?

Measurement has been abused. The Industrial Age cliché, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ has seen the scope of measurement extend at times to absurd dimensions. Very often our overbearing bias for measurement has meant that meaning has vaporized.  It might be that in pursuit of good, we have forgotten what is the ‘good’. That said, measurement is important and it is true that, ‘you get what you measure’. However, what if we are measuring the ‘wrong thing’ – or trying to measure something with measurement tools that are out-dated, ill suited and simply not up to the job? What if by using the ‘old tools’ to measure important new criteria, we are doing more harm than good?

So, what is it that you are measuring? What is it that you need to be measuring? These are not necessarily the same thing and if they aren’t, best pause and rethink things before you take another step!

Leadership: The Glory of Getting Stuck

Posted on: May 15th, 2014 by Keith Coats 3 Comments

Momentum is important. It is important in sport, it is important in life. We are always encouraged to keep moving and ‘moving forward’ is the marketing tagline for one of Africa’s most prominent banks. Making progress, constant motion, pushing on…the refrain however it is dressed-up is constant and unrelenting. It is what we are meant to do; it is what we must do. Always.

But, there is a glory in getting stuck.

StuckGetting stuck is an enforced opportunity to pause; to consider; to rethink matters. For many, getting stuck is the only way we will ever get to do such important work. Getting stuck forces us to consider where we are, where it is we are going and how we will get there. It forces us to look for another way and it opens us to the possibility that the ‘other way’ might even prove to be a ‘better way’.

Getting stuck is important at both an individual and at a collective level. Getting stuck is always challenging but the benefits – be that personal or collective, are the same. Leaders are required to understand that getting stuck is part of the journey and in so doing help those they lead understand the same. Smart leaders understand the opportunities and possibilities that getting stuck affords and as such, they take full advantage of the time when ‘stuck’ describes the current reality. Of course they know that being stuck for too long can harm and even mean destruction. They appreciate the inherent dangers of getting stuck but don’t allow those dangers to override the opportunity such moments provide. The danger of the moment, the unexpected loss of momentum, of making progress is possibly why when we get stuck, the first instinct is to panic. However, not to panic – to accept the enforced pause and take from it what it offers is a real test of leadership.

The tools for learning and extracting us from such moments include things such as questions: Why has this happened? What needs to change? What did we miss? What do we need? Who can help us? What can we learn? What is the opportunity here? Questions, good questions are the tools we can use to seize the opportunity that being stuck offers. However, we will also need other types of tools: patience, resilience, composure, perspective and openness. In talking about leadership character it is said that crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals character. Getting stuck along the leadership journey offers the opportunity to develop such characteristics – characteristics that one-day will be fully tested in crisis.

Yes, contrary to what it might appear, there is a glory to being stuck.

Next time you or your team find yourself stuck, have the presence of mind as a leader to ensure that you take from that time all you need in order to find that ‘better way’; learn from it and ensure that you strengthen those qualities that will help ensure you survive the real tests that will surely follow.

Getting stuck is not only part of the journey; it is necessary to the journey. But smart leaders know that and as such, they welcome the glory of getting stuck!

Be such a leader.

The Enemy Within

Posted on: May 8th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

enemywithinThe best of strategies can be thwarted and undone by the presence of an enemy within the ranks. Even worse, an enemy within can sow the seeds that result in destruction and ultimate annihilation.

As a company, you may well have an enemy within.

Much of our time as TomorrowToday is spent helping companies and in particular leaders, to pay attention to the future; to ‘look out the window’ and understand the disruptive forces shaping not merely the future but their future. The TIDES framework is what we use to bring about this understanding and shape a coherency to the necessary but difficult task that is ‘looking out the window’. It is work we have done worldwide across multiple industries and in doing so we have come to a powerful realization and warning for corporate leaders everywhere: you might well have an enemy within.

Looking out the window and developing sustainability around ‘how to think like a futurist’ in order to understand, survive and ultimately thrive in the midst of disruption and change, is only half the story. You can do all this and develop well thought through strategies to make inroads into the future yet the enemy within can undermine and undo it all. What we have discovered is that when you turn around and face ‘inside’ having been looking ‘outside’, there will be some things that will need to change if you are to adapt and follow-through on your strategic intent. It is the internal resistance to change that becomes the ‘enemy within’ and no matter how clearly you have seen the future, failure to deal with the internal enemy will prevent you from making any meaningful progress. The enemy within is often well disguised and gives the appearance of being on-board with the change that is required. Alternatively, the enemy within might immediately be apparent but have such a strong hold over internal areas of the business, that confronting and defeating it requires great courage and determination – and there may well be a high cost to be paid. Either way, the enemy within has to be identified and confronted in order to implement your strategies successfully. It is that simple; it is that difficult.

So who or what is the ‘enemy within’?

The enemy within can be found anywhere within your organisation and whilst it might be embodied by specific person or group, that is not what is meant when we say ‘enemy’. There are four specific areas or terrains within your organisational culture that the enemy within can be located. In each of these areas the enemy within might take the form of policies, processes, procedures, mind-sets or behaviours that are the internal enemy to the essential change or adaption that is required.

These four areas within your company are:

  1. Decision rights: Where do the decision rights reside within your company? Who has them and who doesn’t have them? How do they get executed?
  2. Information: How is information disseminated throughout your organization? Who has the information and who doesn’t have it and why? Who needs it and how do they get it? Information is the lifeblood of any organization.
  3. Motivators: How do you incentivise both formally and informally the behaviours and activities within your organization?
  4. Structure: What structure is in place that serves your existing strategy?

There is a high chance that if your company is to thrive into the future and respond to the landscape that you have viewed from looking out the window, one or more of these four areas will need significant change. The inability or unwillingness to change where change is needed becomes the ‘enemy within’. All too often leaders gain clarity concerning the future and what is required, turn around to face ‘inside’ to deliver that picture or message, only to discover the presence of an overt or covert resistance to the adaption that the new landscape will demand.

  • “But we have always done it this way – this is what we know”
  • “But that is not our policy ”
  • “But we have just installed…”
  • “But that will mean that we have to…and you know that can’t be done”
  • “But none of our competitors are doing it”
  • “But how will we control it?”
  • “But that will never happen to us”
  • ‘But what does that mean for me / my team / that department or division?”
  • “But what about…?”
  • “But we have never done something like that?”
  • “But how do we know that will work?”

…and so the endless ways that the resistance is articulated becomes the voice of the enemy within. These “buts” emanating from one or more of the entrenched areas mapped out, are the stay bullets fired that can very quickly become a steady and deadly hail of bullets used to fiercely resist any change and defend the current position. Knowing what to guard and who are the guardians is one of the most astute of leadership capabilities and tasks. Leading change is the leaders responsibility.

Any clear look out the window reveals that things will have to change internally. If the world is changing we will need to do things differently. The world is changing. This becomes the leader’s responsibility to stand at the intersection of what is happening ‘out there’ and what is happening ‘in here’. Understanding, interpreting and bridging this complex intersection is the leader’s role and task. As a leader you need to know that there will be internal resistance. There always is although the resistance can be very subtlety disguised and as a result, hard to detect. It is often much easier to deal with when the resistance is out in the open and obvious. However the four areas – decision rights, information, motivators and structure, provide deep concealment to the enemy within. They represent terrain in which it is easy to hide and often difficult to clear.

According to Koerstenbaum, your primary responsibility as a leader is to deal with the organisational culture. All too often leaders neglect this area and leave it to Human Resources or external ‘experts’. You will be familiar with the well-worn cliché that, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast every day’. It is true. Yet too many leaders ignore this most important of responsibilities. The four areas that clock the ‘enemy within’ are all to be found in the terrain signposted ‘organisational culture’. The need to adapt to a fast changing external environment means that we need companies that are nimble and quick. That will require leaders who understand the requirements of what it takes to thrive in the 21st century and what kind of organisational cultural characteristics they will need to allow the constant adaption to take place.

So, as a leader, as you think about the ‘enemy within’ here would be some helpful question for your consideration:

  • As you ‘look out the window’ what is it you see?
  • What will be the implications for your business – for your stakeholders?
  • What are the questions you should be asking but aren’t?
  • Where can you go for answers?
  • Of the four areas (decision rights, information, structure & motivators) where is change needed?
  • Who are the guardians within you business & what are they guarding?
  • Who are the paradigm shifters within your business & what are they saying?

These questions represent a start at least. The quality of the questions asked will determine the quality of your strategy into the future. Make sure then that you are asking the ‘right’ questions and know that as you do so (ask the right questions), there will most certainly be an ‘enemy within’.

Prepare for battle.

 

Acknowledgement: The four areas specified were first encountered in the excellent book, Results by Gary L. Neilson & Bruce A. Pasternack

Another leadership lesson from the kids: Change the conversation

Posted on: May 2nd, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Our youngest, Sipho must have been about four years old at the time. He was duly strapped into the car seat in the rear of the car as was the norm and was on yet another endless ride with Mom about some or other business that couldn’t have been of much interest to a four year old.  He started the conversation with his usual bright, Conversation“Mommy…” only to be abruptly interrupted by a Mom who had clearly had enough. “You must stop starting every sentence with Mom or Mommy, Sipho” snapped a clearly frazzled Mother to her startled travel companion. I was later told that it wasn’t altogether uncommon for the young conversationalist to start his every (many a) sentence with a double barrel, “Mom, Mommy…” and this had obviously taken a heavy toll over multiple days and an endless stream of communication. There was silence in the car. The rebuke was obviously being analysed and processed while the Commander in Chief had a glimmer of rising optimism that the matter had been dealt with once and for all. The lengthy silence was finally broken with a, “will the Lady driving the car…”

Smart leaders understand the need to reframe, to change the conversation in order to help those around them see the situation differently.

It is not as easy or as obvious as it may sound yet it is an important leadership skill that can make a significant difference.

Leadership involves helping people make progress through the multiple adaptive challenges being faced. Finding new ways to see and tackle the problem becomes important within our organisations. Changing the conversation, by finding new ways to frame the challenge, can lead to amazing insights and results.

So what would be some of the conversations that you think could do with a fresh approach? How could a “would the lady driving the car” type reframing of the situation grab the attention and serve to reposition something that is tiresome, well worn and going nowhere? They could be conversations to do with how you see your future; how you view the competition or your industry; internal behaviour that needs addressing or some or other cultural or structural challenge that needs changing.

There must be several on-going internal conversations that could do with a switch from, “mom, mommy” to “will the lady driving the car” – why not be the one to change the conversation?

On Change: Blue cheese, tastier than ever!

Posted on: April 29th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

In response to a client’s need to assist team leaders grasp and engage with some required internal change an old story was retold. The underpinning framework guiding the work that was done in Hong Kong and Singapore was that of Spencer Johnson’s ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ Much of the cheese is now of course  ‘blue cheese’ but it still tasted very good!

Blue cheeseRequired reading coming into the day, there was some murmurings amongst the delegates given how old this framework was and how embarrassingly simple it seemed to appear. Yet, as we were to discover, there is nothing ‘simple’ about change. We all know it is necessary, even essential, yet what change requires of us individually and collectively is seldom simple and never easy. Most of these concerns were swept aside when the CEO shared about how he had shared the book with his family and it had provided stimulating discussion amongst his kids, the oldest of whom as 12. So although there was ringing endorsement from the highest authority in the room for the story, the fact that his oldest child was merely 12, did sit a little uncomfortably with those of the ‘too simple’ objection. Nonetheless, the account of Sniff and Scurry; Hem and Haw (the characters in the maze of ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’) once again reveal the power embedded in story to deal with the complexities that change and adaptation demand. John Kotter is another author and consultant who has understood the power of story and has cleverly employed story in shaping own his work around change. His best selling book, ‘Our Iceberg Is Melting’ as well as other expressions of his work have continued with the theme of using story to good effect.

It proved to be refreshing to dust off an ‘old story’ and use it to once again guide us through the ‘maze’ in order to locate ‘new cheese’. Having authored, ‘Everything I know about leadership I learnt from the kids’ you can bet that ‘if it is good enough for the kids’, then it is good enEveryting I know coverough for me in the work I do with senior executives!

I seldom waste an opportunity in a bookstore to browse the ‘children’s’ section’ hunting for stories that can be used with leaders. The consequence is bookshelves in my study that have a curious mix and array of titles that might easily lead one to think that I share this space with my grandkids. Of course, I don’t (yet) have any grandkids!

Succession Planning: 5 lessons from a fallen giant

Posted on: April 24th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments


Something had to stop Manchester United from continuing their dominant ways and it came from what many thought would be the most likely direction: when it came time to change the leader (manager). We all knew that Sir Alex Ferguson (SAF) couldn’t go on forever, although that is how it seemed for us long-suffering Liverpool fans during the course of the past two decades. Players came and went, owners changed, opposition rose and fell and yet through all this United (for the most part) reigned supreme. And so we all waited for the institution that was ‘SAF’ to pass. It did and the disintegration has been gleefully (for many) spectacular to state the obvious. In a mere 10 months, Moyes outwhat took 26 years to build, has crumbled. Time has shown David Moyes to be the wrong man for the job. Some would argue that he should be given more time but whether one likes it or not, Manchester United is first and foremost, in the eyes of the American owners, the Glazers, a business. As a business it needs to show return on investment and there is a sizable debt of some £389.2 million to be serviced. The servicing of that debt alone cost United £71 million over the course of last year. Dithering while Rome burns is not a viable strategy and something had to be done to save the business and it has always been one eye on the pitch and one eye on the NYSE. It is really that simple and that calculating as unpalatable as it may be to football loving fans, the lifeblood of any club, who are caught up in the romance of the club as an institution that exists beyond the balance sheet.

The succession process was poorly handled. We suspected it at the time and we know it as a certainty now. There are several lessons to be learnt:

1.    The incumbent leader is near-sighted. More often than not the current leader wants to preserve their legacy and what appears to be far-sighted vision, is really more short-sighted vision. They go after someone in ‘their own likeness’ and certainly that is what Moyes appears to be when measured against a younger Ferguson. Both have been cut from the same cloth and it was thought that this would be good enough to sustain the remarkable success achieved by Ferguson. It wasn’t, as we now know. Ferguson was given far too much power in determining his successor and he couldn’t envisage the real change that was needed.
2.    Past success inhibits our ability to see what comes next. Sir Alex chose someone whom he though would be able to replicate that which he had accomplished. The mould need not be changed; it had worked once, it would work again. However, the football world has changed from the early days of Ferguson’s reign. There is far less patience and more pressure to show immediate returns. The operating conditions weren’t the same and Ferguson of all people should have understood this new reality.  At the time of his exit he pleaded for time and patience for his successor but clearly didn’t believe it as he himself approved pulling the trigger on Moyes’ execution. He appointed a person who had never won a trophy and had a CV that was never going to be good enough for the requirements at Old Trafford. Ian Herbert writing in the Evening Standard put it best when he wrote, “It is a scenario United dreaded all through the years that they half imagined a landscape beyond Sir Alex Ferguson and, intoxicated by the taste of success, did little to prepare for it”.
3.    Be careful when the previous driver tells you the tank is full. Ferguson left nothing in the tank. Yes he reached the last chequered flag with consummate room to space but the reality was, the gas tank was on empty. All appeared to be good but deeper investigation revealed a squad that needed major overhaul regardless of who the new manager would be. The man who had successfully rebuilt the team time and time again handed over a team at the crest looking at a road ahead that had an alarming decline in its gradient.
4.    Don’t change everything and then expect continuity. When Ferguson left so too did other key stakeholders in the boardroom as well on the training pitch. I have read contrasting stories as to whether Ferguson’s training staff we pushed or left on their own accord but nonetheless everything changed and Moyes brought in his own team. It is said that some senior figures within Manchester United, in reference to the new coaching staff would ask, “Are Everton in yet?” when arriving at Carrington, the United training ground. The appointment of Ed Woodward left Moyes with someone whose inexperience meant that the critical summer transfer window was bungled in spectacular fashion. It all went horribly wrong from there.
5.    Clear out and move on. SAF kept an office in the main stand at Old Trafford. Apparently Moyes would often go and chat to Ferguson and whilst this might appear to ‘be helpful’ I am not so sure that it was wise in that it must have put the break on Moyes being, and seen to being ‘his own man’. As the legendary Shankley had to be told not to come to Liverpool by his successor, Bob Paisley, someone needed to tell SAF to clear out, for a time at least. His presence around the place was too bright for Moyes and I have no doubt that a more senior and experienced manager would simply not have accepted the situation.

It is always hard to be the ‘man who replaces the Man’. Moyes has found that out to his cost. It is said that the smarter play is always to be ‘the man who replaces the man who replaced the Man’. Time will tell.

So United face a daunting challenge of ‘where too from here’ with no guarantees of a quick-fix solution. It would seem that the managers they really need aren’t available or interested; they have a team that needs serious rebuilding, something that will test the culture and continuity of United even further; are saddled with serious debt and a playing record from 2013/14 that reads like a roll of ignominy complied by a committee made up of Liverpool and Manchester City diehards.

Succession after sustained success is a real challenge. United should have been planning for the exit of SAF long before they did and they didn’t. Most in this industry don’t and the ‘results’ are there to tell a tale of poor succession planning, short-term results and a turn-over of managers that is unlike anything else that can be thought of in whatever industry one cares to think about. Sad really.

Loyalty: Red and Blue on Merseyside and what we can learn about loyalty

Posted on: April 15th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

As I write this I am sitting in quaint little coffee shop on Liverpool’s main street, one minutes walk from The Cavern where it all started for The Beatles. As I watch people walk by on what is a rare clear yet chilly day, it is very apparent that one is either blue or red in this city. The tribal colours of Everton and Liverpool are within easy sighting whether one looks at the people or the stores. From cab drivers to store attendants, everyone has an opinion about the aspirations of their team and an assessment of ‘the other half’. It seems the one thing that unites the tribes here is a mutual hatred of the Manchester reds. I can live with that but let’s move on shall we! The 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy is fresh with the official memorial tomorrow whilst all the Premiership games delayed kick-off by seven minutes this past weekend as a sign of respect and remembering. Everton and Liverpool 96Football in this part of the world is taken seriously and as a cabbie told me earlier, “it doesn’t matter who you support here; everybody has been marked by the death of the 96” (referring to the 96 Liverpool fans crushed to death on that fateful April day in 1989).

In this city your colours define loyalty and yet there is a unique bond that runs deeper in a city of blue and red. All this got me thinking about ‘loyalty’ in business. It is a term often bandied about and I suspect, used on occasion to manipulate. It is a term that has been defined by one generation as meaning committed over the long haul – longevity; yet that same definition for another younger generation, makes little sense. It is a term in desperate need of re-definition for what is meant by ‘loyalty’ across two generations is like ‘red’ and ‘blue’ in this city in which I find myself.

If one applies the older definition of loyalty as being longevity in a particular job or for a company, a younger generation cannot be regarded as loyal. Their loyalty is generally to themselves and not any company or brand. They will move at a moments notice and for reasons than make little sense to others. This can partly be explained by the impact of watching the older generation ‘preach loyalty’ and practice loyalty and then, with economic turmoil, be ejected by those to whom they had ‘been loyal’. This made a lasting impression on those watching and it bred the perspective that loyalty in exchange for ‘job security’ was at best a myth and at worse, a blatant lie. They would have none of it. In addition to this life lesson they were witnesses too, came the inbuilt need for ‘change’. They have change wired into their very DNA and so, being ‘loyal’ makes little sense to them – a generation who seldom follow through by building careers based on their line of study. Statistics out of Europe have shown that by 30 years of age, 72% of graduates are no longer working in the field in which they graduated. That is a massive shift from the ‘way it used to be’ – it is a huge departure from the world that provided us with the definition of ‘loyalty’. You can see the problem!

We need fresh conversations around what loyalty is, how it will be practiced and how we can measure it. While we are at it, it also might be a good idea to discuss how it will be rewarded! Loyalty in this city of Liverpool goes deeper that tribal colours. It was redefined by tragedy and there is a lesson for the corporate world in how it understands and practices loyalty; the current generational dichotomy demands a deeper exploration of this important subject.

Leading in a Changing World: Four things leaders can learn from Postmodernism

Posted on: March 26th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

postmodernismIf the world has changed then we need a new kind of leadership. The world has changed.

Much has been said and written about change and the importance for leaders – wherever they might be, to adapt to the changes that have taken place. In fact it is often highlighted that the ability to adapt to change is the most important attribute of leadership and to be fair, many leaders sincerely do attempt to make the necessary adaptations.

Yet for the most part the old, outmoded and well-worn perceptions surrounding leadership stubbornly refuse to go away. Just recently I had a conversation with a senior manager who expressed the desire to be more “in control” – to assert his authority in a more convincing fashion in order to ensure his staff did exactly as he said. It all had to do with “delivery” – and of course he is right, it is about delivery. It is just that the way to go about it needs to change. The old ‘command and control’ mentality of leaders is, in today’s world, is as effective as attempting to harpoon a whale with a snorkel. And just as politically incorrect!

The confusion that leaders experience midst the cacophony of ‘experts’ who hustle the latest trend or fad, is just how to lead in an ever-changing world. In a global village where cultures collide and paradox is the norm, leadership is no easy task. Part of the problem is that there is an over-emphasis on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of leadership at the expense of fostering a deeper understanding of the changing environment in which leadership takes place. By neglecting the context for leadership the result is that the practice has become dislocated from the underpinning theory. It is a serious situation. For one thing it means that we unwittingly employ old practices in the face of new problems – with disastrous results. Invariably all that is accomplished is that we end up digging the hole that we are in, faster! The emphasis on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’  has bred a market for the consumption of quick fixes, ‘irrefutable laws’ and tips booklets that have invaded the realm of leadership at the expense of genuine inquiry, authentic discussion and bold experimentation. As a result, much of leadership has become one dimensional, stale, unimaginative, borrowed and worst of all, irrelevant.

What is it then that leaders need to pay attention to in the face of such an accusation?

There are two fundamental areas that any effective leader needs to explore, examine and understand. Both these areas require constant work. In a nutshell the two areas are: themselves and their context. Smart leaders know this and intentionally and instinctively work towards acquiring an ever-deepening understanding and curiosity for both relms.

Leadership is not so much about ‘what you do’ but rather ‘who you are’. The character of leadership has usurped the act of leadership. In a Connection economy people skills have come out tops in the list of attributes that leaders require. Granted, some leaders seem to deliver the goods using a manner and tone that is anything but relational, but these are more often than not, short term, stop-gap gains. Such an approach will not succeed over the long haul and when subjected to closer scrutiny, invariably reveals multiple flaws – unhappy and insecure staff, stifled innovation and participation, a lack of resilience, strong under-currents and an altogether toxic environment. Leading in today’s world, one in which geographical, cultural and economic boundaries collide and blur, is neither easy nor a simple task. Smart leaders work hard at understanding themselves which means exploring their own beliefs, principles, biases, prejudices and motivations. Interior landscaping is no longer optional for today’s leaders and requires as much, if not more sweat than that needed in mastering the many external skills that leadership demands. It has been on these external characteristics that leaders have long been judged – but that is changing.

How then should leaders engage with a changed world (context) if they are to lead effectively?

The place to start is to recognize just how the world has changed. Deepening our understanding of the change will serve as the raw material from which to fashion effective and relevant leadership. If leaders understand something of the changing context, the savvy ones will instinctively know best how to respond and what to do.

Of course there are many vantage points from which to explore the changes that have occurred, each with its own chorus of protagonists and antagonists. But for our purposes, lets use just one such vantage point from which to survey the changing landscape: namely the transition from the modern era to that of the postmodern era.

For many the term ‘postmodern’ conjures up a barrage of confusion or even guilt, as there is an underlying feeling that one ought to know what this term means. Bob Fryling provides a useful characterization to help explain the contrast between modernity and what has followed – postmodernism. He describes two people, each representative of the cultural paradigms.

Firstly there is the scientist, clan in a white lab coat and representative of the modern culture. Skeptical of the preceding ‘traditional culture’ where clergy authority, tradition, rites and absolute rules predominated, the scientist feels superior, secure in his or her ability to prove, test and understand. He (or she) stands erect and proud, boldly confident in individualism (I am free to pursue my own happiness), rationalism (research and reason can find the truth), technology (we can control and exploit nature to our own advantage) and progress (every day and in every way we’re getting better and better).

The modern era relied on proof, rationality and leadership reflected the cultural context of the times. The theory, practice and shape of leadership merely reflected and responded to the context in which it found itself.

Secondly, there is the rock musician. Clan in almost anything, this figure represents the postmodern culture. This individual is disappointed, disillusioned and skeptical when it comes to the Scientist and all he / she represents. The Rocker’s posture, attitude and behaviour stand in direct contrast to that of the Scientist. There is an uneasy energy and (as far as the Scientist is concerned) wayward perspective about the Rocker. The two might as well be from different planets but the reality is that are from the same planet, just different worlds.

So just what is this postmodern world that leaders need to understand if they are to lead effectively? Well there are at least four things that we should understand about postmodernism if we are to craft a relevant and effective leadership response to this new world.

1. Postmodernism is skeptical of certainty; its leaders need to be likewise.

Objective certainty and absolutes come under attack in the postmodern context. It is not so much absolute truth that is challenged but rather the ability of any one person or group to know such truth. In other words what the postmodern stance challenges is ‘absolute knowledge’ rather that ‘absolute truth’. The implications of this as a prevailing mindset for leaders everywhere is obvious. The smart leader understands that as certainty gives way to uncertainty, so answers should give way to questions. Most leaders feel compelled to have the answers but in the future, leaders will be required to know which questions need to be asked. Framing the relevant questions will become one of the most critical tasks for leaders in tomorrow’s world – a world that paradoxically, is already here. The legacy of traditional leadership formation is that ‘leaders’ emerge and lay claim to leadership through their accreditation. “Look, I have the certificate / degree that prove I am now ready to lead” is the spoken or otherwise boast of those exiting their MBA or MBL or any other configuration you care to think about. And this is a huge part of the problem. The world of business is full of ‘accredited leaders’ who leave their incubators certain rather than curious; teachers rather than learners; isolated and individualistic rather than connected and interdependent. Our companies are the poorer for it and never before have we had so many leaders, but yet so little leadership. It serve leaders well to reflect on the words of Mark Twain who once said, “It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, but rather what we know for sure that just ain’t so”.

2. Postmodernism is sensitive to context; its leaders need to be likewise

In today’s world diversity is the norm. Each slice of diversity brings with it its own context thereby creating myriads of contexts. Smart leaders recognize, embrace and endeavor to understand such complexity. Again, it is no easy task, and is one that doesn’t offer much comfort. Postmodernism validates several contexts and leading in such ambiguity requires no small amount of dexterity from the leader. Again the leader’s ability to adapt and to entertain ‘grey’ as opposed to ‘black and white,’ become key attributes in such a fluid environment. Ironically, in such a context it is often the leader who articulates a ‘right way’ or clarifies one single course of action that attracts a large segment of support from a populous tried of the ambiguity and of engaging in the complexity of cultural diversity. However inviting the offer of such certainty and clarity – a hankering for the ‘way it was’, is really a mirage in today’s landscape. For evidence of such one need look no further than the American reasoning and justification for waging their war on terror. It is proving a futile and costly endeavor – an all too simple response perhaps in a context riddled with complexity. Using the language of ‘adaptive leadership’ it was a technical response to what ultimately has proved to be an adaptive challenge.

3. Postmodernism understands ‘togetherness’ in a different way; its leaders need to do likewise

In a diverse and multi-cultural context, it is obvious that our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good team’ will need serious revision. In the past ‘good teams’ were those where alignment was prized and conformity the norm. “Being on the same page” was an oft repeated statement when it came to describing successful teams. However, without discarding such notions, it is no longer quite as simple. Embracing and incorporating diversity is not optional for today’s leaders and where so much has changed, it stands to reason that how leaders go about building effective teams also needs to change. Leaders need far more savvy in this regard than ever before and certainly an autocratic, “do as I say” style has very limited use in the process of building effective teams. Many companies spend vast sums of money on ‘team building’ and for the most part, it is money wasted.  Not because the end is at fault, but rather that the means employed towards that end are so misguided. In TomorrowToday we are of the opinion that leading diversity is emerging as perhaps the preeminent leadership challenge. It is an area in which those tasked with leadership development, especially the business schools, are failing dismally. The topic gets added to the curriculum but it seems that there is neither the will nor the courage to do what it will take to ‘really learn’ is this vital area.

4. Postmodernism values subjective experience; its leaders need to do likewise 

An emphasis on the ‘here and now’, on present experience, characterizes postmodern behaviour. Experiential learning that engages the whole person is paramount. Leaders need to fully enter into this collaborative process in an unedited, uncensored and unrehearsed way. Central to this process is the individual, as well as the collective ‘story’. Leaders will need to be storytellers and the tag, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) may well become, Chief Storytelling Officer (CSO) as smart leaders understand the importance of storytelling in achieving organizational coherency and success. Leaders will be required to listen more attentively to stories and be prepared to tell more stories. Stories are the vehicles for sharing our experiences and as such have the ability to offer fresh insights, raise awareness, enhance creativity and deal with complexity and uncertainty.

And so…

In the postmodern context leaders will find themselves addressing issues they never even thought about before. Much like the bemused Director of a large international company that I spoke to who had been asked a young staff member if it was acceptable to have his dog accompany him to work! Clichéd answers and simplistic methodologies no longer provide refuge for embattled leaders. “I’m sorry but I don’t know” will often carry more weight than the standard fare we have become so accustomed too.

Of course this brief exploration hardly does justice to the enormity of the change experienced as we have transitioned from the modern era to that of the postmodern. The point is that smart leaders pay attention to the Teutonic plate type shift that has taken place. It is a shift that, although hidden from our view, evidences itself in far reaching implications and is one that cannot simply be ignored or wished away. To be caught unprepared will prove catastrophic for leadership. Our world in general and our corporate world in particular, desperately need a new breed of leaders. Men and women who understand what is required and who are then willing to act on what it is that needs to be done. Leaders who understand the times and are willing to engage others in exploring and fashioning appropriate responses in which all play a part.

Idealistic? …Perhaps, but a worthy dream nonetheless.  In Oliver Stone’s epic film Alexander, the thought is expressed that dangerous are those who dream, and best they be killed before their dream kills you. History is littered with those whose toxic dreams would validate such a thought. But it is not the dreaming that is the fault line here but rather it is the unchecked, isolated dreams of those with power that cause such havoc. Postmodern times will necessitate leaders who are not afraid to dream, but leaders who are able to weave together a coherent expression and tapestry of the diverse dreams of many. It will be a rich tapestry indeed and one that will require the unique stitch and imprint of South African business. South Africa and its peoples represents the most diverse patch of land on our planet and as such has a unique responsibility in leading the challenge on behalf on an expectant world in the decade to come.

Acknowledgements:

The four points describing postmodernism (excluding the leadership emphasis) are taken from Brian McLaren’s excellent book, The Church on the Other Side (Zondervan Publishing, 1998). In it he refers to Bob Fryling’s book, Being Faithful in This Generation (InterVarsity Press, 1995) from which he takes the analogy of the Scientist and the Rocker (p160).        

The ‘Tea Trap’: The correct way to make a cup of tea

Posted on: March 4th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Apparently, the ‘correct’ way to make a cup of tea is set out in a 5 000-word report by the British Standards Institution. Of course this is ludicrous for all those outside of Britain itself, where correct tea making, is viewed on a par with national security.

teaIt does of course provide us with further reason (beyond those more obvious ones such as the state of their cricket and football) to scoff at the Brits and the quirkiness of their ways. But before we do so, I want to suggest that many organisations  – and maybe even yours, have unwittingly succumbed to their own ‘tea trap’.

The ‘tea trap’ is making something inherently simple, overtly complex. It can be seen in multiple ways within our organisations: from how we measure to how we reward; from how we regulate internal behaviour to how we design external connection. Many organisations have a process for pretty much anything and everything and the problem is, many of these processes go unexamined, untested and are allowed to exist way beyond their usefulness. They are used to prevent and restrict common sense, viable short cuts and are used to police innovative actions and behaviour. Processes that were originally designed to be helpful prove to be anything but helpful.

I am sure that the originators of the ‘correct tea report’ set out with the best intention in the world; they wanted to ensure safety, quality and standards. They thought they were being helpful, and maybe to a point they were. However, such over-elaboration now seems foolhardy and a waste of time, effort and paper. But before we deride these earnest tea-drinkers further, let us pause to consider where we might be guilty of exactly the same within our own organisations.

So, as you brew that welcome cup of tea, let me ask you just one simple question: exactly what processes should you consider shredding?

Out of Africa: An open letter to all in Africa

Posted on: March 4th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills’…

africaRecently I had the opportunity to visit the home of Karen Blixen, the author of, ‘Out of Africa’ – an autobiographical book penned in 1937 that was to become a Hollywood blockbuster and Oscar Best Picture winner (1985) staring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The thing that struck me as I heard the story afresh and with the benefit of onsite context was how ‘unremarkable’ her unfolding story might have seemed at the time. Blixen’s life was marked by hardship, privilege, prejudice, love, sorrow, illness and a sense of purpose – all of which she was able to capture through her remarkable ability with both pen and paintbrush preserving it for later scrutiny and engagement.

The passage of time and the benefit of hindsight was what elevated ‘her story’ to one that captured the imagination and hearts of people far removed from Blixen’s reality. I am sure that for every story like hers, there would be countless others that haven’t transcended into the public consciousness due to a mixture of circumstances and coincidences that failed to conspire in such a way as they might have in Blixen’s situation. She lived and captured her story with little, if any idea, of it’s subsequent appeal and impact.

It reminds me a little of the current ‘African reality’ and I wonder if time will look back on this period in the continent’s history and wonder just how ‘we’ could have missed what was about to unfold? Africa is full of promise and opportunity. It has the potential to become the centrepiece of the global economy and the main player seated at the table. Of course ‘potential’ and ‘reality’ don’t always meet and perform in harmony. There exists a ‘gap’ between potential and the realization of that same potential. That gap is what we in Africa currently have to both recognise and contend with if this magnificent continent is to fulfil the promise that many believe it possesses.

It is all too easy to frame our current understanding of Africa with restrictive ‘single stories’. Single stories of despot dictators who think of nothing else but themselves; of horrify and unimaginable genocide and brutal tribal conflict that leave us questioning the very nature of what it means to be ‘human’; of grinding poverty and disease that decimate and disempower, the likes of which leave us feeling helpless and detached; of infrastructure so poor it makes even the most straightforward of tasks a challenge requiring patience and persistence; and of corruption that has become accepted as normal and is met with a shrug of the shoulders whilst simultaneously reaching for the wallet. These are stories we have all heard and can tell. They are often the only stories we tell and in the countless retelling, the ‘single story’ is perpetuated and becomes the ‘truth’ of what Africa is and is not.

However, there is another emerging reality that were we to find the stories to depict this new possibility, we could turn despair into hope and acceptance into the kind of energy that will make a real difference.

You see, shaped and framed another way we can look at Africa and see a different ‘single story’ – a single story that could easily become ‘multiple stories’, ones that reshape and re-orientate our perspective, attitudes and actions. There is a story of Africa that tells of remarkable economic, political and social progress. A story that challenges commonly held beliefs about the ‘Dark Continent’ and a story that needs to be both lived and shared – as was the case with Blixen. It starts with a willingness to re-examine our own perceptions and to challenge our own perspective on how we ‘see Africa’. It starts with a willingness to engage, connect and experience some of the current reality and yet be open to the paradox that is Africa and her people. It is a choice to see the positive, the good, the inspiring and in so doing not turn a blind eye to that which needs to be challenged, changed and confronted. It starts with a belief that Africa can be more than its beautiful landscapes and magnificent wildlife; that its best asset is its people – people who are resilient, friendly, welcoming and inclusive.

Africa as it could be, will be shaped by how we see and understand Africa today. It will take courage, a willingness to learn, humility and determination if we are to build an Africa for the future. But it can be done; it is possible and it is within our grasp. It will mean repeatedly getting up when knocked down and it will require a savvy approach that leverages the best of what we have whilst minimizing the worst of what seeks to pulls us down. It will take leadership in all sectors of society: political leaders who understand their role and create the right environment; corporate leaders who lead for the benefit of all and social and community leaders who are often the translation, the bridge between the ‘policy’ and the ‘play’ – the ones who get dust on their feet as they help turn dreams into reality.

I was intending to provide statistics and ‘evidence’ of an Africa that could be; an Africa within our grasp. But somehow, having got this far, I feel that the addition of such ‘evidence’ wouldn’t be appropriate.

Africa is all of our responsibility and as a South African, I am concerned that South African business leaders are failing to both understand and realize this Africa that both invites and beckons. It might prove to be a failure – a neglect, one that comes back to haunt South Africa and is spoken about by our children and children’s children as a ‘missed opportunity’. ‘How could they not have seen it?’ future generations will wonder as the story of ‘out of Africa’ is told with a sense of awe and emotion.  South Africa is in danger of becoming dislocated from the growth and opportunity that is Africa; often seen as arrogant and patronising, South Africa and those who represent us on the continent need to be less condescending and more open to learning from those with whom we share this Continent. It will require a sobering about-turn but one that if not made, will rob both South Africa and Africa of the opportunity to rewrite ‘out of Africa’.

How to change history

Posted on: February 27th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Gustavo Gutierrez once said, “Those who change the course of history are usually those who pose a new set of questions rather than those who offer solutions.” Gutierrez, born in Lima in 1928, is a Peruvian Dominican priest who is regarded as the founder of Liberation Theology. Those are powerful words and true.

Gustavo GutierrezWe often don’t welcome people who ‘pose questions’ as they are often labeled the ‘trouble-makers’, the ‘mavericks’ and the ‘rebels’. We have been conditioned to get rid of them, ignore them or perhaps ‘manage’ them. They often make us feel uncomfortable and they are not afraid to challenge the status quo, the conventional wisdom and the formulae that to this point, has brought success. They don’t subscribe to the old cliché, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ and are happy to ask, challenge and often times, comfortable with being proven wrong. For them ‘asking the question’ is what is important; find the solution – that is entirely another matter, conversation and perhaps, process.

If the truth be told, we have placed a far higher value on the ‘solution’ than on the question. We have been repeatedly told, “don’t bring me a problem; bring me a solution”. We are measured, valued and rewarded on our solutions rather that on the questions we ask.

Yet history turns on the question. If you are fortunate enough to have such a person in your team, hang onto them and understand that their question will be what enables you to find a ‘better way’, a breakthrough, a solution. The right question is to the future what the ‘running shoe’ is to the runner; it is the start that propels the journey and enables the exploration.

So, here would be an interesting question to ask: at your last meeting (be that board, executive, management or whatever), how many questions were asked?

Smart leaders understand the importance of questions and do their utmost to create the kind of environment that invites questions. As you track the number (and quality) of questions being asked in your meetings, you will either have cause for celebration or concern. If it is the former, then guard the context and conditions that gives rise to questions being asked; if it is the latter, think carefully about how you might evoke questions and ask what role you are playing in the fact that questions are not surfacing. Be sure, they are there…getting them to the surface is what matters!

And one final question for you, the Leader: when last did you ask a question?

Leadership: Five things you need to do?

Posted on: February 11th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

Writing in USA Today journalists, Alistair Barr and Scott Martin, suggest five things that Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, needs to do. This advice includes, embrace the cloud; free its software from Windows; fix mobile; woo developers and focus. It is not bad advice at all for the giant that to some extent needs to reinvent itself.

handIn fact it is advice that could be applied across a swathe of companies and is more generic than might at first glance appear.  Let’s take a brief look at each one of these points and ask ‘how’ and ‘if’ it could apply to your own context.

Embrace the cloud. Certainly the cloud changes things. Just last week in a leadership development programme in Atlanta I asked a global leader in the insurance sector, what a, ‘cloud based insurance company’ might look like. It generated some interesting discussion and the reality is that whereas ‘the cloud’ was once considered unreliable and risky, such perceptions are fading quickly. The cloud is a potential game-changer; the trick is to know how it might be so for you.

Free your software from Windows. The broader point here is that you might need to ‘free’ yourself from restrictive systems, processes and programmes that are simply no longer as effective or efficient as they once were. This usually proves to be much harder than it sounds as to ‘free yourself’ one has to overcome a mountain of obstacles, the sole purpose of which, is to maintain the status quo. This is what often keeps companies from being adaptive – from being nimble and quick. Adaptive companies learn to how and where to cannibalize themselves. It is a necessary part of how to ‘stay alive’ in an exponentially changing world. Ironic isn’t it?

Fix mobile. Mobile will soon be the dominant route to information and quite possibly to your market. It certainly is already how younger generations connect, communicate and source information. Failure to be asking the ‘right questions’ in this area and what it means both inside and outside of your business, might just mean you are left behind with only the dust of your competitors to keep you company.

Woo developers. So who would be ‘your developers’? Make sure you know who are the most important people to your business success and then ensure that your policies and service is geared towards making them happy. If it (your policies and processes) doesn’t make then happy, scrap them for they are not doing what they should be doing. Network, connect, go to – as opposed to waiting for other to come to you, and realise that what it takes to ‘woo’ these days has changed from what it once used to be. You might not like it but that is the reality in a changing world. Dating skills have changed although some of the basic principles remain the same. Best know what has changed and what hasn’t otherwise you might just be home alone.

Focus. Never bad advice ever. Focus, focus, focus. Know what you want; what you are good at, and what you need to do. Distraction is the enemy of achievement and without focus the chances are you will never get to where you could have been – and that we term, ‘a waste’.

Five things that Mr. Nadella needs to do. Five things that just maybe you too ‘need to do’? It might not be a bad idea to make these five points the topic of conversation at your next Exco or management meeting.

Your next step: Thinking like a Futurist in 2014

Posted on: January 29th, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

It is that time of year again when everyone is having their say about the likely trends that will dominate or surface during the course of 2014. Recent editions of Time, Fortune and the Economist have all run lead articles looking into the crystal ball of 2014. It is as predictable as the post-Christmas High Street sales. Why, even You magazine is in on the act when a couple of weeks ago a journalist from You contacted me to ask what I thought might be consumer trends for 2014!

windowIdentifying and utilizing key trends to gauge, leverage and stimulate performance, readiness and conversations within your business is an important leadership function. Smart leaders understand the need to ‘look out the window’ and then interpret what they see into meaningful engagement internally. It is not as easy as it sounds nor is it as common practice as one might assume. I am constantly amazed at how many senior leaders I meet who really don’t have a systematic and coherent way of ‘looking out the window’. When they do, it is often only paying attention to a very narrow band as represented by the industry in which they perform. History teaches us that disruption (of our industry) often comes from unlikely sources –  from outside of our industry. Bob Seidensticker, in his book Futurehype, writes that, “The digital watch didn’t come from established watch companies, the calculator didn’t come from slide rule or adding machine companies, video games didn’t come from board-game manufactures Parker or Mattel, the ballpoint pen didn’t comes from fountain pen manufactures, and Google didn’t come from the Yellow Pages”.

Leaders need to cultivate the habit of paying attention to that which isn’t in their immediate focus or in their natural line of sight. External help to do this vital work is helpful but ultimately it is best served when it forms part of internal leadership practice and is something that expands beyond the ‘leader’s responsibility’. Internal ‘crowdsourcing’ the future – putting many ‘eyes to work’ is smart practice in today’s complex, connected and exponentially changing world.

That all said, what would be some ‘less obvious’ trends to track throughout 2014? Here would be just three that I think you would be well served to place on the radar:

1. New ways of connecting and working. Shifts are happening in both how we connect and work. Primarily two things fuel these shifts: rapid advances in technology and a generational approach or mindset that embraces these shifts.  A younger generation sees the relentless technological advances as ‘normal’ – they form the context in which they are growing up and so minimum adjustment is required. As a leader you need to pay careful attention to how the ‘rules of the game’ are changing when it comes to connection and working. Failure to acknowledge such and respond appropriately will have a direct impact on your ability to both attract and retain ‘talent’. Just the other day I spent a day with the newly recruited law graduates in a prestigious firm. None of them were making any use of the smart technology I know they had at their personal disposal. On inquiring about this anomaly I was told that they had been ‘instructed’ by a senior partner not to make use it! Simple fact is that using it would have been a far smarter way to simply record what they wanted from the day’s discussions and input. 

2. Multi-generational workplaces and markets. Long-gone are the days of a ‘one size fits all’ approach – to anything! Multi-generational reality inside and outside of our businesses is a complicated reality that smart leaders understand and embrace. The significance of this new reality is that different generations ‘see the world differently’. This impacts on their values and behavior which means that ‘everything changes’. So often I come across smart leaders who fail to grasp this and seem to continually want to recreate the world with what they are familiar with – the world that is ‘right’ for them and so by default, ‘right for others’. Again, think of the senior law partner referred to in the previous point! Generational Theory provides a powerful framework from which to ‘make sense’ of the generational paradoxes that abound. It doesn’t answer every question of course but nonetheless, is a good start in understanding the why, what and how to engagement across the generational gap. It is something that we in TomorrowToday have specialized in having had the undoubted privilege of presenting, consulting and teaching the theory in 44 countries – that is quite a footprint!

3. Shifting economic power. My elderly mother still refers to the ‘far East’. The new reality is that the ‘far East’ has now become the ‘near East’. The global economic epicenter is shifting right under our feet. It is moving eastwards. China, India and the other ‘Asian tigers’ will increasing dominate the global economic landscape. I am involved with several multi-nationals that are still struggling to fully interpret and integrate this shift into their organizational DNA. Naturally it is acknowledged in the operational and strategic components they adopt but the shift that is taking place will have deeper and more far-reaching consequences than merely demanding that we ‘have a presence there’.  Not enough is being done to fully equip ‘our people’ to successfully transition cultures and markets and I see too many merely trying (in a new context) to implement what worked in their previous context. It doesn’t. It is also not a subject that will be sorted by a half-day focus in some leadership development programme that we ask a business school to deliver. I do not see a serious engagement of how best to lead difference and harness diversity by companies where doing so is essential. To be honest, it isn’t always the company that is at fault here: business schools are woeful when it comes to delivering such programmes and these are the people to whom the companies turn to in order to engage with this challenge. There is both a lack of imagination and courage to do what is needed by way of experiential learning and the ‘messy’ process that this entails. I don’t mind stating it but one shinning exception to this has been my experience in the senior leaders programme run by Spar South Africa. More could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to a subject that will not go away quietly and will become increasingly important if your plan is to expand geographies!

Smart leaders spend time looking out the window. They make this a habit and have a systematic way for seeing, interpreting and applying. Business efficiency is no match for shifting context and as a leader you need to pay attention to both and understand the correlation between the two.

Now go ahead and do your job. Perhaps your next step should be one towards the window!

Facts: Much to do about nothing – or quite the contrary?

Posted on: January 22nd, 2014 by Keith Coats No Comments

 

‘Facts’ like statistics, can either be very insightful or actually prove to be somewhat unhelpful. Consider the following 10 facts:

  •  88% of plane crashes occur in the first three minutes or the last eight minutes of a flight (reassuring as I am writing this in the middle of a seven hour flight to Zurich!)
  • It is impossible to hum while holding your nose
  • The Statue of Liberty wears size 879 shoes
  • Only 22 of the world’s 193 countries have never been invaded by the British
  • In the time it takes you to read this sentence, 50 000 cells in your body will die
  • Samsung’s first product was dried fish
  • Two-thirds of British children aged five to 13 can work a DVD player, but fewer than half can tie their shoelaces
  • Santa has his own postal code – HOH OHO – in Canada
  • The small pocket in the front of jeans was designed for pocket watches
  • At any one time, 45 million people in the world are drunk

boom-and-bust-hand-in-hand So, facts can either say a lot about nothing or nothing about a lot. If you were to ask 10 people within your company to come up with a list of 10 random ‘facts’ about your company, what would they list? How important would that list be in helping you gauge something about the reality, as it exists within your company? It might prove to be both a fun exercise as well as one that provides some interesting insights. Why not try it? If nothing else it could lead to some interesting discussion around perceptions, reality, your culture and what is or isn’t important.

Random facts can help reveal difficult to discern patterns; they can surface things that might have been hidden from plain sight or help spotlight something that could prove to be critically important. They may give rise to insightful questions or provide a previously unthought-of of perspective. They may also obscure what really needs to be looked at or seen; they may mask important stuff and clutter things to the point of distraction. They may serve as ‘smoke and mirror’ to reality or may drive the wrong behaviour. One person’s ‘facts’ might prove not to be another person’s ‘facts’ and therein sit the complexity of perception and reality as defined from different vantage points and perspectives.

So, what ‘facts’ dominate your environment and given what surfaces (through those lists), what does this tell you?

And …you can stop holding your nose now and finally admit that humming whilst doing so is in fact …impossible.

Oh…and lastly: in case you are one of those 45 million people…a popular Roman cure for a hangover was deep-fried canary.

Seven ‘Leadership’ Lessons from Santa

Posted on: December 18th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Let’s face it, the fat guy in the red suit is one impressive leader. He never misses a beat, has expectations to meet that would cause even Zuma to step-down and he gets reindeer to fly. Which reminds me: do you know why Rudolph and Prancer were not sold at the auction? They were two deer.

Moving on to more serious stuff…Santa teaches us some valuable leadership lessons that we would do well to note in the months outside of the Christmas season.

Here then would be seven worthy of  your attention:

1.    He doesn’t seem to use the balanced scorecard. It is a simple ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’. That’s it. That must save an awful lot of time and avoids any sort of confusion and ambiguity. You either make it or you don’t. Simple. The Big Guy clearly doesn’t have an HR department.
Santa relaxing2.    He gets reindeer to fly. That is one impressive feat. You most likely don’t have any reindeer to practice on but try it with your dogs and you will see it is no mean feat. I have had more, but still limited success, with cats however that is another story and one not fit for the telling in this season of goodwill and cheer. Still, some of your staff might fall into the ‘reindeer’ category and so try to get them to collaborate and fly during 2014 and you will soon appreciate just what Santa has achieved!
3.    He is the master delegator. This guy only really works one night a year and has an army of elves (come-on…who really believes in elves unless by elves you mean a whole lot of cheap Chinese labour tucked away in some dingy basement somewhere?) who do all the real work. Not only that but he then manages to get a whole lot of frauds to masquerade as him as they buy into his cause meaning even less work to do. All this means he gets to put his feet up for a lot longer and when you think about it he really does squat. Sounds like many a leader you know? On top of all this is his masterstroke – he manages to get the parents to buy all the gifts but he gets all the credit! It is a deception of Machiavellian proportions and one that deserves our admiration.
4.    His PR is great yet all he ever says is, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’. You try getting up at your next AGM and making your keynote speech a ‘ho, ho, ho’ and see how well that goes down! Yet Santa pulls it off every year. Amazing! No speechwriter needed, no lines to learn, no anxiety that you will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Ho, ho, ho…that’s it!
5.    He knows the secret of how to keep weight off. “Just hold on” I can hear you protest…”didn’t you just call this guy ‘fat”? Yes, you’re right, I did and he is but…when you consider the amount of cookies and milk he consumes, to be the size he is, well is nothing short of incredible! He should be ten times larger around his girth. He should need a team of elephants to fly him round the globe! So, there is something he is not sharing and in spite of scouring the Internet I can’t find any diet tips that he is putting out. Future business opportunity perhaps?
6.    Diversity doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Along with that is his total disregard for political correctness. I mean this guy just does his thing regardless of whom he offends. Santa is Santa, like him or not. He doesn’t seem the least bit phased by public opinion and yet in spite of this, has few, if any enemies. Maybe wearing a red suit is the trick, or perhaps that benevolent grandfatherly look he perfects, I don’t know. You can try it if you want but don’t pin it on me if it fails to impress and people throw things at you.
7.    He is never alarmed. He gets into high security homes and never sets the alarms off or gets the dogs going. I mean how does he do that? Hopefully this is one secret of his that remains a secret as we have enough crime in South Africa without having to deal with Santa copycat robberies springing up all over the suburbs. Still it is a trait that could serve many a leader well especially when needing to fly under the radar or disappear undetected for whatever reason.

Here’s to a wonderful Christmas and may your scorecard read, ‘nice’. If not, well there is always next year because the one thing we know for sure…the guy in the red suit will be back. On that score the Terminator has nothing on Santa!

Merry Christmas!

Looking out the window: Four leadership insights from 2013

Posted on: December 17th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Currently I am on my last business trip for 2013. Soon it will be time for a short break before the travel begins once more in early January with a trip to Ecuador. By the time this trip is complete it will have meant 143 flights that have involved multiple trips to China and Switzerland and other forays to Australia, the UK, the USA, Europe, Argentina and Mauritius. Of course embedded in such a schedule lurk numerous ‘interesting’ travel stories. One of the more bizarre involved my wife, PA and unofficial Boss (yes, that is all one person!) flying into Dubai to hand me a much needed visa for China; having breakfast together before she flew straight back to South Africa and I legally winged my way to China. And yes, I am still paying for that act of devotion! I will spare you the grim details that led to such a trip other than to say I was holed up in the airport for 24 hours and got a glimpse of the life of ‘Terminal Man’. Although I must add, ‘holing up’ is a bit of a stretch, as it happened to be the first class Emirates lounge, which is not much of a hardship! A close second would have been the trip to Brisbane, Australia where I flew from Durban, South Africa via Dubai, landed at 6:30am, did a morning’s work with the client and was on a return flight that evening. Durban to Brisbane and back and no need to pack a toothbrush or pyjamas!

Airplane windowOf course such travel is a wonderful privilege and offers some rich learning along the way. One gets to see wonderful places, work with influential clients and meet interesting people.  The work is never boring, always challenging and constantly evolving. Along the way there are multiple insights and lessons and here would be a select few that have come my way during that part of the journey we tag ‘2013’.

1.    Companies are struggling to come to terms with the new global realities. The rise and dominance of China is a reality. Doing business in China and with China is something that most global players will have to get used to and do so quickly. Many that I have seen ‘close-up’ are struggling to translate their, ‘outside of China success’ into, ‘in- China’ success. This is because the model for success in China is different. China is pioneering a different form of capitalism as well as democracy. Both exist but neither looks like their ‘western counterparts’. Understanding this and then translating this understanding to ‘your people’ will be one of the defining leadership challenges of the 21st Century. ‘Leading Difference’ is a framework we have developed in TomorrowToday in response to this new reality and we have seen first-hand how difficult it is for major international clients to fully grasp what this means and how best to make it work. I suspect we will be doing more and more of this work (Leading Difference) in the years to come. I am convinced that TomorrowToday (given our global experience) and being South African, are twin advantages in meeting this universal challenge of leading in a world of difference.

2.    Looking out the window is hard but necessary work. Every leader, every company, needs to be ‘looking out the window’ suggests Brazilian businessman and author, Ricardo Semler. Much of our international work this year has been helping leaders and companies do precisely that – look out the window. This has been through our ‘TIDES of Change’ framework in which we track five disruptive change drivers and then help people ‘think like a Futurist’ in order to sustain the discipline of ‘looking out the window’. As I have done this work what has occurred to me is that the difficulty is not so much the ‘looking out’ but rather, how one interprets that which has been seen externally, internally. In other words, what happens when you turn back inwards and now have to report on what it is you have seen ‘outside’. Why this is problematic is that very often the ‘message’ relating to what has been seen ‘out there’ means challenging the current paradigm, model, formulae or status. It becomes far easier to merely ignore – or in the worse case, simply shoot the messenger, than to engage with the message and what this will mean for our future. I have had first-hand experience of companies that have ‘shot the messenger’ rather than accept the view gained by looking out the window.

3.    Being future-fit will require leaders to be ‘adaptive leaders’. We live in what has been described as a ‘VUCA’ world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In response to this it has been suggested that we need, ‘VUCA’ leaders – leaders who embody vision, understanding, connection and agility. This is a nice ‘tidy’ acronym to describe something of the leadership challenge of the future. A leadership model that best meets the challenge of the 21st Century is that of ‘adaptive leadership’. This year I have written an on-going blog on what it takes to be an adaptive leader that is available through the TomorrowToday app. It essence, becoming an adaptive leader will involve both a mind shift and a behavioural shift. In the same way that to get physically fit takes hard work, discipline and application – getting future fit, or becoming an adaptive leader, will require much the same. There can be no short cuts here but it is work that is unavoidable if you want to lead into the future.

And finally, one further insight of a more personal nature on which to end:

4.    Proudly South African. The ‘outside-in’ view I get on the ‘Beloved Country’ makes me ever more grateful to be South African. We have a wonderful country with wonderful people and travel has made me ever more aware of this reality. I was out the country on the occasion of both the death and burial of Nelson Mandela, punctuated by a brief homecoming between the two events where I deeply inhaled some of the ‘local atmosphere’. Processing these events from outside of South Africa made me even more aware of the global iconic status ‘our Madiba’ enjoyed. South Africa is rich in promise and full of challenging circumstances – many of our own making. A peaceful and prosperous future is not certain but that is what makes it such an exhilarating place to wake-up to every morning. There is the real opportunity to make a meaningful difference and contribute to something special. Sometimes it takes stepping away from a situation to better see the situation. This year I have had that opportunity and privilege and it is something for which I am grateful.

I, and all of us in TomorrowToday, wish you a wonderful 2014. May it be a year when your highest expectations are exceeded and may you find strength and grace to face the undoubted challenges and surprises that make-up this journey we call, ‘life’.

Travel safely.

You are mistaken Mr Friedman, there was a miracle.

Posted on: December 10th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

It has been an interesting experience processing both the death and burial of Nelson Mandela from distant shores. Whilst I would have loved to have been home amongst ‘my people’ to fully enter into the emotion, celebration, mourning and expression of this momentous yet inevitable event, being in Dubai and then Switzerland has afforded something of a unique perspective on my homeland.

Mandela SA flagFor one thing, I more fully appreciate what President Obama meant when he thanked South Africa in his speech at the memorial for ‘sharing Madiba with the world.’ Mandela was truly loved and ‘owned’ by everyone. His family was not confined to those sharing his home, his clan or his fellow countrymen; his family truly was universal like few others have ever known. He was it seems, more than a father to modern South Africa, he was a ‘father’ figure to any who cherish the ideals for which he dedicated his life; a ‘father’ to all who carry hope where there is done, to any who dare dream the impossible.

Writing in the International New York Times, Nicholas Kulish writes the following: ‘To some, Mr Mandela’s passing offers the opportunity to shed the notion that South Africa’s transition from white rule to democracy was a miracle rather than a hard won compromise’. He then quotes Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg as saying, “The idea that a miracle occurred in South Africa is a profoundly unhelpful one. We have had some successes and also a lot of setbacks, but no miracles that I can think of”.

Well then Mr Friedman, clearly you have not thought enough.

The democratic transition in South Africa was certainly based on some hard won compromise. However, without understanding what took place in part as ‘miraculous’- is to deny an important and often unexplainable aspect of the transition. To ascribe what took place to mere politicking and negotiation is to turn a blind eye to where the real change took place – a change of heart, emotion and vision. In the case of South Africa both were essential to the overall outcome and to try and discard one at the expense of the other is well…not thinking enough. It amount to a failure in understanding that goes beyond mere ‘thinking’ and analysis.

The Chinese don’t dichotomise between head and heart; the Chines talk about ‘thinking with your heart’. Maybe this is the oversight that those who ‘study’ such transitions have missed in the miracle that was and is South Africa. Of course, what we do with that miraculous gift – well, that is another matter entirely.

I believe in miracles and I suspect that Madiba did too. It was something that all who had the privilege to engage with him instantly felt. ‘Madiba magic’ it has been called, and that same ‘Madiba magic’ undoubtedly formed part of a bigger, broader ‘miracle’ – that which cannot be explained but is very real nonetheless.

TomorrowToday: Welcome to our world

Posted on: November 28th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Imagine a company with no written contracts between the business partners; no offices; no underpinning capital; as much – or little leave as you want; measured by outcomes; no HR policies or any policies really – just sensible agreements on how things should work; where everything is transparent, including take home pay; where home is where you work – unless you choose some coffee shop, park or beach; where learning is mandatory and sharing what you have, know and don’t know is as natural Hands holding worldas a mid-day movie, fetching your kids from school or taking time to think; a place where you work with smart people who also happen to be nice people; people who ‘have your back’ and with whom you would take into any battle, face any challenge or tackle any obstacle; where your clients span the planet and emanate from a variety of industries; a place where who you are matters more than what you know; a place where meaningful work and passion are more important than making a lot of money – as nice as that is; a place that is fun, flexible and challenging; where robust conversation never threatens relationship and feedback is prized more than recognition; a place where every day is different, an opportunity, a challenge; a place where you can make a difference; a place that prizes the journey over the destination.

That company, that place is TomorrowToday. Welcome to our world.

TomorrowToday: Welcome to our world

Posted on: November 28th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Imagine a company with no written contracts between the business partners; no offices; no underpinning capital; as much – or little leave as you want; measured by outcomes; no HR policies or any policies really – just sensible agreements on how things should work; where everything is transparent, including take home pay; where home is where you work – unless you choose some coffee shop, park or beach; where learning is mandatory and sharing what you have, know and don’t know is as natural Hands holding worldas a mid-day movie, fetching your kids from school or taking time to think; a place where you work with smart people who also happen to be nice people; people who ‘have your back’ and with whom you would take into any battle, face any challenge or tackle any obstacle; where your clients span the planet and emanate from a variety of industries; a place where who you are matters more than what you know; a place where meaningful work and passion are more important than making a lot of money – as nice as that is; a place that is fun, flexible and challenging; where robust conversation never threatens relationship and feedback is prized more than recognition; a place where every day is different, an opportunity, a challenge; a place where you can make a difference; a place that prizes the journey over the destination.

That company, that place is TomorrowToday. Welcome to our world.

Talent Management: It’s a three-door problem

Posted on: November 28th, 2013 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

The magazine ‘Parade’ had a column ‘Ask Marilyn’ by the person with the highest recorded IQ (according to the Guinness Book of Records), Marilyn vos Savant. In 1990 Craig Whitaker of Columbia wrote in with a question that is known as the ‘Monty Hall’ problem.

doors  on wallsThe Monty Hall problem is as follows: Supposing you are on a TV game show and the programme host shows you three closed doors, behind two of which are goats, and the remaining door has a car hidden behind it. Your goal is obviously to win the car and you are then invited to choose a door. Having chosen a door, the show’s host then opens one of the remaining two doors, revealing a goat. Without knowing what is behind your door, you are then asked this question: “Do you want to stick with your choice or change (to the remaining door)?” Stick or change: that is the option you are presented with in your quest to win the car.

At this point the vast majority of people choose to stick believing that it makes little difference, as after all, there is now a 50:50 chance of winning the car.

What would you do and why at this point?

In response, Marilyn said that by changing and choosing the alternative door you had a two-thirds chance of winning the car. 92% of letters written after the show strongly disagreed with her logic including several written by prominent mathematicians and scientists. Marilyn was roundly condemned for her ‘poor mathematics’ and some even accused her of corrupting the next generation with her poor mathematics and logic. Yet, they were all wrong, and she proved it.

What most lost sight of was that this wasn’t a ‘two-door’ problem but rather a ‘three-door’ problem. An easy way to better understand the Monty Hall problem is to imagine 1000 doors rather than just the three. This exaggerates the odds when it comes to sticking or changing and as such better illustrates that this was never a 50:50 situation. In doing the mathematics in making the choice whether to stick or switch has to factor in that the starting point was a three-door context.

It is important to understand your starting point. When it comes to what we refer to as a ‘talent problem’ (the attraction and retention of talent) I think we are treating a ‘three-door’ problem as a ‘two-door’ problem with the result we are focusing in the wrong area. We don’t have a ‘talent problem’; we have a leadership problem.

The real issue is not what to do to keep our talent but rather how best to address leaders in order to shift mindsets and change behavior that will directly impact on the ‘talent challenge’. The reality is that the ‘playing fields’ (our institutions) have been shaped by the leaders (Baby Boomers). The rules in play are the rules and conditions that make sense to the Boomer mindset and worldview. Of course this is a rather generalized and simplistic overview but it is hard to get away from the evidence that that points to the majority of current institutional rules having largely been determined by the Boomers in charge. However, things have changed. There is a new ‘normal’ that has emerged. A world in which technology has disrupted everything from managing information to how we connect; a world where the epicenter is rapidly shifting Eastwards; a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; a world where subtle (and not so subtle) demographics shifts are rearranging the stage and shifting critical mass.

All this forms the broad context in which a new generation is entering the workplace and they are a generation that have grown-up in this context – it is their ‘normal’. They have grown up in a fundamentally different world; they are arriving in the workplace expecting it to reflect something of their reality. The fact that it often does not is where the pain is located and the ‘talent challenge’ rooted. The talent problem is the intersection between institutions struggling to keep pace with shifting realities, and the ‘products’ of that shifting reality. It can be a messy collision and something has to give.

The responsibility to change that collision point, to reshape that busy intersection, sits with leadership. Leaders shape organizational culture and it is leaders who have the ability to open conversations, change norms, establish new rituals and institute alternative rules that govern the ‘playground’. For any ‘talent management’ programme to succeed it will require a leadership engagement and recognition that it is not merely about ‘us’ (Boomers) changing ‘them’ – but equally about ‘us’ being changed by ‘them’. It is a two-way street in which learning and value flows in both directions. Creating this two-way street is entirely dependent on leadership. Put simply, we must stop trying to ‘fit them into us’ and rather look to understand how it is we need to change; what needs to be different. When last did you witness senior leaders attend their talent management programme in any capacity other than to present, welcome or handout some kind of certificate? Any smart leader will recognize what an important and valuable pool their talent management programme is for their own learning and the opportunity it presents to see the organization afresh.

Another way we have inadvertently made talent management a two-door problem is the failure to realize that the moment we define ‘talent’ – by inference, we define ‘non-talent’. What do we now do with the majority who fall into the default non-talent category?  Linked to this is also the muddle that usually accompanies the definition of ‘talent’. Exactly what do we mean by the term? Can a 50 year-old person be on such a programme? Is talent something one has or can it be developed? How is it measured before, during and after the talent process? Of course there are answers for such questions but most of the answers that I have come across or been given are complex, often nonsensical and full of corporate HR speak that does little to convey meaning and infuse purpose. It is what we have made it and that has been driven by a relentless ‘business-school’ type approach that is impressive ‘on paper’ but more often than not fails to translate into anything substantial or meaningful. The wheels are spinning but there seems to be no traction. Sound like I might be describing your programme?

If we want the car and not the goat we need to change what we are doing. We will need to step-back, understand the wider dimension to the problem and take a chance. It is is not about ‘fixing them’ but one more about, ‘changing ourselves’. It is a problem that will not go away and one that will not be resolved by merely closing our eyes and hoping for the best. A CEO once challenged me with a valid, “so what exactly should we be doing?” which I responded to by asking, “why are you asking me? – ask them (talent)”.  “What should we be doing?” is a good question to start the conversation with your ‘talent’ and it doesn’t mean that you become a hostage to their response. There will be unrealistic expectations and responses that will need to be challenged but all of this is stimulated by conversation. Why not try out some of the suggestions that you may hear? Why not change some of the way ‘things are done around here’ for in doing so, who is to say that you might not discover a ‘better way’? Dator’s ‘second law of futures’ states that, any idea about the future that doesn’t appear ridiculous, is not worth considering. You will certainly hear a few of those (ridiculous ideas) but it still might be worth trying them out.

I was working with a leading fashion brand that had an internal policy that severely restricted Internet access amongst their staff. They had a young staff team – as one would expect in such an industry. On being informally quizzed, the staff readily admitted that they had simply created work-around schemes that by-passed the company’s policy. Confronted with this reality, the ‘ridiculous idea’ we posed to the Executive was to simply do away with their restrictive policy and see what happens. They took the chance – in the Monty Hall context, they switched doors, and the results amazed them. On their measures they found that productivity went up; staff satisfaction went up; employee engagement increased. The feared abuse of the freedom (and hence the justification for the policy in the first place) never materialized and everybody was happy.

When it comes to the ‘talent problem’, sometimes you simply have to switch doors! The decision to make this switch is always a leadership decision.

There can be no ‘how to’s’ for this topic – or at least if there are some, they should be something you discover through your own experimentation and process. Each context is different and understanding the context is paramount in making significant progress in the attraction and retention of talent. Our leadership programmes need to be sure that they are orientated around the core principle of preparing leaders – both current and future, for leading in an ever changing and disruptive world. Few leadership programmes that I am part of fully understand this agenda and what it takes to truly prepare and equip leaders for this daunting but inescapable challenge. It is a sad reality given the investment of effort, expense and time such initiatives consume. The measures are wrong and the outcomes blurred. It is not a situation that is sustainable and there are cracks, deep cracks that are surfacing in many of the senior leadership programmes and initiatives.

So, if you were to take anything from these words, then my wish would be for you to leave this article with better questions and a desire to rethink what it is you are doing when it comes to talent. Go and ask some questions; take some time to sit-in, listen, read, look and explore. Demand of others an authentic, fresh, open and experiential response to what is a challenging issue – just how do we engage the next generation both inside and outside of our business?

It is not a talent problem – it is a leadership challenge. Redefining it thus, changes everything!

Two important questions every leader should be asking.

Posted on: November 26th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Over the past month I have been writing a series on how to be a great leader – how to become an adaptive leader. In today’s context there is an urgent need to rethink the approach and practice of leadership. This need to rethink extends to how we approach leadership development and education.

The series ‘On becoming an adaptive leader’ involves a short ‘head’ (theory) piece – something that I have promised can be read in under a minute, and a ‘hand’ piece – a practical action you can undertake to begin to build the adaptive behaviour. It is simple almost to the point of fault but it seems to be helping people ‘land’ the concept and translate the theory into practice. The onus to write something sensible and useful three times a week is a challenge I have greatly enjoyed. It has meant looking for small specific actions that on their own don’t amount to much but strung together, can make a meaningful difference. I guess it is a little like going to gym in order to get fit.  Individual sessions seem to accomplish little but the accumulative effect of many sessions results in progress being made. It takes discipline. It also takes a clear sight of some end goal or destination.

Leadership in cloudSo, what kind of leader do you want to be – and what are you doing to ‘get there’? These are important questions for any leader to have a bearing on, as they will bring intentionality to that which you do. The model of Invitational Leadership has been one that I have always found enriching and helpful. Embedded within this particular leadership model is the notion of intentionality. Smart leaders act with intentionality – they know why they are doing something if not always certain about how they need to be doing it. Intentionality means that when things work you know why they work; and importantly. When things don’t work, you know why they didn’t work.

Today leaders need to be agile, nimble and adaptive. The real challenge of course is turning these verbs into behaviours that can be seen and perhaps measured. Adaptive leaders understand the importance of leading through change and helping those they lead make progress on those tough challenges that confront them. The series ‘On becoming an adaptive leader’ is designed to help you – and me, think about what this means and how best to translate the ‘theory’ into ‘practice’. Leadership needs constant work. To assume otherwise is a danger to both oneself and those being led.

So, what kind of leader do you want to be? What are you doing to ‘get there’?

So you want to become a great leader?

Posted on: October 30th, 2013 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

Transforming a good leader into a great leader means becoming an adaptive leader. In facing the future, it is the major leadership challenge that you and your organisation will encounter.

Good leaders are hard to come by. Growing good leaders from within is perhaps even harder but the real challenge facing organisations today is not to have merely good leaders but to recognize that great leaders are adaptive leaders. Adaptive leaders embrace change; they welcome disruption for the benefits to be gained; they think and see things differently; they seek to understand and aren’t afraid to ask questions, explore paradox and regard unlearning old things as important as learning new things. Adaptive leaders know how to look both backwards and forwards and manage to do so without bumping into obstacles that block their way.

ladders into the skyIf you want your company to thrive in a world of exponential change then having adaptive leaders is simply not negotiable. Your company’s capacity for change will go a long way in determining whether or not you make it into the future. When it comes to leading into the future we need both mind-shifts as well as a new tool-kit if that is, we are to successfully navigate this new terrain. Adaptive leadership involves both head (mind-shift) and hands (practical skills) – the theory and practice engage in a symbiotic and synchronistic dance.  It promises to be an eventful journey and the only comfort we can take from the journey past, is the fitness gained through having come this far.  The old maps that have guided us to this point will prove unhelpful for what lies ahead.  We will need to decide what to keep, what to discard and what to reorganize from the road traveled; we need to head into the future knowing that it is unlike anything we have encountered to date and it is this reality that makes it both a challenge and an opportunity.

Over the next month we will help you start the journey in transforming your good leaders into adaptive leaders. Through the TomorrowToday app and blog there will be constant reminders that will take less than a minute to read and will have an action point to implement. The ‘thought-bullet’ combined with something practical to do will help grow your leadership practice. It will help ensure that you become future-fit. This process will be a ‘boot camp’ for adaptive leadership delivered in small, digestible bites that could help ensure that you move from being a good leader to an adaptive leader.

So ‘sign-up’ and follow the thoughts and suggestions that are designed to help you become a future-fit leader – an adaptive leader.  You might want to enlist others in your team and office and thereby enjoy the benefits of doing this 30-day ‘boot camp’ together.

So, stay tuned to the TomorrowToday app or blog and grow your leadership practice by becoming an adaptive leader.

Here’s the index of leadership development practices:

Competitive advantage in the Connection Economy [video]

Posted on: October 18th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Connected worldWith the emerging Connection economy, the rules across the board are changing. Nothing new in this as this has been a pattern that has imprinted all previous economic transitions from that of the ‘Hunter-Gatherer’ to the ‘Information era’.

In this video (embedded below) the emergent Connection economy is explained and what this means for competitive advantage.  It is important to understand such shifts as not keeping ‘up with the game’ will mean that you are no longer in the game.

The surest way to fail in the future? Simply focus on and excel at the old rules!

 

On Leadership: Riding Dead Horses

Posted on: October 18th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

When you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.
This ancient Sioux saying seems obvious enough; I mean who in their right mind would try to ride a dead horse, right? Well maybe not.

Strange as it might seem, I have met many in leadership who are attempting just that, trying to ride dead horses – and with commendable enthusiasm at that! The fact that the horse is dead, whilst obvious to others, is seemingly lost on them.

dead horseIt is obvious that the character and style of leadership is changing. In a changing world that much has to be obvious. As the irrepressible forces of technology, institutions and values undergo constant change, the impact on leadership is inevitable. In a world where how we organise and go about our business is adapting constantly, leadership that remains fixed and static is rendered obsolete, irrelevant and well…dead.

The three primary convergent forces driving the change viz. technology, institutions and values, impact on unaware leadership with the same force and consequence as the Titanic’s fatal encounter with the iceberg.

Technology has transformed the way in which we do business. Never before has so much information been available to so many, so quickly. In the past information was powerful is so far as it was guarded, today exactly the opposite is true. Information is valuable only as far as it is shared. Old mindsets towards information, especially the mistaken belief that one can ‘manage information’ are constantly being shown up for what they are, old, outdated and in our current context, erroneous. The belief that we can ‘manage information’ is simply a modern day business paradox. Besides the impact of technology on information (the lifeblood of any organisation), technology has transformed the way in which we work. The ability to network means that we need not be ‘in the office’ to be working effectively. ‘Virtual offices’ are a reality and offer potentially huge savings together with enhanced effectiveness.

Although not necessarily suited to all business models, virtual offices are often held captive by old attitudes to work that believe that if the boss can’t see you, how will he or she know if you are giving your pound of flesh? The difficulties faced by ‘Boomer bosses’ (Boomers refers to a generation born between 1946 – 1960) to master and feel comfortable with modern technology causes it own problems. For one thing it creates dependencies on those for whom living in a connected world is as water to a fish. Technology forces the hand of leadership and ruthlessly exposes outdated attitudes and behaviours. Leaders who fail to get to grips with the implications of this change driver are riding a horse that is already dead in the starting stall. When that bell sounds (and it sounded some time ago) they are left for dead. Technology has changed and will continue to change business models and current leadership cannot afford to ignore or assume that they will not be impacted by the ever evolving nature of technology with all its opportunities and threats.

When it comes to the institutions in which we work it is apparent that the nature of the beast is changing. Central organisational models, supported by impressive hierarchical structures, chain of command and clearly defined functions are giving way to decentralised models. In these decentralised models power and decision making is being pushed to the boundaries, or as Ridderstale and Nordstrom in Karaoke Capitalism, refer to it, the ‘brains are at the borders’. The clearly delineated job descriptions and functions are giving way to multi-tasking, flexibility and mobility. If hierarchical towers serve as a caricature of the modern corporation, the market square better denotes the emerging post-modern institution through which we now do business in the global context. In a world where nimble dexterity is an essential business characteristic, central hierarchies offer ponderous decision making with the added disadvantage that those making the decisions are usually far removed from the battlefield. Old styled hierarchies reward longevity and experience and are places where rank and authority are ingrained through title and privilege. The values and mechanisms used to keep this status quo well-oiled and functioning are a thing of the past – to all but those still astride this dead horse that is! Changing the structures to reflect and take advantage of these changes occurring through technology and shifting values is easier written than done. In the process some strong corporate moulds have to be smashed and resistance overcome. It requires savvy leadership, appropriate timing and determination if it is to succeed.

In some of the organisations in which TomorrowToday has been involved we have seen just how difficult it is to make structural changes. Things that would seem easy to change (reserved parking, titles, offices – to name just a few) are met with howls of protest and deep-seated unhappiness by those who perceive themselves to be the victims in the process. These are the very things that when discussed with no threat of actual change are met with, “it’s not that important” but prove to be anything but when change actually occurs, in much the same way that the prefacing words, “with all due respect” usually signals the launch of an out and out attack and should really be taken to mean, “with no real respect”.  Listen out for those words in your next meeting!

Finally, leadership is impacted by the change that can be seen in who it is that walks through the front doors of your business everyday. These people not only are your staff but also form part of your customer, client, and supplier base and generally populate the people chain of which you are part. We are talking about that generation referred to as ‘Generation X’. This is a generation that looks and acts unlike the Baby Boomers who precede them and understanding their values becomes key to interpreting their behaviour.  The point is that Generation X’s behaviour, driven by their underpinning values, stands in stark contrast to that of those with whom they share their work space. The contrasting work behaviour between these generations is causing mayhem in most companies as bosses find themselves at a loss as to how best to attract, retain, motivate and reward the ‘Bight Young Things’ – the talent that they know they need to retain if they are to sustain and extend their success. Leadership which fails to understand the fundamental differences in values that is driving such behaviour is liable to employ the wrong methodologies in attempting to lead Generation X. A simple example of this difference is the contrasting way in how the different generations approach authority and respect. For Generation X respect has to be earned and has nothing to do with title or position. Of course this isn’t the case with older generations for who title and position garners immediate respect. Failure to understand this difference can lead to both wrong approaches and assumptions being made.

The new generation are looking for different things when they join a company. They need change flexibility, informality and information. They are individualistic (bad news for the traditional team-building initiatives) and are asking different questions of their employees. Recently I was told by the person who heads up talent development at Johnson & Johnson that he had recently been asked by one of their ‘Bright Young Things’ whether or not it was okay to bring his dog to work! The questions being asked are changing and underpinning the questions are different expectations and values.

It is not difficult for leaders to stay in touch with the changes that are occurring in all these fields of technology, institutions and values (people), the difficult part is acting on it. Many attempts at harnessing the opportunities these change drivers deliver result in cosmetic responses rather than the deep seated changes that are required. It is understandable of course but nonetheless still means that leaders are attempting to ride dead horses.

And so if you find yourself astride a dead horse…the best strategy is to dismount!

.

Memo to leaders: The 3 questions you really need to be able to answer

Posted on: October 16th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Of course there are lots of questions that leaders need to be able to answer and really smart leaders know that the essence of leading in today’s context is more about asking the right questions than feeling they always need to have the right answers. However, when it comes to your organisation, here are three questions for which you really do need to have the answers. I am constantly surprised by the gap that exists between what I hear from the CEO and his or her people; and when this discrepancy exists, it is because the leader has not found the answer to these important questions.

MemoThey are three questions that will help you gauge the health of your organisational culture and need I remind you of two truisms concerning organisational culture: (1) Culture is your responsibility and, (2) culture eats strategy for breakfast every time!

Here then the 3 questions you really need to be able to answer:

1) What are my people really thinking?

As the leader it is important to know what your people are thinking. All too often leadership assumes they know yet the reality is that there is a gulf between what their people are really thinking and what leadership thinks they are thinking. This is of particular importance in any change initiative or process and one cannot assume that what is being said reflects the real thoughts of your people. When there is a dislocation between what is being thought and expressed, there is cause for concern when it comes to your organisation’s culture.

2) What are my people really saying?

All too often staff merely parrot the ‘company line’ or express the ‘safe’ option rather than say what really needs to be said. You cannot assume that what you hear your people say is what they are really saying. There are times when more is said by what is not being said and smart leaders are quick to recognize this and respond accordingly. The presence of 360 appraisals and any number of performance review tools does not automatically translate into an open and transparent culture in which one can say what needs to be said. All too often these tools produce the exact opposite of that state. Smart leaders listen carefully and look for the cues to determine that what is being said is aligned with the true thoughts and feelings that underpin the verbal messaging that is taking place.

3) What are my people really doing?

It is said that ‘actions speak louder than words’. All too often the actions (or non-actions) demonstrated by your people reveal that all is not well. Again the measures we have in place can detect when this is the case – to a degree at least. There are actions that often fall outside the scope of such performance measures, actions that reveal the true state of affairs. Smart leaders are able to spot these and they pay attention to any discrepancy in this particular expression of the organisational culture. How often have you heard the expression, ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’? This highlights the discord that may exist and when this type of statement is true of any environment, there is cause for concern.

They are simple questions and for each question the key word is the ‘really’.

What then can you, as a leader, do to get to plummet the depths of these three cultural barometers? The simple answer is to ‘walk the floor’ in a manner appropriate to your particular context and culture. I know of a CEO of a private bank that abandoned his plush personal office and set-up his desk in the middle of the open plan space occupied by his staff. His reasoning was simply to be able to have an authentic answer to these three questions. This single act reverberated around the office in a manner that had a powerful impact on the organisational culture and it remains one of the finest leadership examples I have ever witnessed.

To find the answers to these vital questions you will need to look beyond the obvious and create mechanisms that will allow you to accomplish this. Make time for informal conversations; ask a lot of questions and then really (there is that word again!) listen; show up when you are not expected and participate in processes and activities that you wouldn’t ordinarily be expected to be a part of. There are lots of creative ways to get under the skin of such questions – you just need to be discipline to pause and think about how and what this could mean for you. It is really not that difficult. Right now you are most likely about to give the “no time” defense. My response to that is simply, “really?”

There is perhaps no more important work or way in which you can spend your time than in knowing what your people are really thinking, saying and doing. This is your responsibility!

Sleepwalking Through Leadership: Neglecting Story

Posted on: October 8th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Margaret Wheatley has said that leadership is the simple act of stepping forward. Leading in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – or what is commonly referred to as ‘VUCA’ requires a leadership response unlike anything we have known in the past. One could even take the ‘VUCA’ acronym and spin it into a ‘VUCA leadership response’ namely, vision, understanding, connection and agility. These four responses have merit and could certainly provide further food for thought when it comes to leading in today’s context. However, I wish to briefly spotlight just one of these suggested responses, that of ‘connection’.

Sleepwalking 2Effective leadership depends on connection. Quantum Mechanics informs us that connection is what sits at the very heart of the universe – it is the organizing principle to all things. Brian Swimme in The Resurgence of Cosmic Storytellers, writes: ‘The universe, at its most basic level, is not only matter, energy, and information. The universe is a story. Each creature is a story. Each human enters this world and awakens a simple truth: “I must find my own story within the great epic of being”

In his excellent book, Future Primal, Louis Herman, writes that whilst scientific laws and theories ‘generally deal with universal, repeatable, predictable regularities’ – in contrast to this, ‘stories capture the meaning of unique events – novelties – transforming over time’. This is what makes understanding the role, place and importance of story so vital for leaders. Story connects the head and the heart – both of which are necessary in leadership; both of which are necessary in the act of ‘stepping forward’.

The problem today is that the overriding emphasis has been placed on measurement. Anything that does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom of our metrics is viewed with suspicion or immediately downgraded to something that is less important; something that we don’t need to take quite as seriously as what ‘really matters’. When it comes to understanding the leadership importance of story in the art of connection the attitude is usually one of neglect or even outright dismissal. In marketing this is less so and the use of story in marketing has thus framed and defined what we understand by story within the corporation. Smart leaders understand the need to connect and the central role that story plays in whether or not this happens.

Many leaders are sleepwalking through the practice of their leadership. It has become a job; a technique; a responsibility; a measure and the end result is compliance rather than engagement; automation rather than creativity; a burden rather than a joy.  It need not be like this and appreciating story could be the place to start the turn-around.

Curiosity around ‘how we got here’ and ‘where we are going’ will evoke story. Questions designed to spark understanding and answers that lead to further and deeper questions will evoke story. An ability to truly see others and a willingness to experience difference will evoke story. The intersection of our stories is something that smart leaders pay attention to and then use to build synergies, create understanding and inspire vision. As they go about their daily responsibilities, smart leaders lookout for stories, many of which are hidden in plain sight. Recently I watched an episode of ‘Undercover Boss’ on American TV – as the name implies, the boss goes incognito into his or her company to see how things really are. This particular episode (originally screened on 24/2/13) had to do with the surfing brand O’Neill and as expected O’Neill Clothing CEO, Toby Bost encountered both good and bad stories that he then acted on. Bost described the experience as, “eye-opening”. One way for leaders to get in touch with the ‘deeper’ stories – or at least those stories hidden from their sight, would be to get out of their usual routine or orbit. Doing so might prove to be a shock to the system!

Stories matter and so do stories and about stories. Smart leaders pay attention to story – their story and the story of others. Playing with what this means or how it translates within your company is really something that you, as a leader, need to work out. However, help is available but the more exploration and work you do in this line, the better it will be in the long run.

The Leader’s Challenge: Knowing What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

Posted on: October 3rd, 2013 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Author Max de Pree has said that the first task of leadership is to define reality.  For many in leadership today, the reality is they don’t know what to do in a turbulent, complex and dynamic world. Leadership is not what it once was and nor will it ever be that again. It has changed because the context for leadership has changed. There is a ‘new normal’. Understanding this new reality is both simple and complex – it is the Leader’s paradox and if you find yourself in leadership, it is one that requires your full attention.


what-to-do
In a world where the problems are known and the solutions clear, what we need is a leader who can “get the job done”. We need a leader with authoritative expertise who can deliver the desired results, using an agreed set of methods to deal with a clearly defined issue. But what about those situations where the solutions are unclear, or even unknown? Even more difficult: what about those situations where the problem (or set of problems) is not clear (or constantly shifting)?  In these environments, authoritative experts may actually do more harm than good.  In these environments, we need adaptive leaders.

Leaders are increasingly facing what Ron Heifitz of Harvard terms, ‘adaptive challenges’. In other words you are increasingly encountering situations that are unfamiliar, situations that you have never previously encountered. This is hardly surprising given that you are leading in the context of a world where exponential change is the norm.

The default response in such situations is to revert to a known solution from the past – or what Heifitz labels, a ‘technical solution’. But what happens when ‘our experience’ doesn’t cover such a situation? When we look into our experience only to draw a blank? With a world that is racing ahead on all fronts when it comes to technological innovation; a world in which vast demographic shifts are changing entire people landscapes; a world in which societal values are shifting and with that, behavioural norms; a world in which the environmental context raises unchartered concerns – in such a world, is it any wonder that ‘experience’ represents a devalued currency! This is especially so for those who find themselves in leadership – the place it seems where all these turbulent change currents conspire to converge.

In the face of adaptive challenges, the place where you don’t know what to do, leaders need to know what to do. Knowing what to do requires adaptive intelligence – something that will increasingly become the currency of effective leadership in the face of an uncertain, unpredictable and constantly changing world. We have known for a long time that it is those who are most adaptive that will survive when things change. I was recently asked by a CEO, “what in your opinion” he said, “will be the most important leadership trait or skill in order to navigate the future?” It was a great question and one that without hesitation, I answered, “adaptive intelligence”.

Darwin highlighted this reality in his well-worn quote from his classic work The Origin of Species, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”.  (By the way, Darwin never said that it was “survival of the fittest”.  It’s obvious when you think about it: it definitely is the survival of the most adaptable).

Distinguishing between technical problems and adaptive challenges is a vital skill for leaders.  Technical leadership is about using the skills and procedures that we are aware of to solve current problems and is typically accomplished by those in authority. Adaptive leadership is having the guts and heart to learn new ways to bring needed deep transformation of culture in an organization or people and is generally done by the people with the problem and by adaptive leaders.  It is important to know the difference between these kinds of leadership because “the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify – in politics, community life, business or the non-profit sector – is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems” (Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line).

But what exactly is ‘adaptive intelligence’ and how does one develop it?  There are obviously many ways to answer this question.  Maybe an ‘adaptive’ answer is best though: research done by Gunderson and Holling in 2002 (on coral reefs in the Pacific) provides four helpful pointers – albeit from an unusual source, for those leaders wishing to develop adaptive intelligence. They found that the following four things contributed towards the DNA of what it means to develop adaptive intelligence:

The research findings of Gunderson and Holling provide a rich framework from which to engage and develop adaptive intelligence. The framework can be applied at both a personal and organization level and helps to link the theory to the practice in this vital area. In TomorrowToday we have done a lot of thinking and work in this area. I believe that to ignore intentionally developing adaptive intelligence is to run the risk of becoming captive to the past and risk increasing irrelevance. It seems to me that undertaking the work of adaptive intelligence is a daily challenge and I suspect, a work that is never complete.

So how do you develop ‘adaptive intelligence’?

Adaptive intelligence is grounded in the terrain and work of self-awareness. It starts with identifying the lenses through which you interpret and make sense of the world around you. We all have numerous lenses that shape what we see. Gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and generation all represent lenses over which we have no control; there are then other lenses we develop through navigating life’s journey – experience, socialization, religion and circumstance. Understanding how the accumulative impact of these lenses determines how we interpret ‘the world’ is the building block of self-awareness. For one thing it allows us to understand how we go about accommodating and assimilating the available information – the old and the new be that through experience, content or via relational channels. Put simply, these lenses determine how we shape and experience our reality. This then allows us to accept that ‘our reality’ is not necessarily ‘the way things are’ and engagement at this intersection usually yields helpful conversation and results. There is Eastern wisdom that states: ‘Beyond the place of right and wrong there is a field; I’ll meet you there’.

Of course there are numerous ways to undertake such a journey and multiple pathways to follow. There can be no single ‘right way’ as each leader explores and finds their own way to develop character and enhance the skills necessary for influential leadership. We lead out of who we are and so doing this work is really not optional.

Some helpful starting questions in such a process would include:

  • What are the various lenses through which I interpret the world?
  • How do these lenses impact my understanding of how things work?
  • When are my lenses helpful / a hindrance?
  • Who am I? (Here the Enneagram provides a helpful framework from which to explore such a fundamental question)
  • How am I experiencing change in my context?
  • How have I engaged with such change?

Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. This is the stuff of adaptive leadership and this is where there is no place to hide. It can’t be faked, bluffed, spun or winged. Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do is the result of intentional personal mastery and an ability to engage with change in all its forms and complexities. It represents the tough work of leadership and demands an authenticity that many corporate leaders are reluctant to explore or develop often due to their understanding of role, title and image within the context of leadership.  Much of this is a construct that has been founded on past wisdom and the way things were. Change is needed.

And, as I suspect you already know… such change starts with You – the Leader. So next time you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know what to do, be aware of the learning opportunity it represents. Such awareness is a good start to then be able to confidently move forward through questions, inviting participation, pausing or simply acknowledging that you don’t know what to do! To do any of these things might not sound much like ‘leadership’- but I want to suggest that it is leadership. Try it and you may just be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Curious about failure: 6 things leaders need to keep in mind

Posted on: October 1st, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

One of the smartest things you can do as a leader is to be curious about failure. Sounds like the entirely ‘wrong’ emphasis doesn’t it? But let me explain what I mean.

In business today there is a lot of talk about the need for innovation and the subject of innovation is not unrelated to the broader topic of adaptability. In the global context that is one of ubiquitous change, connection and diversity the need to adapt and innovate is self-evident. The problem however is that we have built organisations that often prize stability over adaptability; certainty over curiosity; measurement over creativity; performance over learning; efficiency over passion and the short-term over the long-term.

Einstein quoteFailure is an important part of the learning process. Without it, learning is diluted, usually too ‘safe’ and has little traction. Today being a ‘learning organization’ is simply not optional and this means we must find ‘better ways to fail’ in that learning process. We tend to reward success and of course there in nothing inherently wrong with recognising high performance. However, if the way we go about measuring and rewarding success reduces the willingness to experiment and learn through our failure, then there is a problem.

Failure is not something most leaders like talking about and the word has been pushed into the shadows, has become disconnected from the mainline leadership conversation. There are many things that have influenced why this is the case including specific organisational cultures and the personality of the leader him or herself. Many leaders are what the Enneagram (a personal profiling tool) terms the ‘need to succeed’ and for such types failure is avoided at all costs. It is therefore not surprising that they would do little to encourage conversations around learning from failure and the role that failure can play in the bigger scheme of things.

In a leadership programme in which I am involved, participants are encouraged to explore the question: ‘where is the place of your deepest learning?’ It is a profound and important question. The answer is usually one that speaks of deep loss or pain; of a circumstance or situation that is not one that the individual wishes to revisit. Somehow though this is what life serves to us and when we understand that such instances – be they momentarily or over a period of time, are the conditions conducive to growth that can change things. Leaders need to be willing to host such conversations. You need to explore such territory at a personal level if you are to help others do it for themselves. Naturally there is an ‘appropriateness’ to all this and the need for a good sense of timing but nonetheless, it is where the deeper leadership and learning agenda is to found.

When it comes to failure there would be a few things that as a leader you would keep in mind:

1.    Failure is part of any journey; it is a necessary part of life.
2.    In the pursuit of innovation, failure is guaranteed.
3.    Being curious about failure will open the way to learn from failure
4.    Leaders fail. It is how you fail (and your response) that matters most
5.    Smart organisations understand that failure is necessary in adapting
6.    Adapting is non-negotiable in today’s context

So, in your organisation what are the questions you need to be asking around failure?

Tomorrow’s Leaders and what to do about it today!

Posted on: September 23rd, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

In TomorrowToday we talk a great deal about the generations. Generational Theory is a framework we have shared in some 44 countries and I don’t think there can be any consultancy that can claim that kind of global footprint when it comes to this particular theory. Of course in the process we have learnt a great deal about how and where it applies; the value add it brings and the framework it is to better understand the challenges concerning the attraction and retention of ‘talent’.

Gen Y signpostAs a leader, leading in a world of paradox, your challenge is to find frameworks that will help you make sense of that paradox. Certainly Generational Theory offers you one such framework. As you look to learn from the future, paying attention to the emerging Gen Y provides some sharp insights and understanding to that future. Former GE CEO, Jack Welch regarded Gen Y as the, “most exciting group in the world” for their outlook, skill-set and sense of purpose.

Olaf Swantee, CEO of Everything Everywhere (EE), a telecommunications company,
says there are three characteristics that are shared by the tech-savvy leaders of tomorrow.

1. They are collaborative decision-makers.
2. They are flexible and able to connect on a personal level.
3.    They are prepared to challenge the status quo.

Gen Y will continue the tradition of leading differently to their generational predecessors. Their leadership style will be shaped by the fact that they have grown up in an information era and not only that, but that they know how to access that information. They are techno-savvy beyond anything we have seen before. These twin factors will reshape both education as well as information management. The expansive ripple effect that emanates from these two areas will in turn impact on many related areas – leadership education and transparency issues to name but two.

Smart leaders invest in their own understanding of Gen Y. Demographics point to Gen Y being increasing influential as both employees and customers and so understanding their worldview, spending habits, attitudes and values isn’t really optional as you look to the near future. Understanding they (Gen Y) have grown-up in a world unlike that which you grew-up in and, as a result, have a very different perspective, is fundamental to understanding exactly who it it is they are. Douglas Adams put it best when he said, “When you’re born, anything in the world is normal. Anything invented before you’re 35 is revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re 35 is unnatural and wrong”.

So be a smart leader and start reading, asking, observing and engaging when it comes to your future employees (although they will certainly act more like volunteers than employees!) and customers. Your own kids might be a good place to start and instead of clinging on to ‘your world’, start being curious about ‘their world’. The results might surprise you!

Miss America: Throwing down the gauntlet to leaders

Posted on: September 19th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

The storm of abuse over the selection of Nina Davuluri as Miss America shows just how short America is in being the society and country Martin Luther King dreamt of all those years ago. The virile stirred up by Miss Davuluri’s selection reveals a dark undercurrent of racial prejudice and intolerance that is as illogical as it scary.  Twitter comments have included calling her, and here take your pick, a ‘terrorist’, ‘Arab’, ‘Muslim’ and a ‘foreigner’. Nina Davuluri was born in the USA.

All is not savoury in the ‘melting pot’ it would seem.

Miss AmericaOf course one would assume that these views expressed represent a small minority (some might challenge that assumption) and that there are plenty of examples of harmonious integration within American society. Nonetheless, they are hard to ignore or gloss over. They represent a disturbing viewpoint and indicate a sharp edge to a lack of awareness and education.

Living with and leading diversity is no easy task. Yet is something that is simply not optional in the world in which we live – especially if that world happens to be the USA. Of course the ‘right talk’ is all in place but the gap that exists between the rhetoric and the action remains disturbingly large. There is a level of political correctness in America that acts against authentic conversations around diversity and difference taking place. It is of little value recognising that we have differences – and enshrining ‘rights’ around those differences without taking it further. The real (and more difficult) challenge is to move to a place where we can be different ‘for each other’. A place where we don’t merely tolerate difference, but appreciate it. An understanding that the mere presence of difference doesn’t procure the benefits and richness we know difference brings – for that to happen, difference needs to be intentionally activated. The challenge and journey is moving from a place of being ‘different from’ each other, to one of being different ‘for each other’. Easier said than done!

Of course some will point out that the fact that Miss Davuluri can be selected as Miss America in the first place, is proof enough of how far America has come. There is a small comfort in this but to labour this nuance is to miss the point: she was born in America; is American and so has every right to enter and win the Miss America competition.

The American dream is certainly alive but it is not well. The challenge of embracing diversity and difference will not diminish; in fact it will only increase in time to come.  Globalisation brings ‘sameness’ at a surface level but beyond that, findings reveal an increasing emphasis on difference. This emphasis is set to increase through migrant labour and other factors and in a world getting ever smaller through technology, our lives touch more frequently than at any time in human history. The planet that became a village seems on its way to becoming a neighbourhood!

A wonderful opportunity and place to understand diversity and living with difference is ‘the organisation’ – the world of work. We might live in relatively homogenous neighbourhoods and get to play in the same kind of environments but the one place where ‘it all comes together’ is in the world of our work. This places a massive responsibility on corporate leaders to understand the wider importance of building work environments where we learn to understand each other and ‘work together’ in a manner that extends beyond a mere functional harmony in the purpose of profit. It might be a responsibility that the average corporate leader ‘didn’t sign up for’ but one that they nonetheless need to understand as core to their leadership responsibility. Work can serve as a place that teaches us how to live together. This might be the most important of all ‘corporate social responsibilities’ yet!

So, Nina Davuluri, try to ignore those so ‘blind’ they cannot see; rise above it all and help show us the way forward.

And if you as a reader are in a corporate leadership position, know that you have an important role and responsibility in challenging and eliminating the kind of reaction we have seen erupt over Miss America. Root it out; call it; and deal firmly with it. There is a better way and best we find it – and find it soon.

That ‘dream’ needs further work before it becomes a reality.

How you see the cow might just determine your future!

Posted on: September 17th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

There are three company directors on a train going to Scotland. One of them heads-up marketing, one is in Human Resources and the other is the Financial Director. Out the window they see a field in which there is a brown cow standing parallel to the train.

Cow“Look”, says the Marketing Director, “the cows in Scotland are brown”. The HR Director replies, “No. There are cows in Scotland of which at least one is brown”. The Financial Director says, “No. There is a t least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown”.

We all see differently – we process information differently even when presented with the same evidence. And the thing is we are often all ‘right’ yet our ‘rightness’ can also stand in the way of seeing what it is we really need to be seeing. Disruption is a little like this in that we fail to see how the disruption will play out in our industry or business. We have the information but because we are not looking at it in the right way we fail to see the big picture. Those with a financial or accounting background occupy the senior leadership position in most companies. It isn’t really a surprise as we have imbibed the Industrial Economy wisdom that states, ‘if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it’. We have got what we measure and this emphasis on measurement has meant finance has been the favoured route to the top.

The challenge is that in a world of exponential and unpredictable change, a world in which disruptive forces from beyond our field of vision can prove to be game-changers, a fixation on the numbers, on the analytics, can prove more of a hindrance than a help. The future simply refuses to conform to ‘the numbers’ and the way we have become accustomed to making strategic decisions, no longer works (well certainly not as well as it used to). I have often been in strategic conversations where the CEO has wanted some sort of numerical analysis that guarantees the future projections being discussed. There is a certain illogic to that and it is one that needs to be challenged and overturned if we are to learn how to navigate the future.

Leaders need to begin to think like futurists. You need to understand how the way you are seeing now might block your view of the future. Seeing through a different lens might well take some adjustment but this is the adjustment that will be required if you are to see the future with a sharper focus. Many of the corporate stories that tell the tale of demise and collapse are characterised by the failure to see the bigger picture.

So be careful how you see that cow in the field and don’t become one of those stories!

On Leadership: Difference matters

Posted on: September 10th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Recently Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech has celebrated its 50th anniversary. In the speech King found a way to further unlock America’s founding promise that, “All men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. In the 50 years since King’s speech American has changed beyond all recognition, however some say there is still a way to go in the struggle for true equality; an equality that extends beyond the mere letter of the law. Statistics can be quoted to prop up both perspectives and although the eradication of discrimination and bias is perhaps something of a utopian dream, it is one that we should nevertheless continually strive to achieve.

Hands holding globeIn TomorrowToday we have seen a marked uptake in large multinational companies around both the need to better understand diversity and how exactly to leverage difference. The reality of operating in a complex and connected world in which demographic shifts are in constant motion, is that we are in urgent need to rethink our approach and practice when it comes to difference. The challenge this poses is that the ability to do this work (rethink) requires a lot of emotional intelligence on the part of leadership. Too many leaders remain caught in their own paradigm; they have a static worldview that no longer reflects the world as it really is.

It is important that as a leader you recognize your own lenses through which you see the world. This is the first important step in the ability to entertain a competing or paradoxical viewpoint that will be necessary in leading difference. If you are in the Western world, a visit to China will be a sure way to shake one’s worldview. This will especially be true if that visit really allows you to see beyond the obvious and experience the ‘real China’ – which is not found in the western styled five star hotels. An authentic engagement with China will quickly reveal the almost debilitating paradoxes that exist and given the role and influence that China will play in our global future, delaying this personal leadership education is not smart.

Companies doing business in Asia and that embrace a global workforce and customer base, will have no option other than to rethink their approach and practice when it comes to leading diversity. Nothing that your leaders have experience has prepared them for the challenges posed by this new globalised and connect world.

In his book Global Dexterity, Andy Molinsky provides a ‘cultural code’ that can help when encountering difference. The code highlights six areas that might require one to adjust one’s own behaviour:

Directness: How straightforwardly am I expected to communicate in this situation?
Enthusiasm: How much positive emotion and energy am I expected to show in this situation?
Assertiveness: How strongly am I expected to express my own voice in this situation?
Formality: How much deference and respect am I expected to demonstrate in this situation?
Personal Disclosure: How much can I reveal about myself in this situation?
Self-promotion: How positively am I expected to speak about my skills and accomplishments?

Molinsky makes the point that variations across this index will be influenced by both geography as well as industry. For example, if one was in northern Japan in an engineering firm, things could be very different to being in southern Japan in a law firm. Of course there is far more to leveraging difference and leading diversity that this code but it does provide a helpful framework to understanding how our own behaviour might need to adapt from situation to situation.

The point of all this is that difference matters. How we prepare our leaders to lead in such a world will require some bold decisions as to what the learning agenda needs to incorporate and the methodology employed in such a journey. We cannot afford not to get it right. I recently heard of a young leader who has lived in China for several years. He was recently relocated to another part of the globe and his successor has stepped in and displayed no cultural sensitivity to the Chinese context and how work gets done in this part of the world. The young leader who worked hard at understanding the cultural subtleties and nuances commented despairingly that his successor would undo in six months what took him six years to build. I asked, “Well why don’t you point this out to him?” to which he replied, “He won’t listen. He thinks his previous business model that was successful will work here…it won’t but he can’t seem to see that. He seems both unwilling and incapable of learning what it will take to succeed here”

Need I say more?

Leadership: Yada, yada, yada…

Posted on: September 4th, 2013 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Recently I had the misfortune to be trapped in a room in which an executive was enthusiastically ‘rallying the troops’. I am sure he thought that he was doing a good job and that those present were being suitably inspired with his every word. Fact is, I am pretty sure that what most in the room were thinking was simply, yada,yada, yada…

YadaYada, yada, yada is described as, being, ‘a disparaging response, indicating that what is being said is predictable, repetitive or tedious – boring or empty talk’.

But, there is another way to interpret the word ‘yada’. Typical of consultant thinking (and no, that isn’t a recognised oxymoron!) I offer this to you for your contemplation when next you are trapped in some room or meeting with a leader who happens to be ‘yadering’ (my word).  Yada could also be an acronym for, ‘yesterday’s answers don’t apply’.

Many leaders fall into the ‘yada trap’ (also my term) in both senses of the term yada. They are predicable, repetitive and tedious, as well as espouse ‘yesterday’s answers’ in response to today’s challenges. It is a fatal combination and yet can be a hard habit to get rid of or leave behind. One reason is that many leaders look to their own experience to provide solutions for today (and tomorrow’s) challenges. Whilst I will be the first to admit that there are instances where experience can prove valuable, in the majority of instances it doesn’t. In a world of exponential change and complexity, the solutions needed are not to be found by looking in the rear-view mirror! It can be said that in today’s world ‘experience has never counted for as little as it does today’.

That is a harsh thing to say. It is severe to hear – especially for those who’s only response to the future is their experience. Yet, I believe it is true.

It is a threat to those leaders who have stopped learning. Such leaders can be identified by their rhetoric. They spend more time looking back as opposed to creating a picture of the future; they strive to defend the status quo rather than challenge the current paradigms; they create stability as opposed to risking disruption. And, when they get to their feet, all we hear is yada, yada, yada…

Don’t be a Yada leader (again my term) and there are a couple of things you can do to prevent the yadaisms (my…you get the trademarking going down here, so I will stop) taking root. Here are five things you can do to ensure that you remain yada-free:

1.    Allow others to challenge your thinking. Go beyond ‘allow’ and actually encourage it.
2.    Talk more about the future than the past. Catch yourself starting sentences, “when we…” and rephrase them to be questions that start with, “could we…?”
3.    Talk less and listen more.
4.    Appoint a ‘yada cop’. Give permission to someone on your team to be a ‘yada cop’ and call you up whenever you break the yada rules.
5.    Use the yada test: If everyone is always agreeing with you the chances are that you are yadering.

Yada, yada, yada. You simply don’t want to be that kind of leader, so don’t be.

7 Stats that change everything: What to be thinking about as a Leader.

Posted on: August 27th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics”. Of course we know that statistics can be used to support multiple sides of an argument and as Mark Twain once observed, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”.  However Future statshere are seven statistics that ought to challenge you in both your leadership thinking and practice. George Bernard Shaw wrote that, “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics”. So, should these ‘move’ you in any way, well consider yourself on the bight side – by Mr Shaw’s standard anyway!
1.    Universities in China issue about 160 000 advanced degrees every year. This is four times more than in the United States
2.    In the next 10 years, an unprecedented 1.2 billion young people will reach employable age and of this, 90% will be located in developing and emerging markets. Yet, over the past 20 years, the youth employment-to-population ratio has dropped 10% globally
3.    In 2008, 50% of the world’s population lived in cities; this will rise to 57% by 2025. Of the 27 ‘mega-cities’ in 2025, all but one (New York) will be located in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
4.    By the year 2025, 26 countries will have a life expectancy at birth of above 80 years. It will be highest in Iceland, Italy, Japan and Sweden (82 years) followed by Australia, Canada, France, Greece, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and Switzerland (81 years). The first person to live to 150 has already been born.
5.    Every day 2.5 quintillion (1×10 x18) bytes of data are produced. In the past two years, 90% of the world’s data has been created.
6.    Mobile users will overtake desktop users by 2014
7.    2 billion people don’t have a bank account but do have a mobile phone. In one African country (Kenya) there are more mobile devices than there are light bulbs.
Of course there is no end to spouting statistics be that on global demographics, technology, the economy or the environment. Looking at (any) statistic in isolation can prove misleading and seeing the connection – the pattern or trajectory, is important in any form of interpretation. Given the above ‘picture’ here would be some aspects you should consider in exercising your leadership:
•    Your future ‘talent pool’ will be found in emerging markets; it will be plentiful, competitive and eager to secure work.
•    The global economic centre will shift to the East. This will in turn impact on traditional business models, organisational design, best practice, strategy, leadership, customer service and a host of related topics. Conventional wisdom in these areas will be turned on its head.
•    Big data and the implications of intelligent software that ‘connects the dots’ will significantly shape the future – including our route to market, customer expectations, access to information and strategy / policies governing these areas. Understanding and using ‘social media’ is simply not optional at both a personal and organisational level.
•    Mobile connectedness will impact on how we organise our work, how we do the work and what work we do. This will in turn lead to collapsing, transforming or creating business models.
These are exciting (and challenging) times in which to be leading. If you are the kind of leader who spends time on ‘the balcony’ – looking at the bigger picture, the future will be less of a disruptive surprise. Leaders will need to be learners and smart leaders know the truth embedded in the Levi slogan, ‘The future is leaving – go forth’.
When it comes to the uncertain future nobody of course ‘really knows’ – unless of course you are a politician which means that you are simply confused, as Donald Rumsfeld so aptly demonstrates through his following words: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
I would suggest that less time trying to work out what Rumsfeld was saying and more time determined to ‘learn from the future’ would be time well spent! Vin Scully said that, “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination”. I hope your (leadership) response to the quoted statistics prove him wrong!

Statistical Source: The quoted statistics have been taken from a variety of sources including McKinsey, TomorrowToday, the Internet, World Economic Forum, IPCC and Duke CE.

On leadership: Your next 10 moves, think carefully!

Posted on: August 26th, 2013 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

What is your ‘next move’ as a leader? Well, of course that would depend exactly on what it is we are talking about, but here would be a variety of topics – and some suggestions as to your ‘next move’.

On ‘talent’:
Ask if your current strategy and HR plan is really working. Don’t ask those who designed it – go and ask those for whom the plan has been put in place – those you consider ‘talent’. You might just be surprised at what you hear.

On your life-work balance:
As a leader you probably don’t have a ‘life-work’ balance! But you should have a balance and the fact that you don’t, means that your direct reports don’t either. It is a dangerous and unsustainable situation. Think about what you can do to re-establish some sort of life-work equilibrium and then do it! Better still, ask your partner (and kids) what they think you could do to establish that balance – and listen!

Chess moveOn strategy:
The old models simply don’t translate in the fast, connected, complex and different world which now shapes our reality. It is not that they were bad models – they were excellent for…well, ‘the past’. Newer models are emerging and if you wish to see a glimpse of the future thinking when it comes to strategy, then read William Duggan’s, ‘Strategic Intuition’. There are two words that redefine the term oxymoron!

On leadership:
If you are not a ‘learner leader’ you are not fit to lead into the future. Being ‘future-fit’ as a leader will require you to be prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn. Experience has never counted for as little as it does today when facing the exponentially changing and uncertain future. If that is all you are bringing to the party (your experience) you are in trouble (as is your organization). Write down something you feel you need to learn, unlearn and relearn…do it now.

On personal resilience:
You will need it to survive the future, but you know that already. Personal resilience depends (amongst other things) on having a hopeful picture of the future – something to live towards. What is this for you? If you can’t immediately articulate what it is, the chances are that you don’t have a compelling personal vision of hope for your future: the absence of which erodes your resilience.

On organisational resilience:
Organisational resilience depends on three things: (1) Opportunity to participate (2) Caring relationships and, (3) High expectations. How does your company rate in these three areas? If you are not certain then you may or may not be developing the DNA for resilience. Better to know that you are building resilience than hoping you are doing it.

On social media:
Two things you need to know about social media: (1) It is not optional. (2) It is a mind shift before it is a technology ‘buy’. Road test the adoption of social media in a select and contained area of your business before applying it to the broader spectrum. If you are clueless in this area, then do some reverse mentoring. Find a ‘bright young thing’ in your company and ask them to teach you how to ‘connect the dots’ in the world of social media. It will send out a powerful message and don’t believe that ‘old dogs cannot learn new tricks’.

On Leadership Development Programmes (LDPs):
If you leading a large organisation the chances are you spend a great deal on LDPs. The thinking is good but often the practice isn’t. Look at how you measure the success of these programmes – your ROI. Most current measures focus on the wrong things and little, if anything really changes. Authentic learning requires disruption, discomfort and challenge. Most current LDP models ‘play it too safe’ to facilitate real and sustained learning. If you are going to invite a business school or outsourced partner to deliver your LDP, then let them get on and do it. Too many L&D people (in your organisation) meddle in the design process and confuse the outcomes. Tell (the service provider) what it is you are looking for, how you would like to ultimately measure it, and then have them design something wild. Have the courage to let them do the real work needed. Evaluate after 6 or 12 months, not at the end of each module. If you don’t believe me that your L&D people are interfering then go and talk to your service provider (off the record of course) and get the real story. It may surprise you, assuming the service provider is bold enough to be honest!

On reading:
Too busy to read?… Yes? Then you are too busy. Select carefully what you read and get your people reading as a way to infuse learning and thinking throughout your team / company. Start a book club and leverage the insights and learning that emerge. It is easier than it may sound and will cost little other than some time. Ask me how to do this – I have seen it work. TomorrowToday also has a series titled, ‘Books 4 Leaders 2 Read’ – 42 books essential (in our opinion) to leading in the new world of work.

On your balcony:
Many leaders spend their time on the dance floor. However, if you want to see the trends, the patterns, then you need to be on the balcony, not the dance floor. It is from the balcony that leaders can detect the disruption that is heading your way, the game-changers that will hit you no matter how efficient you are, how much history you have and what market share you enjoy. A test as to whether you (and your team) are spending too much time on the dance floor is to simply review your executive agenda: if operational issues dominate then it is likely that your focus is the dance floor. Open-ended questions and discussion, learning, scenarios, reflection, new information and input, are all indicators of balcony-type agenda items. Where is your balcony and are you accessing it on a habitual basis?

It’s your move. Think carefully but don’t wait too long as the future is leaving!

The Future is leaving: how not to get left behind

Posted on: August 20th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

By 2014, the percentage of companies that generate at least 30% of global revenue from emerging markets will increase by 82%.  The key to that statement is, ‘from emerging markets’. The global economic epicentre is shifting and the future looks nothing like the present. It is forecast that by 2020 China will become the world’s largest economy and that by 2050, China will in turn be surpassed by India. Of course there is a lot that can happen to change such predictions but the trajectory is clear and irrefutable. Many economists anticipate that the growth in emerging markets will be 4% higher than growth in the ‘rich world’ for at least the next five years. As this happens, when this happens – everything will shift.

The future is leavingThe reasons underpinning such a shift are both complex and hard to isolate. Urbanisation, cheap labour, loose regulatory constraints, large markets and technology all play a part. Some of the current strengths may well turn to disadvantages in the future and when you add in politics, energy and catastrophes to the mix – the future will be interesting. Our children will grow-up in a world unlike that of our own. Some see that as an opportunity and others view it as a threat.  I belong to the former grouping and have always endeavoured to encourage my own children to travel (especially to the East), become comfortable around change, turbulence and uncertainty; to question and always remain curious. Of course you will have to ask them to what extent I have succeeded!

All this has massive implications for leadership. For one thing, it will force a rethink of both the theory and practice of leadership. For those invested in current models of leadership – be that the theory or the practice, the invitation to rethink remains unappealing for obvious reasons. Dan Pink makes the point that if we want compliance, then our current management models work very well; however if it is engagement that we desire, then we will need to rethink those models. Pink is right on the money!

So how then do we do this ‘rethinking’?

At a personal level there are three things you can do as a leader to ensure you cultivate the right habits and reflexes around rethinking.

1.    Ask questions– but start with yourself. Start to challenge your own assumptions and viewpoints. Start ‘inside-out’ with such questioning but grow comfortable with being challenged ‘outside-in’. Which bridges to my second point…
2.    Invite feedback. Most leaders I know don’t get the kind of feedback they need. It comes gift-wrapped in fear, politics, niceties, agreement or endorsement. Authentic feedback is not given either because it is not invited, or because there isn’t a safe environment in which ‘real feedback’ can thrive. Good and reliable feedback is the lifeblood of continued growth and fuels adaptation. Smart leaders intentionally create an environment that allows authentic feedback and they don’t exclude themselves from the feedback loop. Many leaders think they have achieved this when in reality, they haven’t.
3.    Know your biases. We all have lenses through which we interpret the world around us. Understanding what these lenses are and how they impact on ‘how we see’ is the groundwork of emotional intelligence.  We don’t see the world as it is but rather as we are.  Furthermore, you lead out of who you are. This means that doing this ‘inner-work’ is simply not optional. As you learn to identify your own biases, it opens up the possibility of seeing differently – that in turn enables and energizes the process of rethinking.

At an organisational level there are also three things that you can do to promote and position the posture of rethinking:

1.    Revisit how you are going about your learning and development programmes (LDP). The fact that performance measures (for those responsible for the learning and development) are tied into how much the participants ‘enjoyed’ the experience means there is a focus on the wrong things.  I have been part of many a LDP where the emphasis is on keeping the participants happy rather than on real learning taking place. The hotels, the transport, the food, being comfortable, being in control, poorly thought through evaluations all become the focus rather than a fundamental understanding that real learning requires disruption, discomfort and a measure of experiential learning. Is your LDP too safe? Does it focus on the wrong things? Has it made any real difference to the mind-sets and behaviour of those who have attended the programme? Most scorecards in response read: Yes, yes and no!
2.    Recognize and reward failure. If you are not failing (in something) it means you are not innovating. Without innovation within your business, your success will be limited. Failure needs to be both contained and be something from which we extract learning – if it is to be a valuable tool for rethinking. However, all too often we don’t like to talk about failure and our organisational culture and our metrics mean that we seldom encourage new thinking and experimentation that could result in failure. This has to change; and it is easier said than done in an organisational culture where tradition dictates a blind-eye towards failure.
3.    Embrace and leverage diversity. We need to learn how to move from being ‘different from’ each other to being ‘different for’ each other. Harnessing diversity is no easy task and the mere presence of diversity, does not always translate into harnessing the benefits of that difference. The benefits of harnessing diversity are immense:  innovation, resilience, better decision-making (especially when entering emerging or foreign markets), adaptive behaviour and better team building (especially when it comes to Gen X and Gen Y) – to name but the more obvious benefits. There is an African proverb that states: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone: But if you want to go far, go together’. Incorporating and working with diversity as part of your organisational fabric will naturally promote and cultivate rethinking throughout your organisation. It will also serve to contribute significantly towards long-term sustainability.

There is a thought-provoking Levi’s advert that states: ‘The future is leaving. Go forth’ If you don’t want to get left behind by the future, you will need to be able to rethink! So what might you (and your organisation) need to, as a matter of urgency, unlearn and rethink if you are to not be left behind?

Bag Tossing, Rules and Leadership: A point worth consideration.

Posted on: August 19th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Stefan Kraemer is a happy and proud athlete. His throw of 24.21m was enough to see him win the gold in the World Cup in Bottrop, Germany. Right now you are desperately trawling your memory bank trying to locate ‘Stefan Kraemer’ aren’t you? Not wishing to be found wanting on something as important as a World Cup winner, you’re sure that you must have the relevant information stored somewhere – ‘just give me a minute or two and I will be able to add to your story’, is what you are thinking.

Handbag throwingDon’t panic. Your sports knowledge and recall is fine. Stefan Kraemer won gold in the handbag throwing World Cup. Yep, you read that correctly…they have a World Cup for the art of handbag throwing. I have no doubt that it must take considerable skill and preparation to toss a handbag 24.21m. The origins of such a ‘sport’ are shrouded in mystery with various stories being submitted as to how it was that this noble pastime gained global prominence. In spite of the sports growing popularity my guess is that it is unlikely that it will form part of the Olympic agenda anytime soon. Of course knowledge of such an event raises several noteworthy questions: for instance, how does one qualify for the World Cup? Are the bags of a standard size and weight? To what extent are the bags tossed aerodynamically styled? What does Gucci make of all this? What kind of shoes do you wear for such a sport? Who is the women’s champion? Is there a women’s champion or is this the sport of men? It seems the more questions you pull out the bag, the more there are waiting to be asked!

Ridiculous? …Without a doubt; but fun nonetheless.

However, reading of the handbag World Cup (a front page story in The Times) got me thinking about other such things within our corporate world that also might be just as ludicrous. I suspect that within most companies there are several equivalents to the handbag throwing World Cup. We have rules that are adhered to, the origins of which – and purpose of, no one can recall. Yet, these rules are followed and imposed. Rules often prove to be the enemy of agility. We have too many rules that are faceless, out dated and a legacy of the old way of doing things. They are rules that make as much sense as the competitive throwing of handbags yet they persist, waste energy and ultimately serve as a distraction from what we really should be doing and where our focus needs to be. The pro-bag tossers, and there are many, will claim that whether it is a bag or a javelin or shot-put, matters little; that we should continue to throw bags with gusto – with due diligence, dedication, commitment and enthusiasm, however silly it seems. The bag-tossers love the rules and processes that were once a means to an end but somehow, over time, have become an end in and of themselves.

Good leaders recognise the bag tossing practices within their organisations. Those things that waste energy, that distracts focus and which serve no useful purpose. Good leaders know such things become the enemy of change and hamstring the need for agility – something that is essential if you are to survive and thrive into the future.

So, as a leader, before you chuckle too loudly at the silly people who throw handbags through the air; maybe you need to ask yourself what your handbag throwing practices are that appear just as silly to those looking in?

And in closing…if you are going to succumb to the temptation to have a go (at tossing that bag), best check-in with the owner of the bag first, if that is you wish to live a long and healthy life. The average male doesn’t quite understand the attachment and bond (not to mention the content!) that bags and their owners seem to have evolved over time. Recklessly grabbing and flinging her bag across the garden (and if you’re talented, the neighbour’s garden as well), might not be met with the quite the enthusiasm you would expect, even were you to smash that 24.21 barrier!

Good news for animals…and vegetarians: but what about leadership?

Posted on: August 13th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

In London scientists recently (5 August) unveiled the first purely lab-grown beef burger and tested it on a select group of tasters (sounds like a good job to have…for the most part at least!). It is seen as the end of the first part in delivering lab-grown meat to the consumer market, something that research leader, Professor Mark Post of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, believes could be the norm by 2025. It is research that has enjoyed the backing of Google co-founder Sergey Brin who stepped into the gap when the initial seed finance had been eaten-up. Brin said he was motivated to invest in the project as it fitted their (Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org) funding goals linked to environmental and animal welfare concerns. As a sidebar, I wonder if Google.org would consider picking up a recent tab from the vet for my German Shepherd who had injured his foot?

Lab burgerThe burger was made from strands of meat that had been grown from muscle cells taken from a living cow – something that sounds as though it is a good trade off compared to the usual exchange the cow has to make in the serving up of a burger. The meat strands were then mixed with egg powder, breadcrumbs, salt and food colouring to give it the appearance of a burger if not quite the taste (yet) according to some of the tasters who were interviewed.

So whilst this can only be good news for cows, it is sure to pose some debate amongst vegetarians. Is this meat – or not? The ambiguity of the situation might even spawn a whole new category of non-meat – lab meat eaters, with naming rights to such a group anyone’s guess.

The one little ‘challenge’ at this point remains the cost of the burger. Estimated at being in the region of 250 000 euros to produce, it means that any family night out to McLab is surely not going to happen. But, as with all things ‘tech’, that cost is sure to decline sharply over time.

So what is the point of all this? Well, for one thing it is peephole gaze into the future. With Wikicells (a company situated in the USA) producing wrappers for ice cream that form part of the ice-cream and so can be eaten, the future of food as we know it is likely to be anything but ‘as we know it’.  Such things form what we in TomorrowToday term ‘disrupters’ and technology (across the board), is a major disruptor.  As a smart leader you need to ensure that your company is not only looking in the right direction, but is asking the right questions with regard to the disruptors that could see the ‘rules of the game’ change for you. The ‘right questions’ might even be the one’s you are not asking – and are yet to find. If that is the case, you had better get smart (and curious) quickly! Smart leaders are mindful of the past, attuned to the present and watchful concerning the future. It is often a balance that proves illusive for those in leadership but it is something that smart leaders consciously work at, together with those they lead.

Looking at the questions you are asking in your executive and team meetings will be a strong indicator to just how prepared you are for the uncertainty that is the future. It is usually a future marked by ‘dangerous opportunities’ whatever your industry or focus. The quality of your questions will determine the effectiveness of your strategy to thrive in this future.

…And in my opinion? Not enough smart questions are being asked!

The twin challenge that could sink your boat

Posted on: August 5th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

In TomorrowToday we have had the privilege to have been involved with several profession service firms internationally – both in the accounting and legal spheres. Such institutions are always quick to inform you that they are different – different from ‘the corporate sector’ – and of course they are different. The very business model and how that plays out internally sets professional service firms apart from their corporate counterparts. However, the haste to differentiate themselves from the corporates, can also cover a twin-challenge that both face; they are challenges that in the case of professional service firms, if not addressed effectively, will have significant consequences.

Puzzle piecesThe ‘twin-challenge’, to which I refer, is that of talent retention and diversity. They are not unrelated for one of the major strands of diversity is in fact, generational (age) difference.

Distilling research done by the East West Center, Hawaii my colleague Prof Nick Barker identified four distinct characteristics of globalization. One of these characteristics was something of a surprise in that it represented the opposite of what one might expect in an increasingly connected world: it was the fact that there is an increasing emphasis on difference. Digging deeper, it is not hard to understand this emphasis. It stems from the fact that as there is evidence of more and more ‘sameness’ – due to an increasingly connected world (as seen for example in the emergence of universal brands) – so there is a strong reaction of ‘see me’ / ‘see us’. The more we appear ‘the same’, the greater is the need for distinction. This is what makes dealing with diversity so important. As our workforce and clients / customers and markets converge, the need to be able to both understand and leverage diversity become essential.

The benefits of diversity are numerous: better decision-making; accessing deeper knowledge – especially when it comes to emerging markets; innovation; getting the participation and buy-in of younger generations, adaption and resilience are but some of the more obvious. However dealing effectively with diversity is also not without its challenges. There is an African proverb that states: ‘If you want to travel fast, go alone; If you what to travel far, go together’. There is the need to see diversity through a fresh lens, one in which we both frame and approach it differently. We need to learn how to move from being ‘different from’ each other to being ‘different for’ each other. It is not about reducing our difference to the lowest workable common denominator but rather how to engage our difference in order to reap the benefits mentioned.

This understanding and process is what we tend to do so badly. The approaches I have seen are more often than not superficial and one-dimensional. In some cases, they can even do more harm than good. In TomorrowToday we know that not only is this an emerging global theme but also one in which we are well equipped to help both professional service firms and corporates navigate. We have been working extensively with two leading international business schools in the development and delivery of a ‘leading diversity’ framework for their respective clients – all of whom are household names internationally. It is work that has been rooted in Russia, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, China, Sweden and South Africa. This has provided ample evidence of the need to be doing this work and how best to get meaningful engagement into what I believe is one of the most challenging learning terrains – that of diversity. It requires engagement of both head and heart and this is where the challenge is located as the context for learning how to grow through diversity is one that requires both unlearning and a degree of disequilibrium or discomfort.

Setting the context in which diversity is understood, valued and leveraged is a leadership responsibility. In professional service firms, senior partners are often dislocated from some of the ‘ground-floor’ realities. They can also be isolated from some of the broader contextual changes taking place due to their deep professional knowledge emersion along with the existence of strong silos within their business. The lack of internal cohesion and at times competing agendas also makes it difficult to tackle and harness the issue of diversity. One of the major results of a poor approach to productively engaging with diversity is evidenced in the struggle to retain ‘talent’.

Talent retention is one of the most significant challenges for both professional service firms as well as corporates. For professional service firms, the inability to retain talent poses a threat to their entire business model – it is that serious! Retaining talent is underpinned by a generational difference that simply means a departure from the ‘norm’ as defined by the Boomer generation – those currently ‘in charge’ and who have traditionally established the rules of the game. The reality is that by the age of 30, 72% of graduates are no longer working in their field of qualification. This one statistic alone epitomises the shift that has taken place in the approach to how best to build your career. The consequences of this in-built change or DNA shift across generations, is playing havoc with retention strategies. Daniel Pink (in his Ted Talk and book Drive) makes the telling point that if we want compliance, then our current management thinking and practices work very well; however if it is engagement that we desire, we will need to rethink how we approach and do things.
Talent attraction and retention are about engagement. It will require us to rethink both our ‘theory’ / approach and our practice.

The harsh reality is we don’t have a choice.

Engaging in the twin-challenges of diversity and talent is simply not optional if we wish to not merely survive, but rather thrive, in the future. How we do this will always be context specific and will differ from professional service firms to corporates – but perhaps not as much as we might initially think. They are challenges that although have their unique features, are inextricably intertwined. They will require courageous leadership where the willingness to ask the hard – or the unasked questions, challenge assumptions and the status quo, learn, unlearn and relearn, together with an ability to look beyond the now. It will mean acknowledging that the ‘old rules’ simply no longer work – or work as well as they used to – it will require acknowledging that ‘our world’ is not ‘the world’. This is all easier said (or written) than done!

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo put it best when she said, “It takes great courage to live in the moment and look beyond it at the same time”.

Ignore these twin-challenges at your peril. It doesn’t matter how impregnable you believe your profession or institution to be – we all know the fate that befell the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. You have been warned.

The Ashes debacle: Maybe Australia should have done their homework!

Posted on: July 31st, 2013 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Australian cricket is in crisis and it is a situation that gift-wraps several important lessons for any executive team. Of course we are aware of the ‘homeworkgate’ episode with former coach, Mickey Arthur. Against the backdrop of poor results, Arthur had invited the team to submit reports as to where they could improve as both a team and as individuals. From a leadership point of view it made sense: It was a move designed to develop a sense of collective responsibility for the situation that the team found themselves in; it invites ownership for solutions going forward; and it promotes innovative thinking underpinned in the ‘wisdom of many’ approach. There would be many ways one could justify this forward-thinking approach of Arthur and certainly, in the world of leadership, there was nothing radically unusual about adopting such an approach.

Aussie cricketHowever, it failed miserably and the reason it did so was none other than the team culture at the time. Failure to do the ‘homework’ meant several players being disciplined and the writing was on the wall for Arthur. Former players sneered at Arthur’s approach and with it the attempt to drag the Australian cricket mind-set into the 21st Century. The former players so critical from the grandstands came from teams that had dominated the game or were themselves gifted individuals for whom the game appeared effortless. The current Australian situation had neither of these characteristics – average players in a team where dominating the opposition is foreign. Things had changed: the on looking cricket world knew it; Arthur knew it but the critics seemed stuck in former glories unable to appreciate what was needed.

So, Arthur gets fired and an ugly lawsuit is playing out between him and his former employees. An ‘old school’ Aussie cricketer, Darren Lehmann is appointed and all is good with Australian cricket as they head into the Ashes series. The first test is a close affair with the Australians pushing their English adversaries to the wire. Suddenly Lehmann’s appointment and ‘good old Aussie’ approach seems a masterstroke. Spirit and team unity repaired and Australian cricket is back. It was a false dawn. The second test revealed the familiar Australian frailties and I suspect that the remaining tests will expose those deficiencies even further. By reverting to Lehmann and going back to ‘things Australian’ the progress of the team has taken one step forward only to go two steps back. New thinking and a new approach are needed. It might not be Arthur to provide that new approach but the continued sneering comments made in the commentary by former players – Australian or not (here think Sir Ian Botham), of Arthur’s approach, still rankle. There was the disparaging reference to ‘KPIs’ with it needing an English commentator to explain exactly what a ‘KPI’ was to Botham. This says more about Botham than it does about Arthur!

What is the learning in all this? Failure to adapt to a changing reality and a reliance on former glories or success, means continued failure. The golden period in Australian cricket is over, period. Harking back to former glories and the way things were done then is irrelevant in a world (and game) that is evolving rapidly. This point is as important in business as it is to the current Australian cricket fiasco. Of course being aware of the culture (in a situation) is important and I am not suggesting that Arthur, given the chance, wouldn’t need to do things differently. However, the comments being made in public by those who should know better reveal the stuck mind-set that dominates Australian cricket, a mind-set unable to come to terms with a changed reality.

I suspect that by the end of the Ashes, Arthur’s homework might not seem such a bad idea after all! Certainly something other than the adrenaline fired approach that lasted all of one test match needs to be considered if that red ‘Fail’ isn’t to become a permanent feature on the Australian report card.

As I said, there are lessons any Executive can take from what we are seeing playing itself out in the Australian cricket team.

“Play ball”.

The Missing Soul of Leadership: Our Story

Posted on: July 23rd, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

“Instead of telling our valuable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other aboutour opinions, ideas, and beliefs rather than about our lives” wrote Parker Palmer. He went on to say that,  “academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among intellectuals than in the most ‘primitive’ society of storytellers.”

It is a bold and powerful assertion to make and one that I suspect the ‘academics’ won’t be too partial towards. But I think Parker Palmer is correct. Human connection is regulated at the most fundamental level through story. It is our shared story that allows us to connect, to empathize and relate. Not to know another’s story allows a distance that makes judging easier and prejudice more acceptable. It is the shared story that bridges the gap and creates the

tell them your story

bond from which amazing things can be born. Stories matter a great deal and this is something that is slowly starting to re-emerge in the literature and thinking orientated around leadership and organizations. We should not be surprised; in fact it’s (the role of story) absence for so many decades should be the cause for surprise!

There are some important themes emerging in a converging world that smart leaders pay attention too and one of these themes, is the importance of story. There are two fundamental pillars underpinning why story is so essential in the theory and practice of leadership: Firstly, we see the world not as it is but as we are. In other words our lenses dictate how we see and interpret the world around us. This is why Goleman’s framework of emotional intelligence (EQ) is so important and relevant which leads to the second pillar, we lead out of who we are. Self-awareness is fundamental to how we see and how we lead and these two are not mutually exclusive but rather are intertwined in a complexity that only can be made sense of through story. It is as we intentionally engage our own unfolding story that we begin to develop the self-awareness and intelligence that forms the foundation of authentic leadership.

It is easier to simply teach leadership skills in the quest for leadership development isn’t it? Of course leadership skills are important in the practice of leadership but for far too long they have served as a distraction to the main course  and that is the understanding of story.

When we understand leadership as being about authentic connection, as being about influence rather than a title or position, then story becomes a powerful tool to understand and to use. We connect through our stories and we live and are lived by our story. This is what makes storytelling so powerful and memorable and yet we make little or no time for it within our organizations. We busy ourselves with data and concern ourselves with processes and efficiencies that we scrutinize, measure and constantly analyze. Again, there is a place and appropriateness for all this yet it comes at the neglect of what is really important – connection, both inside and outside of our business. The former masquerades as ‘real work’ and anything other than the activities that drives these things is seen to be an intrusion, a distraction and sometimes a waste of resources – both time and effort. And this is where we have missed it altogether. We have shied away from the very thing that ought to be central to our leadership – our story. We have built our muscles but neglected our souls. We talk earnestly of meaning and purpose in our work and in our workplace yet we have forgotten the very building blocks that make this possible – our story.

So let me attempt to make what might sound like the ravings of a lunatic, real for you in the challenge and daily practice of your own leadership. Leaders after all don’t have time for this type of thing, right? Well, that is where you would be wrong.  If you are too busy for the practice of story, then you are too busy and you are inadvertently diluting the very essence of your leadership influence.

Here then are three reasons to practice story and how to go about doing so.

Our organizational culture is framed by our stories. Peter Koestenbaum suggests that the real work of leaders is not that of strategic formulation and execution, but rather, shaping and guiding organizational culture. It has been shown that the majority of strategic intent ends in failure and an examination to the reason for this – is not that it was poor strategy; the main reason strategies fail is due to the organizational culture that is unable or unwilling to support the strategy. A deeper exploration of culture will reveal the fundamental importance and role of story and so leaders go about building a healthy organizational culture, the place and role of story cannot be neglected. Of course it often is and that is why so much of our talk in the context of creating meaning and purpose in the workplace is hollow rhetoric that is met by cynicism and apathy.

So what can you do about it? Ask yourself (and others) how they see your organization. What stories do they tell in answering such a question? What stories are they not telling? What stories would you like them to tell? Could you describe your company’s mission and vision free from the business jargon that usually accompanies such statements and could you share what these are though telling some stories? Exploring such questions would be a good place to start but it is a journey that will take you deeper into the heart of understanding the essence of culture within your organization. This understanding is not something that should be left or delegated to your Human Resource person / team, it is something with which you, as a leader, need to concern yourself. Sure you can ask for help – Intel employed a cultural anthropologist to help guide them in this journey once they recognized its importance, so asking for outside help might be important in this quest.

Our connection one-on-one and group-to-group is determined by our revealed story. We are living in what has been described as the ‘connection economy’ meaning that our competitive edge is no longer found in business efficiency, but rather, in our ability to connect inside and outside of our organization. The ‘war for talent’ is nothing other than a connectivity issue and when leaders understand connection as fundamental to everything in their business, well then things change. This understanding drives exceptional service and smart leaders know the importance of connection.

So what can you do about it? Well for one thing, re-examine those connection points for which you are responsible. The one-on-one encounters, the formal meetings and the countless opportunities you have every single day to connect. Find your own ‘coffee cup management’ practice as championed by Brazilian businessman, Ricardo Semler and which he expounds on in his very readable book, Maverick. Semler talks about the few minutes it takes to make and drink a cup of coffee, a practice that Brazilians are particular partial to, and using that drinking time to connect with someone in the office. He talks about the importance of standing at their workstation and using this time for initiating a more personal connection point. He explains how easy this is by simply looking at photos or kids drawings on their desk and asking about these as a starting point. Building this practice into a habit realizes powerful results and serves as a starting point to forge connection. Another option would be to rethink some of your orientation processes and developmental programmes (have storytelling sessions) and plan to drop in on some of these from time to time. “Too busy for that” I hear you say…well then perhaps you are too busy to be leading? Leadership is never about time…it is about how you use the time you have and creating and fostering connection is the leaders responsibility.

We remember stories, not powerpoints. Powerful communication is shaped by story. Smart leaders understand the importance of storytelling and see this as an art essential to effective messaging and communication. The use of story sits at the core of capturing both head and heart. Smart leaders live their story; they share their story – and that of their organization; they actively look for story as a means of bringing the values of the organization to life; they see story as an organizing principle around which the core functions of the business operates. Yes, it is that important!

So, what can you do about it? Well for one thing, next time you have a speech to give, try splicing in some stories. Not as jokes or as a sideshow but find stories to illustrate the most important points you are trying to convey. It will exercise your imagination and might need some practice, but what for the results of such storytelling. I know of an organization that used a basic story framework to guide their entire strategic process, breathing new life into what is often a tired and mundane exercise. I know of break-aways that have been transformed through making time for storytelling and there is almost no aspect of corporate life that cannot be impacted by an understanding of the use of story. Find ways to reframe data by way of story and become known as a Storyteller yourself. In so doing you will give permission for story to flourish within your organization.

So if you are a leader, you ought to be a storyteller – in the richest sense of that word. Story is the connection principle of human connection. It is that simple and it that complex, but know this – it is that important.

Why Leadership Development needs to grow a pair!

Posted on: July 16th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Developing leaders is big business. Developing leaders has become a victim of its own success in that there is little willingness to change the model that for years has delivered the success. This is incongruent with the message that business needs to overhaul and revamp successful models in the name of innovation and the often punted line that the surest way to fail in the future, is to simply keep doing what you have always done.

EducationThe model that has been built is one where the DNA includes five-star accommodation, air-conditioned bus tours, precise timing and a detailed agenda where everything is crafted to keep the client happy. The curriculum is coloured by subject experts brought in to dispense content for impressive thick files that usually become dormant once the file-filler is back in the office. That been your experience?

To be fair, perhaps I am ignoring some of the good work done in this context and I will be the first to admit that there are indeed pockets of excellence in both thought and execution when it comes to leadership development. However, these pockets of excellence tend to be the exception and not the rule. There is cause for concern and when one considers the return on investment for such programmes, that concern enters the ‘red zone’.

Here are the top three fault lines running through current leadership development programmes:

1.   They are seen as programmes and not a process. This induces the wrong kind of measures and emphasis. However the biggest pitfall of this distinction is that the ‘programme’ serves in isolation to the meaningful integration of learning in the workplace. In some cases, what is learnt on the programme actually gets in the way of effectiveness in the workplace. The responsibility for this fault line rests as much with the client as it does with the educational institute tasked with the design.
2.   The wrong things are measured at the wrong time. Daily measures that track satisfaction drive most programmes where any score below 4.5 (out of 5) is not acceptable. What this means is that anytime a score below what is deemed acceptable is received, everyone goes into a tailspin. But what if measuring progress or learning cannot be linked (always) to fun, enjoyment and satisfaction? What if the real measure of learning can only be done months after the actual event as B. F. Skinner suggests when he said, ‘education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten’? We need a serious rethink of what is measured, how we do this and even, why we do it.
3.   Too much emphasis is placed on keeping the client happy. When the client approaches the ‘expert’ – or educational institution, they (the client) needs to trust the educators and allow them to do their job. I have worked on accounts where the constant interference has the educators in a perpetual state of panic and what happens is that the entire focus becomes one of keeping the client satisfied at the cost of real learning and development. Of course client involvement and engagement is essential but when this becomes overbearing and gets in the way of what needs happen, the educators involved need to grow a pair! Telling the client to leave them alone to do what it is they are being paid to do is never easy, but there are times when it has to be done. Notice I didn’t say it is not important that the client is happy – of course, the client needs to be happy! I said simply said that ‘too much’ emphasis is put on keeping the client happy.

Developing future leaders is too important a task to be undercut in these ways. Something needs to be said and the status quo needs to be challenged. It is that simple; it is that difficult.

The Future is China; The Future is Now.

Posted on: July 9th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

China is like a large building site. Well in truth, China is a large building site. Any visit to a Chinese city (and sometimes not even a city) there is evidence of building activity. From my hotel window in Guangzhou I counted 38 cranes and a building that was still having its foundations dug when I was last here, is now up to its 40th floor level. I was last here 5 months ago. China is the place to be and most certainly China will dominate the future global landscape.

ChinaOn Wednesday 10th July high level economic talks get underway between China and the USA concerning how best to further trade, work together on the global economic stage and, in the words of the Chinese vice-Premier (who is leading the Chinese delegation) “deepen the trust” between the two economic giants.  Premier Xi Jinping has made it clear that his administration plans to tackle graft and corruption and front page headlines in the ChinaDaily is of high-level officials, including former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, being charged for corruption and abuse of power. You know it is serious as in the case of Zhijun, the death penalty, with a two-year reprieve, has been handed out.

China has some basic economic shifts to make and challenges to meet if it is to realize the bright future that awaits.  China needs to build its own internal consumer base and move away from manufacturing and exports to service industries. This is a shift fundamental to most emerging economies and not altogether unusual for the growth stage in which the Chinese economy finds itself.

The rate of urbanisation also poses some socio-economic challenges for China. In 2008 critical mass was reached when 50% of the 1.3billion Chinese lived in cities. This reflects a global trend and certainly the mega-cities that will dominate the future will have a massive impact on infrastructure including consumer needs and habits, local and national politics, budgets, health, transport, resources and pretty much any area you choose to think about. In revealing what the future holds given the shift towards urbanisation, China will show the way.

China will have to deal with several challenges along this way. Several of these are already well known: corruption (as mentioned), infringing on intellectual property rights (and not only infringing, often simply totally ignoring), computer fraud and hacking – although they are not alone in this challenge, as the USA will attest too! Given how China has tackled many of its other challenges there is cause for optimism that they will succeed in making inroads to those listed.

I am grateful for a career that repeatedly brings me to this part of the world. There is so much to take-in, to learn, to observe and to experience. It is not always comfortable learning but it is essential learning. If you are serious about the future and haven’t been to China I only have one question for you: why not? I am amazed when I read of leadership gurus and authors who articulately spout about the future and yet who have no experiential understanding of China. It simply doesn’t make sense to me and dents their credibility. I have also come to realise that the more you come to this place (maybe any place?), the more you realise just how little you really know. I think that is the way it should be for I have an inbuilt wariness when it comes to ‘experts’.

So, if you are in leadership, in any field, get China on your radar. Read, explore, be curious, ask, talk to, learn and if you have children, intentionally grow their awareness for the place we know as China. They will thank you one day for your foresight.

Leading Teams: Two further considerations

Posted on: June 25th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

“A team effort is a lot of people doing what I say” seems to be the approach of many a leader. Of course we all know that this is not how it should be but unfortunately, is often how it is. How many times have you spoken to someone who is ensnared in the trap of such a leader? Perhaps that ‘someone’ is you?

FishThere is no shortage of things written on how best to lead teams and much of it is worth paying attention to if you wish to get the best from your team. However, it is also not as simple as it is often made out to be and there are a number of things that can influence the implementation of the supposedly simple ‘how to’ things that we get fed.

In particular, there are two such things that I briefly want to draw your attention to that, when it comes leading your team, will have a bearing.

1. The organisational culture in which you lead. The overarching organisational culture in which you and your team find yourselves will have a direct bearing on how you lead your team. When that culture is positive and healthy there will be few problems in transferring those qualities into your own team. Replicating or mirroring the overall organisational culture will be easy and will be the obvious thing to do. That said, there is no guarantee that you can do this merely by ‘showing up’. It will take intentional work and effort but creating a good team environment within such a (healthy) context means that things will be working for you and you will not have to swim upstream the entire time. This is why those in executive or senior leadership positions need to understand the impact that their words and actions have in setting the organisational culture. Their influence is critical; it sets the tone and determines the conditions. In short, organisational culture is a leadership responsibility. Their behaviour creates the climate for others to flourish and essentially their actions create permission for others to act. When senior leaders create a positive environment then replication is made easy but when senior leaders create a toxic environment, then developing anything positive is difficult. A team leader who sees a ‘better way’ and attempts to create a positive team environment (in a toxic context) will always, at some or other point, meet the toxic environment that pervades the organisation. Very often a senior leader can obliterate the good the team leader has managed to do in one single act or comment. I have seen and encountered many such situations and it can be very disheartening if you are one of those team leaders who find yourself trying to lead in such a scenario.

2. The fact that difference matters. Difference or diversity has always been with us it is just that today we get to experience and encounter it on a daily basis. The world has got smaller and is more connected than ever before and one of the implications of this new reality is that as a leader, you have to deal with difference whether you like it or not. Recently, in the city centre of Munich I encountered a vibrant protest against the building of a mosque in the city. There were multiple voices and emotions around the issue that attracted a lot of attention. The protest served as a microcosm of the difference that we now encounter on a daily basis as our world changes and adjusts to new rules and realities. The complexity and dimensions embedded in difference make many of the ‘how to’ bits of advice we get when it comes to leading teams redundant. Leading difference is complex and difficult and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or has never had to lead a diverse team. The difference that I am talking about can be encountered at multiple levels: cultural, racial, generational, personal, sexual, educational and gender to name some of the more dominant lenses through which we view difference. What this means is that paradox (where ‘right’ clashes with ‘right’) is encountered at almost every turn when navigating difference. Paradox by definition cannot be resolved but can only be understood. The best way – in fact the only way, to understand paradox, is through access to frameworks that illuminate one’s understanding of the paradoxical situation encountered. This means that as a leader you will need to find and access frameworks that help you engage paradox in such a way that you can leverage the positive from the difference that is deadlocked in a ‘right verses right’ struggle. This is not easy work for any leader. In addition to the framework (knowledge) it requires patience, insight and wisdom. Recently, TomorrowToday have been asked by leading business schools globally to develop programmes and content to help leaders better understand and lead difference. The more we have engaged in this work the more we have come to realize just how much work needs to be done notwithstanding that we are dealing with some of the world’s largest and most successful blue-chip companies. To date this work has taken us to places such as China, Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, Turkey and Russia.

Leading teams has never been more challenging. Today I came out of a client meeting in which we discussed an intervention with their team leaders around helping them lead effectively in this changing and diverse world. The Executive present in the meeting asked that before we engage in this intervention could we first spend a day with her executive team where we could explore the theme and tools to be presented to her team leaders. The day wasn’t to ‘vet’ the content but rather, in her words, “to ensure that we (the executive) understand and are capable of what it is we are asking our team leaders to be and do”.

Now that is smart and insightful leadership. I suspect being a team leader in her environment is ‘easy’ – if only more senior leaders had her attitude!

The Neglected Work of Leadership

Posted on: June 13th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

The practice of leadership has many important facets and nuances. Strategic formation and implementation is often regarded as the ‘most important of all leadership responsibilities’ and it certainly is important. Strategy almost always forms a core part of the curriculum in any leadership development programme. Leaders have come to both understand, and appreciate the need for sound strategy. They have become familiar with the models and tools associated with strategy; it is a subject that feels like ‘leadership work’ and is something that can be measured.  Leaders tend to like that combination.

sky_boardroomHowever, doing the work of leadership does not necessarily equate to being a leader. When it comes to leadership, the ‘doing’ and ‘being’ agendas are very different. Over the years there has been a growing understanding and awareness of what leadership is and isn’t – and how to go about the development of leaders. I have a mentor and friend who, well into his retirement years, took on and completed his PhD in leadership – with a specific focus on education. I have learnt a great deal from him through stimulating conversations facilitated by ‘coffee meetings’ as well as many hours of travelling together through our mutual work on some joint projects.  The core of his thesis was to review the evolving process that has characterised leadership education.

Leadership theory initially led directly to leadership practice. There was theory that was required – theory that itself has evolved over the decades, and then there was leadership practice. I once attended a Salzburg Seminar session titled: ‘Linking the Theory and Practice of Leadership’. In attendance were both leadership practitioners as well as leadership academics. It was a source of personal bemusement that the two groupings mixed as easily as oil and water! Whenever the practitioners were speaking of their problems and challenges, the theorists would mutter something along the lines of, “Well if you only paid attention to what we say and write you would not be experiencing those problems”. Of course when it came the turn of the theorists to share their insights and opinions, the practitioners in the room would roll their eyes and retort, “Come and spend just one day in my office and let’s see how your theories stack-up!”

When the link in leadership was simply between theory and practice, the emphasis on leadership as something ‘you do’, as a skill-set to be mastered, held sway.

Later a third aspect to the ‘leadership cycle’ was added, that of evaluation. Theory leads to practice and practice in turn needs to be evaluated. This additional dimension introduced a plethora of evaluation tools, tools that today we simply take for granted. Evaluations became a standard part of ‘best practice’ and quickly became entrench as part of any corporate environment. This has been the dominant framework for a long time: theory – practice- evaluation.

However, in recent times there has emerged a fourth element or dimension to the leadership cycle and one that ‘closes’ the loop bringing us back full-circle to theory. The additional dimension is that of reflection: theory – practice – evaluation – reflection – theory…Reflection takes on many forms and descriptions. It can be seen as the habit of stepping back, or what Heifetz in his Adaptive Leadership model refers to as, ‘being on the balcony’. It can be seen as the pause, the space to think before taking action. Meg Wheatley describes the act of thinking as the thing that precedes all intelligent action or activity. Thinking and taking intentional time to think is not necessarily the same thing – certainly not in the corporate world where ‘taking time to think’ is not understood and seldom practiced.

This ‘new’ element to the leadership cycle has introduced another dimension to the leadership discussion – that of, ‘being’. An understanding that the leadership agenda is no longer merely about ‘doing’ but it is also about the character ethic. It is an understanding that you ‘lead out of who you are’ and that whilst skill-sets are important, they are no longer the definitive element in leadership development and practice.  Much of this remains unfamiliar to those in leadership or at least, if is known, it remains viewed with suspicion and a fair degree of scepticism. I do have some sympathy for this take on the subject given how poorly this ‘new agenda’ is often positioned and presented. Hard-nosed and cynical leaders have little time and less patience for some of the extremely poor attempts and efforts to raise their awareness in this area. It is often reduced to the ‘motivational’ agenda and left to external speakers and consultants who are viewed as anything from ‘entertainment’ (motivational speakers) to an ‘unnecessary evil’ (consultants).

Reflection requires practical tools and clear articulation as to the ‘why’ ‘what and ‘how’ if it is to gain traction within our corporate organisations. In a global context of increasing complexity, connectedness and volatility, finding time to think is not only challenging but is a necessity. No longer will a focus on efficient operational expertize and an over-reliance on experience be enough. Leaders will need to step back, step out of and consider the disruptive influences, connect the dots and see the big picture. They will have to become comfortable with asking good questions and being able to harness the wisdom and perspective of the many. They will be required to rethink and revisit many of the formula and methodologies that have brought success in the past  – an unlearning process that is often as traumatic as it is difficult. They will need to think like futurists.

As we hurtle headlong into this future, leaders will be required to demonstrate a new mind-set and model a new behaviour in what will essentially be a ‘new world of work’. Turbulence will be the new operating norm and in this regard Peter Drucker’s words sound a clear warning: “It is not the turbulence that is the problem but rather it is the use of yesterday’s logic in the turbulence that is the problem”.

When those responsible for leadership education and leadership development programmes (LDPs) understand the need for reflection as both part of leadership theory and practice, I suspect that many of these programmes will come to look very different. There will be a greater emphasis on self-awareness and an unpacking of what it means to ‘lead out of who you are’. Time will be made for reflection and pauses will become more commonplace. It will change some of the work expected and done; it will alter the metrics – the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we measure; it will both look and feel different. I recently wrote a blog voicing my frustration at the insistence of a leading South African business school that insists on me grading a reflective paper I set the LDP participants in the course I an invited to teach. How does one grade a reflection paper? Certainly there can (and should) be comment of effort, approach and engagement with the tough and demanding work that is reflection…but a grade? There needs to be the encouragement to see this essential discipline as part of a leadership practice that will eventuate in it becoming a leadership habit but, ascribing a grade to it, is just too simplistic and is entirely the wrong thinking. But try telling this to those ensconced within the business schools’ ivory towers!

Someone has to lead this new charge to reshape our approach and thinking on leadership. The reality is that it will come from different sources from a variety of settings. Embracing it and adopting it into your context will be the work of leadership. It will be culturally nuanced as much as it will be driven by personalities. It will look different from place to place and will need to be used differently from setting to setting. However, the ability to reflect, at both an individual level as well as at a corporate level, will be an essential survival tool to 21st Century leadership and living.

A good place to start might be with your executive or management team. What would a reflective habit look like in the mix of your agenda?

I know of a CEO of an engineering firm who, at my suggestion, introduced a time of silence to ‘bookend’ his executive agenda. Initially greeted with real scepticism by his team, this practice has grown to become an essential part of their executive meeting with telling results. You might need to be bold. In fact, you will need to be bold, given the prevailing conditions. You also will need to be willing to try some things that may not work. However, as with getting physically fit, it will take time, perseverance, discipline and effort. But, as with getting fit, it will become easier with time and the benefits will be felt and seen by all.

You want to be ‘future fit’? Well then I would suggest you incorporate reflection as a discipline towards that goal. I don’t think you will regret doing so.

Leadership: Hearing the Music

Posted on: June 11th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

I remember reading a story about Mark Twain in Leonard Sweet’s excellent book, Summoned to Lead. The story goes that Twain had a bad habit of swearing, a habit that offended his wife’s sensibilities.  Having failed on numerous occasions to correct this distasteful habit Twain’s wife finally resorted to a shock tactic. One day, on his return home she decided to greet him with a barrage of abusive language.  Her logic was that perhaps, were to hear his own language in use, he would reform his ways. So, as Twain arrived home Twainthat day he was met at the front door with a stream of obscenities as she threw at him every distasteful word she could recall him ever using. The story goes that Twain listened quietly, holding his composure and without interruption, until she had exhausted her borrowed vocabulary, following which he replied, “My dear, you have the words, but not the music”.

It is a great story, although I don’t know if it is true. However, it is a story that brings into sharp focus an important aspect of leadership: having the words is not enough – you also need the music.

Leadership has often defaulted into something of a performance – mere rhetoric, having the ‘right words’, posturing, and pretence.  We come across leadership that is devoid of substance and adrift of any deeper meaning and significance. It is founded on charisma and skills rather than on character and purpose.

As a leader you need to know what is ‘your music’. As a leader you need to be attuned to the music for if not, you run the risk of being irrelevant and perhaps destructive. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the organisation’s values and purpose are reflected in the organisation’s behaviour and decisions.

That alignment is essential to authenticity and the practice of that synergy starts with the leader. I am amazed at how often I come across executive teams for whom the company’s values are vague at best and a non-entity at worse. They operate oblivious of the values that sit proudly displayed in their foyer or in the corridors, and the dislocation is usually unmasked during the down times, during the ‘informal’ events when the true self is revealed. Tough times can also strip away pretence and reveal an organisation adrift from its value base. Buffet once said that, “when the tide of growth goes out, you see who has been swimming naked”. You have the words but not the music.

It would be an interesting conversation to have with your team: what is our music? I suspect it could be the pathway to some rich conversation and refreshing insights.

Smart leaders hear the music. They ensure that their words and the music are in harmony. They know the importance of this and are quick to detect and act when the words become severed from the music. I suspect that there are two musical scores to which leaders need to be attuned: An internal organisational score and an ever-changing external one. Failure to pay attention to both is not an option. Smart leaders understand that both require attentive listening. Both are relevant and ensuring that the music from both is heard is the their responsibility.

So, what is your music? And more importantly, are you listening to it?

Leadership: The Right Trap

Posted on: June 5th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

There is a trap that leaders should work to avoid. Yet ironically, it is a trap that ensnares many a leader and one that they enter into willingly.

It is the trap of being right.

Being right? Isn’t that what good leaders do – get things right? Well, yes and no.

TrapGetting more things right than wrong is obviously a good thing and something that anyone in leadership would strive to achieve. However, this isn’t the same as being right all the time. The problem is that many in leadership believe that their perspective, their experience, their solution is the right one. When this is the over-riding approach it means that other options automatically are relegated and subjugated to the leader’s ‘right’.

When leaders are ‘right’ (all the time) it usually means that an autocratic, command and control leadership culture prevails. It quickly becomes a toxic context in which others don’t speak up and one in which participative decision-making and innovative solutions are suffocated.  Right means that there can be no room for other considerations; right means that there is no room for discussion and debate; right means that we stop looking around and focus only on what we are told is in front of us and apply only what has been determined.

This is not the context of collaborative and participative environments. Leaders who insist on their ‘right’ usually means that the benefits delivered by diversity get ignored as the wisdom of ‘the many’ is sacrificed for the wisdom of ‘the one’.

There can be no discussion with anyone who believes that they are right. Any discussion is really nothing other than an arm-wrestle around ‘right-wrong’ rather than an authentic exploration to find a new perspective and embrace new learning. There is a Sufi saying that says, ‘beyond the field of right and wrong is a place; I’ll meet you there’. Anyone who has had the misfortune to engage in a ‘discussion’ with a fundamentalist (of any persuasion) will know immediately the futility of a ‘discussion’. The Fundamentalist believes that they are right. They refuse to – or are unable to, put aside ‘their rightness’ to create room for meaningful engagement. Such conversations quickly degenerate into angry exchanges and invariably damaged relationships.

(more…)

Leadership: The Right Trap

Posted on: June 4th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

There is a trap that leaders should work to avoid. Yet ironically, it is a trap that ensnares many a leader and one that they enter into willingly.

It is the trap of being right.

Being right? Isn’t that what good leaders do – get things right? Well, yes and no.

TrapGetting more things right than wrong is obviously a good thing and something that anyone in leadership would strive to achieve. However, this isn’t the same as being right all the time. The problem is that many in leadership believe that their perspective, their experience, their solution is the right one. When this is the over-riding approach it means that other options automatically are relegated and subjugated to the leader’s ‘right’.

When leaders are ‘right’ (all the time) it usually means that an autocratic, command and control leadership culture prevails. It quickly becomes a toxic context in which others don’t speak up and one in which participative decision-making and innovative solutions are suffocated.  Right means that there can be no room for other considerations; right means that there is no room for discussion and debate; right means that we stop looking around and focus only on what we are told is in front of us and apply only what has been determined.

This is not the context of collaborative and participative environments. Leaders who insist on their ‘right’ usually means that the benefits delivered by diversity get ignored as the wisdom of ‘the many’ is sacrificed for the wisdom of ‘the one’.

There can be no discussion with anyone who believes that they are right. Any discussion is really nothing other than an arm-wrestle around ‘right-wrong’ rather than an authentic exploration to find a new perspective and embrace new learning. There is a Sufi saying that says, ‘beyond the field of right and wrong is a place; I’ll meet you there’. Anyone who has had the misfortune to engage in a ‘discussion’ with a fundamentalist (of any persuasion) will know immediately the futility of a ‘discussion’. The Fundamentalist believes that they are right. They refuse to – or are unable to, put aside ‘their rightness’ to create room for meaningful engagement. Such conversations quickly degenerate into angry exchanges and invariably damaged relationships.

I think that ‘rightness’ can inflict some more so than others based on how people think. The Enneagram teaches that there are people for whom ‘right and wrong’ defines their approach and shapes their worldview. Such a person has a far longer road to travel when it comes to meeting at that ‘place’ that the Sufi saying speaks about – the place that sits beyond the field of right and wrong. For others, those who are able to entertain paradox and who are comfortable negotiating the ‘grey’ of life, access to that ‘place’ is far easier.

Leaders need to see how their ‘right’ inhibits free discussion and stunts dialogue. Smart leaders know how and when to suspend their ‘right’ in order to allow a ‘better way’ to emerge. Leaders who remain unaware of how limiting and overbearing their right has become are a danger to the organisation and those they lead.

Am I suggesting then that there is no ‘right’?

Of course not.

In various scenarios there is a strategic right, a moral right an obvious right – it is just the mind-set involved that will determine how others are allowed to influence, persuade, contribute and challenge. I am sure, like me, you know people who are ‘always right’. People who are certain about so many things – things that any thinking person would immediately recognise as having an antithesis, a counter-point, an opposite.

Beware of your right. As a leader catch yourself in discussions where you hear yourself proclaim the right; be mindful of thinking habits which revolve around ‘right and wrong’ and be willing to explore further, to venture beyond – in order to find ‘that place’. As a leader help others find that place beyond right and wrong. As you do so, know that it will significantly contribute to an organisational culture in which opinions are respected, learning is prized and participation leads to both accountability and an ‘ownership’ for realizing the desired objectives.

Being right is a trap, but it need not be. Whether or not it is a trap, well… that will be up to you.

It makes no sense but what to do about it?

Posted on: May 31st, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

In one of the many Leadership Development Programmes (LDP) in which I have the privilege to be involved, it is a requirement that I set the participants an assignment. No problem there as it is what would be expected. However, given the nature of the work done in this particular LDP, I have chosen to invite the participants to engage in a reflective piece of work as their assignment.

The instruction is simple: select any aspect of what you’ve experienced in the past few days on this course, and reflect on its significance for you. No further detail or instruction is given.

The ThinkerReflection is perhaps the most neglected and most misunderstood discipline of leadership. It is a core discipline that ought to be part and parcel of leadership practice – an essential habit for anyone in leadership to cultivate. Meg Wheatley makes the point that reflection is the bridge between experiences and making them ‘your own’. In my experience leaders find the tough work that is reflection difficult to do and often are in a corporate culture that places little or no value on such a discipline or behaviour. We measure, reward and pride ourselves in our ‘doing’ and so when it comes to the practice of leadership reflection – well this is the antithesis of all that we have come to regard as important. It is a great pity for nothing can be further from the truth…but I digress.

So, the assignment is set and care taken to explain what is expected and how best, for the many uninitiated, to go about such a daunting task. Then I await the responses. As the papers role in I am always amazed at the general tenor that underpins the exercise. “Life changing”, “most important work I have done in years”, “why has it taken so long for me to do this kind of work” would be some of the comments that reflect what is the general response to the assignment.

I have participants who take the opportunity to reflect on some of their deepest valleys in life – burying a child, the death of a spouse or parent, divorce, growing up in grinding poverty, abusive parents and so it goes on. Reading these papers often makes me feel like removing my shoes as I am ‘standing on holy ground’. It is an immense privilege to have such personal narratives shared and the insights and leadership lessons that are made are often profound.

But I have to give them a grade. How does one grade such stories?

But that is what is expected in academia. That is what is expected in an LDP. You grade, you mark, you compete with the person next to you; you strive to come top of the class. But when it comes to the deep work of reflection these mind-sets make no sense. In fact not only do they make no sense, they often do harm.

In the development of leaders, when it comes to the character ethic, the emphasis on emotional intelligence, and the growth of self-awareness, certain things cannot and should not be graded. But try making the business schools see this! And so this is why, as the leadership agenda shifts in the context of a changing world and the new world of work, so many current ‘successful’ models will fail to deliver. Such institutions should be teaching leaders to think, to adapt, to reflect, to unlearn and relearn, to question, to pause and to explore inwards as well as outwards – but they don’t. The tools that will deliver on many of these things remain too edgy, too ‘unscientific’ and yes, are not measurable.
So we stumble on afraid to change the curriculum, afraid to make mistakes and sometimes afraid to stand-up to the client who doesn’t always know best what they need. We continue as we were only with smarter technology, slicker programmes and more subject experts, yet, in spite of such efforts and investment, we fail to see any meaningful change in both mind-set and behaviour.

At some point it will come crashing down and I will say, “but I warned you”.

It makes no sense but what to do about it?

Posted on: May 30th, 2013 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

In one of the many Leadership Development Programmes (LDP) in which I have the privilege to be involved, it is a requirement that I set the participants an assignment. No problem there as it is what would be expected. However, given the nature of the work done in this particular LDP, I have chosen to invite the participants to engage in a reflective piece of work as their assignment.

The instruction is simple: select any aspect of what you’ve experienced in the past few days on this course, and reflect on its significance for you. No further detail or instruction is given.

The ThinkerReflection is perhaps the most neglected and most misunderstood discipline of leadership. It is a core discipline that ought to be part and parcel of leadership practice – an essential habit for anyone in leadership to cultivate. Meg Wheatley makes the point that reflection is the bridge between experiences and making them ‘your own’. In my experience leaders find the tough work that is reflection difficult to do and often are in a corporate culture that places little or no value on such a discipline or behaviour. We measure, reward and pride ourselves in our ‘doing’ and so when it comes to the practice of leadership reflection – well this is the antithesis of all that we have come to regard as important. It is a great pity for nothing can be further from the truth…but I digress.

So, the assignment is set and care taken to explain what is expected and how best, for the many uninitiated, to go about such a daunting task. Then I await the responses. As the papers role in I am always amazed at the general tenor that underpins the exercise. “Life changing”, “most important work I have done in years”, “why has it taken so long for me to do this kind of work” would be some of the comments that reflect what is the general response to the assignment.

I have participants who take the opportunity to reflect on some of their deepest valleys in life – burying a child, the death of a spouse or parent, divorce, growing up in grinding poverty, abusive parents and so it goes on. Reading these papers often makes me feel like removing my shoes as I am ‘standing on holy ground’. It is an immense privilege to have such personal narratives shared and the insights and leadership lessons that are made are often profound.

But I have to give them a grade. How does one grade such stories?

But that is what is expected in academia. That is what is expected in an LDP. You grade, you mark, you compete with the person next to you; you strive to come top of the class. But when it comes to the deep work of reflection these mind-sets make no sense. In fact not only do they make no sense, they often do harm.

In the development of leaders, when it comes to the character ethic, the emphasis on emotional intelligence, and the growth of self-awareness, certain things cannot and should not be graded. But try making the business schools see this! And so this is why, as the leadership agenda shifts in the context of a changing world and the new world of work, so many current ‘successful’ models will fail to deliver. Such institutions should be teaching leaders to think, to adapt, to reflect, to unlearn and relearn, to question, to pause and to explore inwards as well as outwards – but they don’t. The tools that will deliver on many of these things remain too edgy, too ‘unscientific’ and yes, are not measurable.
So we stumble on afraid to change the curriculum, afraid to make mistakes and sometimes afraid to stand-up to the client who doesn’t always know best what they need. We continue as we were only with smarter technology, slicker programmes and more subject experts, yet, in spite of such efforts and investment, we fail to see any meaningful change in both mind-set and behaviour.

At some point it will come crashing down and I will say, “but I warned you”.

Cut the crap and fine your Consultants.

Posted on: May 15th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

My daughter has two Masters degrees, with her most recent one being achieved cum laude. Enough said. Parental squabbles persist as to the origins of such smarts. With these qualifications she is well down the pathway to being an academic with I suspect, a PhD more a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.  However, as she has progressed along this pathway the cost has not been mine alone, as in the course of this journey she has had to pay several fines.

Let me explain.

What I have noticed is that over time her language started to change. Slow, almost unnoticeable at first but then the further she progressed, the more frequent and fluid it became. As she became immersed in the jungle of psychology she started to take on terminology that makes little or no sense to the average person. Names, theories and terms tumbled out that impress but really don’t do much in furthering connection and understanding on the part of the listener. I have seen this before – it is the world and language of academia whatever the subject or discipline.

So, I took it on myself to ‘help her’ avoid this ‘gobbledegook’ and rather find authentic ways to connect and speak in ‘normal language’. She might not thank me now for it but I suspect she might do so one day as she inhabits and enjoys acceptance in the everyday world of normality that the rest of us inhabit. I have tried to ensure that she uses the kind of language we can all understand and to which we can relate and respond. I have also tried to instil in her the understanding that the more one knows, the more you realise how little you know. More ‘smart’ people should remember this as being smart should only ever be something recognised by others – not oneself! It is something conferred, not claimed. In that sense it is like humility. But I digress.

There is another world where I hear the language of gobbledegook spoken. It is the world of consultants.

DilbertIt is a language that invades the corporate space and becomes a code all of its own. It pervades all manner of subjects from strategy to leadership; from customer care to business processes. We artificially construct and engineer meaningless missions, visions, talent and leadership programmes as well as strategies using the kind of terminology that is devoid of real meaning. We feel we need consultants to come in and help facilitate and craft such ‘stuff’ because we cannot do it – or we don’t trust ourselves to do it for ourselves. Soon we don’t think we can do without such people and the result is a claustrophobic clutter in our work environments through their nonsensical terminology and metrics. They ‘measure’ our culture and formulate our strategy. They ‘think for us’ rather than help us think for ourselves and then, after all the expense, slogans and interventions they leave. Following which, things invariably slide back into what they were and the consultants are nowhere to be seen. Until that is, they come knocking with yet another ‘intervention’, one that naturally will cost an arm and a leg.

A bit harsh? Maybe, as I too am a consultant.

TomorrowToday is also a ‘consultancy firm’. However, we have always tried to avoid the trap of the consultancy language with which many corporates are so enamoured.  It has been a stance that has cost us from time to time as we refuse to ‘play the game’.  Why, the other day I was even accused of using ‘coachy language’ – whatever that might be? The traditional consultancy language is one designed to help us feel we are ‘doing the right thing’, that we are on the ‘right track’ and that we are getting our value’s worth for the fees charged. If we are honest, the results don’t always reflect as much yet we are reluctant to admit it due to the considerable investment of time, money and effort that has been made.

It is a crazy merry-go-round where everybody is laughing, the music is playing and bystanders look on with admiration. Yet we are merely going around in circles.

My advice?

Stop the merry-go-round.

Use consultants that listen, speak your language and think that you are the smartest person in the room. Don’t relinquish control or responsibility for processes that should always remain your responsibility together with that of your team. Be a bit cynical and use that to navigate through the ambushing that is usually involved in the ‘interventions’. Ask tough questions and be willing to partner the ‘outside’ voice and perspective that I believe can play a vital role within our businesses and organisations.  Forge a trusting relationship in the process and you will extract the optimum value from the process.

Every time your consultant uses language that makes no sense – or even when it forms part of your daily office communications, fine the culprit. Reintroduce fresh. Be normal. Cut the crap.

There I have said it. And by the way, please do fine me should you hear me use such language. You will have to listen hard although slip-ups do occur, as it is difficult to not to get caught up in the nonsense that is gobbledegook. Resist we must and if it has grown like a weed in your organisation –root it out as best you can!

What are some of the terms, phrases or even full sentences that you have encountered when it comes to gobbledegook? It might be fun to share them and by doing so, weed them out.

Picture Source: Dilbert Comic Strip taken from the Internet. A constant source of unending wisdom!

Generation Jobless: A warning to us all

Posted on: May 9th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

The April 27th Economist ran a cover story about the ‘generation jobless’ – the global rise of youth unemployment. It is a serious concern for a number of reasons and one that could have long-lasting implications for both the global economy and political stability.

Generation Jobless coverGen Y was the hardest hit by the recession that began in 2008 and kicked up a gear in the following years. The ‘last in – first out’ hiring / firing principle meant that the ‘new kids on the block’ had to go when things became tough and belts were either tightened or taken away altogether. This was a generation that had only just arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in the work environment only to be told there was no place for them. It was a generation determined to make their mark, to make a real difference and they were more than up for the challenge of restoring some sort of global and environmental equilibrium. In this regard they were unlike their predecessors – Gen X and although these are sweeping generational generalisations, the difference between Gen X and Gen Y in this regard is marked. Armed with such enthusiasm – and some would say naivety, meeting in a head-on collision with the recession and its subsequent job cuts, and general economic meltdown has put this generation into an economic tailspin. It will have a devastating impact on their overall perspective and long-term view. The depression that accompanies being without work will impact on this generation more than most. Exactly how this will play out – a greater distrust for the ‘institution’ and for national politics to name but two things, is hard to predict. But put yourself in their shoes and ask how can it not have enormous consequences?

The other concern is that an unhappy, disempowered populace – especially one with youth and energy on their side, fuels social revolutions. Add into that volatile mix the connectivity this generation enjoy through social media and you have all the raw ingredients of social upheaval. The Arab Spring and London riots being recent examples of what can happen when these forces converge into a ‘perfect storm’.

South Africa’s biggest risk is a future of large numbers of unemployed youth. This is a slight twist on what has taken place in Europe but the inherent risks remain the same with the similarity in both context and conditions. We will save our future in South Africa through sound education today – and this assumes an education specifically shaped to ensure that the youth emerging from the educational system are employable. Currently we are failing in meeting this challenge.

These broad concerns speak to demographic issues that are like rising damp in a wall: easy to ignore and gloss over, until it is too late. And like any demographic issues that take time to reach their boiling point, so it takes time for any viable solution to be felt.

‘Generation Jobless’…it is a headline that is chilling in it’s implications and one that serves as a stark warning to us all. Exactly what to do about it is less simple, but ignoring it, certainly isn’t an option.

Generation Jobless: A warning to us all

Posted on: May 7th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

The April 27th Economist ran a cover story about the ‘generation jobless’ – the global rise of youth unemployment. It is a serious concern for a number of reasons and one that could have long-lasting implications for both the global economy and political stability.

Generation Jobless coverGen Y was the hardest hit by the recession that began in 2008 and kicked up a gear in the following years. The ‘last in – first out’ hiring / firing principle meant that the ‘new kids on the block’ had to go when things became tough and belts were either tightened or taken away altogether. This was a generation that had only just arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in the work environment only to be told there was no place for them. It was a generation determined to make their mark, to make a real difference and they were more than up for the challenge of restoring some sort of global and environmental equilibrium. In this regard they were unlike their predecessors – Gen X and although these are sweeping generational generalisations, the difference between Gen X and Gen Y in this regard is marked. Armed with such enthusiasm – and some would say naivety, meeting in a head-on collision with the recession and its subsequent job cuts, and general economic meltdown has put this generation into an economic tailspin. It will have a devastating impact on their overall perspective and long-term view. The depression that accompanies being without work will impact on this generation more than most. Exactly how this will play out – a greater distrust for the ‘institution’ and for national politics to name but two things, is hard to predict. But put yourself in their shoes and ask how can it not have enormous consequences?

The other concern is that an unhappy, disempowered populace – especially one with youth and energy on their side, fuels social revolutions. Add into that volatile mix the connectivity this generation enjoy through social media and you have all the raw ingredients of social upheaval. The Arab Spring and London riots being recent examples of what can happen when these forces converge into a ‘perfect storm’.

South Africa’s biggest risk is a future of large numbers of unemployed youth. This is a slight twist on what has taken place in Europe but the inherent risks remain the same with the similarity in both context and conditions. We will save our future in South Africa through sound education today – and this assumes an education specifically shaped to ensure that the youth emerging from the educational system are employable. Currently we are failing in meeting this challenge.

These broad concerns speak to demographic issues that are like rising damp in a wall: easy to ignore and gloss over, until it is too late. And like any demographic issues that take time to reach their boiling point, so it takes time for any viable solution to be felt.

‘Generation Jobless’…it is a headline that is chilling in it’s implications and one that serves as a stark warning to us all. Exactly what to do about it is less simple, but ignoring it, certainly isn’t an option.

Blogging the ‘Not So Smart’ Way by Jeff Bullas

Posted on: April 30th, 2013 by Keith Coats 5 Comments

I was really looking forward to reading Jeff Bullas’s ‘Blogging the Smart Way’ that I had downloaded. I was sure that there would be some worthwhile insights and some fresh lessons to be learnt. He did a pretty convincing job of setting up why reading this book was ‘for you’ be that you were an entrepreneur, author, musician, business owner, programmer, corporate executive or marketer ‘working on a big idea’. That is a rather wide range and other than including a clown, politician or economist, has securely set-up the call, “all bases covered”.

Bullas bookAfter briefly exploring ‘what is a blog’ Bullas goes on to share how he grew his own readership to 300 000 per month. Yes, you read that correctly, 300 000 people per month read what Bullas has to say in his blogs.  In fact Bullas isn’t shy to reveal that he also has ‘nearly 100 000’ Twitter followers and that he has been named as one of the top 50 social media power influences on Forbes.com -coming in at number 14 on that listing. Oh yes, and he gets paid to speak at events and conferences around the world. Big ‘wow’ isn’t it but I suspect you sense something sinister lurking in my appraisal.

You would be right.

It was Chapter 4 when the wheels fell off. The chapter is titled: ’12 Blogging Essentials and Getting Started’ where Bullas explores the theme of motivation. In doing so he proceeds to quote (almost verbatim) from Dan Pink, the author of Drive and TED speaker. The section was immediately recognizable as I have watched and used the Dan Pink TED clip many times, finding it one of the most compelling narratives on why we need to rethink many of the current management practices within business. Here I was reading familiar words that make a compelling case, without any form of acknowledgement of their source. I checked again and couldn’t find any reference to the fact that this was in fact Pink’s work and not that of blogger Bullas.

So, my first thought in Bullas defence was that maybe, just maybe, Pink was the plagiariser and not Bullas. I can’t prove that this isn’t the case but the likelihood is that print would ordinarily imitate the spoken word. Given that the section in Bullas’ book is almost a carbon copy of what Pink verbalizes would seemingly indicate that he  (Bullas) is not the originator.

My second defence for Bullas was that he simply did not know he was plagiarizing Pink’s thoughts and words. This is possible but again unlikely given the almost exact nature of the phrasing in his book.

It is said that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ and certainly whatever ‘new insight’ or idea you come up with, the chances are that someone else somewhere has beaten you to it. In TomorrowToday we regard ourselves as an ‘intellectual property’ company and as such put a huge amount of effort into ‘originating ideas’ and rethinking and reworking well worn business themes and practices. We also work hard at giving credit to others whose work has contributed to that of our own or perhaps influenced how we arrive at a certain destination. In fact the destination of others often serves as our own starting point.

When I came across Bullas’ use of Pink’s words without any form of acknowledgment whatsoever I must admit my motivation to finish his book went down the toilet. Blogging requires integrity and should be no different to the integrity that marks the world of literature. Certainly it may not follow form in this regard but it doesn’t mean one can take credit for work that is not one’s own.

I will be interested to see what Bullas has to say about this as I have no doubt this blog will somehow find it’s way to his inbox. I hope he has a reasonable explanation and in so doing is able to restore my hope. Failing that, I hope he has the courage to acknowledge his error – for which of us has not made a mistake in the mess that is the publishing world – be that formal or informal?

The book? Well apart from what tripped me up it offers a practical and worthwhile insight into the world and practice of blogging. I am sure you will find it helpful and engaging. After all, someone with 300 000 readers must know a thing or two about the subject!

(And just in case you were wondering: when we make use of Pink’s TED talk it is with the full acknowledgement of it’s source with massive promotion of both the TED Talks as well as Pink’s work. In fact I wish I had shares in the sale of his book Drive given how many copies I must have contributed in selling!)

Toxic Leadership: Recognising the signs

Posted on: April 24th, 2013 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

Toxic leadership always ends badly but it doesn’t start that way. Toxic leadership (as is the case with any from of leadership) requires followership and to assume that at the outset the followership knew what they were in for is incorrect. Toxic leadership goes bad in stages and the followership are sucked in over time to the point that they are unable to see the toxicity emerging – or if they do, they often feel powerless to oppose it. They might feel entrapped and that they have too much to lose by speaking up and so end up by doing nothing.

Toxic behaviour cultivates dependency, promotes cronyism and corruption, misuses resources and ignores incompetence. However toxic leadership is often charismatic, has a ‘X-factor’ and stands for something – the righting of a perceived wrong, the meeting of a felt need or the safety derived from togetherness. There are plenty of examples of toxic leadership that span the religious, political and corporate worlds. Think Jim Jones, the religious leader who led his followers to Jonestownthe utopia that was Jonestown in Guyana and which ended with 909 of his followers taking their own lives by drinking poison. Think the fall of Enron, the seventh largest corporation at the time. Enron was the biggest bankruptcy in USA corporate history – a company that took 16 years to build and only 24 days to collapse. 20 000 people lost their jobs (that doesn’t include those who lost their jobs through Arthur Andersen’s demise) and $2 billion of pension funds lost.

Toxic leadership always ends badly, but it doesn’t start that way.

So how do we recognise toxic leadership? What are the traits of toxic leadership that we need to be able to recognise in order to challenge it and prevent it ending as it does?

There are seven traits of toxic leadership that Jean Lipman-Blumen identifies in her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders that help us recognise that something is not right. The early detection of these traits can make all the difference as to whether or not the full consequences of toxic leadership root and play out.

(more…)

Toxic Leadership: Recognising the signs.

Posted on: April 23rd, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Toxic leadership always ends badly but it doesn’t start that way. Toxic leadership (as is the case with any from of leadership) requires followership and to assume that at the outset the followership knew what they Toxic barrelswere in for is incorrect. Toxic leadership goes bad in stages and the followership are sucked in over time to the point that they are unable to see the toxicity emerging – or if they do, they often feel powerless to oppose it. They might feel entrapped and that they have too much to lose by speaking up and so end up by doing nothing.

Toxic behaviour cultivates dependency, promotes cronyism and corruption, misuses resources and ignores incompetence. However toxic leadership is often charismatic, has a ‘X-factor’ and stands for something – the righting of a perceived wrong, the meeting of a felt need or the safety derived from togetherness. There are plenty of examples of toxic leadership that span the religious, political and corporate worlds. Think Jim Jones, the religious leader who led his followers to Jonestownthe utopia that was Jonestown in Guyana and which ended with 909 of his followers taking their own lives by drinking poison. Think the fall of Enron, the seventh largest corporation at the time. Enron was the biggest bankruptcy in USA corporate history – a company that took 16 years to build and only 24 days to collapse. 20 000 people lost their jobs (that doesn’t include those who lost their jobs through Arthur Andersen’s demise) and $2 billion of pension funds lost.

Toxic leadership always ends badly, but it doesn’t start that way.

So how do we recognise toxic leadership? What are the traits of toxic leadership that we need to be able to recognise in order to challenge it and prevent it ending as it does?

There are seven traits of toxic leadership that Jean Lipman-Blumen identifies in her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders that help us recognise that something is not right. The early detection of these traits can make all the difference as to whether or not the full consequences of toxic leadership root and play out.

1.    Reckless regard of consequences
2.    Avarice and greed
3.    Amorality
4.    Arrogance and ego
5.    Insatiable ambition
6.    Lack of integrity
7.    Intent to harm

Toxic leadership is not something we like to talk about as it sounds so extreme, so dark. Yet there are many reasons we excuse, overlook, admire and even love toxic leadership. It always seems so obvious with the perspective of hindsight or when viewed from the ‘outside’ but somehow is missed when on the inside. Therein is the danger of followers who stop thinking for themselves, followers who stop asking questions and environments where feedback is not tolerated. In the Enron case, it was a question asked by a woman at a shareholders meeting that proved to be the initial catalyst that brought the whole empire down. Toxic leadership is more common than we might acknowledge.  Environments where the ability to ask questions, hold those in leadership accountable and the wrong things measured provide the breeding ground for toxic leadership.

Don’t think that you will never be caught up in the trap that is toxic leadership. Learn to recognise it before it becomes destructive and remember that all it takes for evil (toxic leadership) to triumph, is for good people to do nothing.

(Professor Nick Barker of TomorrowToday has developed a workshop on the subject of toxic leadership that is often incorporated into leadership development programmes. It uses the film documentary of the tragic Jim Jones story to help identify what is toxic leadership, how to recognise it’s development or encroachment and what to do about it. It is something ever organisation should pay attention to and never assume that it “can’t happen to us”)

One Day Without Shoes

Posted on: April 16th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Tuesday 16 April is the TOMS ‘one day without shoes’. TOMS, founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie in Santa Monica, California is a shoe company with a difference. The company designs and sells shoes based on the Argentine ‘alpargata’ design that Mycoskie first encountered whilst a participant on the second season of the TomsAmazing Race with his sister in 2002. Motivated by the plight of children unable to afford shoes, and the resultant health risks that ensued, Mycoskie launched TOMS (which stands for ‘tomorrow’ and derived from the ‘shoes for tomorrow project’) with the idea that for every pair of TOMS bought, another pair would be donated to needy children. In May 2006 an initial batch of 250 shoes went on sale and following an article in the Los Angeles Times, the company received online orders for nine times that amount. Within six months the company had sold 10 000 pairs of TOMS. In October 2006, true to his word, the first batch of TOMS – equivalent to the total number sold, was distributed to children in Argentina. Since then the reach has stretched to several other countries, including Ethiopia, Haiti, Guatemala and South Africa.

 

In 2007 the company launched an annual ‘One Day Without Shoes’ event where adherents do not wear shoes throughout the day in order to raise awareness for TOMS’ mission for clothing impoverished children. By 2011 over 500 retailers were carrying the brand globally; that year it also launched its eye wear line. By 2012 over two million pairs of new shoes had been given to children in developing countries around the world. The Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at the University of New Mexico describes the company as, “a for-profit business with a philanthropic component”.

 

Author Daniel Pink described the TOMS business model as “expressly built for purpose maximization”. Toms 2TOMS is both selling shoes and selling its ideal – creating consumers that are purchasing shoes and also making a purchase that transforms them into benefactors. Another phrase used to try and describe the unique business model that is TOMS is, “caring capitalism”.

 

It is an inspiring story and an example of the possibilities created when ‘profit meets non-profit’. A couple of years ago, my Godchild, inspired by the TOMS story took the ‘one day without shoes’ concept to her school. The result was an entire school mobilized resulting in over a 1000 pairs of shoes being donated by the scholars. I am sure they also enjoyed the novelty (for them) of attending school barefoot!

 

In TomorrowToday we have traditionally adhered to ‘one day without shoes’ often with memorable consequences. If the day involves a fairly ‘safe’ schedule then it becomes relatively easy to walk around barefoot. I recall needing to be at a ‘blue chip’ client once on a freezing April day in Johannesburg and walking around with no shoes and my blue feet certainly became a talking point in their office! Today I will be on a plane that might prove to be an interesting experience – I am not even sure I will be allowed to board barefoot but I shall soon find out!

 

If you are reading this today (Tuesday 16th April) and still have your shoes on…well, why not remove them right now? It is for a good cause and who knows just what your action might lead to in making a difference?

 

Why current leadership development programmes are bound to fail

Posted on: April 9th, 2013 by Keith Coats 4 Comments

Leadership development programmes have become big business. Business Schools all around the globe serve as the default setting as to where to go when you want such a programme. However, There are early signs that this might not always be the case into the future. The generic approach adopted by many business schools is leaving many clients dissatisfied with the return on the considerable investment made in such programmes. Whilst good content is being shared, very often his isn’t being translated into tangible benefits in the workplace. In short, behaviours aren’t changing. It must be said that this isn’t always the fault of the business school as often not enough work is done in bridging the programme to the work reality of the participants. There are cracks appearing the current model of leadership development but the investment in this current model makes it difficult for the business schools to not only challenge it, but to find better and more relevant alternatives.

books blue sky There will be three specific factors leading to the demise of the current model:

1.    The realization that the return on investment is not adding up
2.    The unwillingness of the next generation of leaders to invest in the current model
3.    The shift in how learning takes place fuelled by a new breed of learners emerging with different needs and expectations

In designing leadership development programmes TomorrowToday’s approach is to look at three focus areas and then ask three important ‘design’ questions.

The three areas are: the changing world, the changing workplace and the changing workforce. These three focus areas provide the grid or serve as reference points to ensure that those earmarked for leadership development are future-fit. These three areas are both dynamic and inter-dependent and understanding the connection and what is causing the shifts, are fundamental to leading into the future. Of course there are specific subjects and headers under each of the focus areas but I won’t elaborate on these here.

There are three design questions that will ensure that the programme is both effective and sustainable. It is the failure of business schools to creatively address these three questions that is causing the problem with many current programmes. The three questions are:

1.    What content do we need to share?
2.    What methodologies do we need to ensure that learning takes place?
3.    On what platforms does this need to occur?

They are basic questions but in each case the failure to see the movement or change is what is causing many current programmes to fall short of what they could or should be.

All three areas these questions address is under pressure to adapt to a changing world. Content has never been easier to get, is often free and is now the ‘easy’ part of the equation. This hasn’t always been the case as we have prized ‘subject experts’ who guard their knowledge and without whom leading cannot take place. All this is shifting. The prevailing methodology has been ‘teacher-tell’ and the classroom has been the epicentre for our learning process. We know that this is seldom the most effective way to learn but are often afraid to try other means for our metrics haven’t been designed to cope with such alternatives. It is easier to trust in a programme rather than a process; it is easier to lecture than to experience; and it is safer to have a schedule and curriculum to control rather than understand the importance that experimentation and disequilibrium play for authentic learning to take place. Of course the platform is perhaps where the biggest shift is taking place. The move to social business and technology driven platforms is where the biggest discord sits. Older leadership architects feel ‘lost’ in this space whilst a younger, technically capable crowd is emerging who expect to find technology and social platforms built into their learning experience.

Change in this space is inevitable. Smart companies are those asking different questions when it comes to ensuring that their leaders are competent to lead into the future. We need to be willing to challenge much of the current paradigm and prevailing wisdom when it comes to how best to do this. Our current models are tired and rethinking leadership development is critical to ensure that our organisations will adapt to a complex and changing world.

What is the question you need to be asking (but aren’t) when it comes to your own leadership development programme?

Life and Perspective: A Letter to Rebecca

Posted on: March 26th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

This was a letter penned some seven years ago on the arrival of  a very special little girl to a very special family – that of my colleague and friend, Graeme. I ‘publish’ it with their permission as I think it can serve as an important reminder to us all about life, what is important, and the gift of perspective. A lot has happened in the intervening seven years and so maybe a ‘reminder’ would be a good thing (for all of us)?

RebeccaHi there Rebecca,

Big day for you today…dedications and parties, lots of people, sweets, laughter, hugs and presents and all kinds of stuff. Wow! I guess it is a big day for not only you but also for all of us who get to pause and celebrate your life and this special moment. And while this doesn’t make much sense for you here and now, I am confident that one day it will. But for that, you will have to be patient, which is not a bad thing at all.

Just last night Tamryn said to me, “Hey Dad…do you know how to be wise?”
“No” I replied, “but no doubt you are about to tell me”
“Sure” she said, “Just think of something stupid to say, something really stupid…and then say the opposite”

Well I don’t know so much about that Rebecca, but I do know that you are part of a family that is intent on growing in the ‘grace of wisdom’. This is not always an easy pursuit and certainly one that seems to take a long time. In fact, the truth of it is that it seems to be a journey ‘without end’. But, I am sure that one day, as you get to reflect on the foresight that initiated the rituals of this gathering today, and that invited around you the very people that surround you right now, that as you envisage today, and the many layers of life and love that have since covered it, you will be deeply grateful and a bit wiser for it.

You have arrived as a very special gift to a very special family. A family that really love you and will always cherish you. And while you have already experienced this, as you grow older you will come to appreciate and understand it all so much better. Such love – as enfolds you today, will not only stay with you but will imprint you forever.

I think if I were to say anything to you today it would be to pass on something that was once a ‘gift’ to me many years ago. A bit of wisdom (though not of the Tamryn kind mind you!) that has marked my understanding of life.

And this is it: Remember that life is a journey.

Yours has just begun but as with all journeys, there are those markers, those special occasions that we put down in order to recall, remember and celebrate. Some are deliberate and we choose them, others are not – and they choose us; some bring smiles and laughter; others only offer tears and sorrow. Each important, each different, but all of which invite learning and befriend wisdom. This is one of those markers – a joyous one, but in time you will both create and be given, many of your own. The first day at school, your passage into high school, the first boyfriend and that first kiss (this will happen in spite of what your Mom and Dad think and most likely a lot sooner than they anticipate …but don’t worry about them on this…trust me, its just a ‘parent thing’ and somehow parents get all weird on this subject); There will also come the time when you get to spread your wings and explore this amazing planet of ours – only to discover that it is fact a very small world, one that rewards the explorer.

But I am getting ahead of myself and so let me stop in order that your Mom and Dad can regroup after the reminder about the inevitability of that boyfriend and the goodies that accompany that reality!

Rebecca, here’s the thing: not only is life a journey…but, it is a journey shared.

Today, we are all sharing in your journey and there will be many others who will do so the longer the journey lasts. None of us know the length of our respective journeys and that is why we need to live, love and in so doing hopefully leave a legacy. You have already enriched our collective journey in so many amazing ways. We anticipate with great delight the prospect of sharing in your journey and so our prayer for you, with you, is that you may grow in grace.

Rebecca, never be afraid to learn and love; to explore and question. Don’t be afraid of the light or the dark and as you make your own path and journey, know that you are loved and that you are not alone, ever.

Mom and Dad, Amy and Hannah, hold Rebecca tightly…and then tighter still. But also, each in your own way, prepare to let her go – comforted in the knowledge that the ‘grip’ never lessens, it only changes.

To Rebecca…

Love,
Keith, Vicky, Keegan, Tamryn & Sipho…fellow hitchhikers.  

(May 2006)

A Leadership lesson from Australian cricket: Do your homework

Posted on: March 19th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

There have been all sorts of comments around the debacle that is Australian cricket at present. In short we are talking about a cricket nation, for so long accustomed to looking down on all others playing the game, now firmly entrenched at number XXX in the test rankings. Worse still, they have been hammered in the two of four tests to be played in India. Remember this is an Indian team that not that long ago lost at home to the English.

Baggy greenSouth African coach, Mickey Arthur insists that the primary problem has to do with the ‘culture’ that pervades the Aussie dressing room. Attempts to remedy that and ensure that the players themselves contribute to the solutions and accept responsibility for their current mess have landed on rocky shores. Part of the measures introduced by Arthur and his team included the players keeping a ‘wellness report’ that had them accounting for hours slept, food eaten etc…Then there was a report that each player had to present on how they could improve their own game and what could be done for the team as a whole to improve. This has been reported as the ‘homework’ that each player was required to do and the failure to do it has resulted in the suspension of four players: Shane Watson, James Pattinson, Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Johnson.

Now all and sundry are having their say. What is notable that two former greats, Ian Botham and Shane Warne have been reported as heaping scorn on the management initiatives introduced by Arthur. Neither Botham nor Warne, brilliant cricketers that they were, come to mind when one talks about ‘team ethic’ and collective hard work. Both were cricketers whose individual brilliance and talent somehow rose above collective effort. The teams in which they performed were fortunate to be able to have their prowess at their disposal. The current Australian team does not have a Botham or Warne at their disposal. The current Australian team find themselves in a very different position and context to those of yesteryear (and specifically the one in which Warne performed his magic) and this telling point is one that many seem to have overlooked.

What Arthur has asked of his players is nothing out of the ordinary. If you read Steve Waugh’s autobiography he talks about doing similar things in order to create and establish a team culture that would see the Australian team reach new heights. Arthur has done what many a corporate leader instinctively understands as part of their daily focus – that the organisational culture impacts on performance and that culture can and must be adaptable.

So, why the push back against Arthur and his initiatives?

Is it because he is an, ‘outsider’ as a South African? Is it because the Australian crickets are stuck in their ways – or are afraid to change? Is it because they are simply ill disciplined and lazy? Is it because they actually couldn’t care? Take your pick, but the simple reality is they are failing to grasp that changing the team culture is tough and you will have to try things in order to find out what works best. That is Arthur’s job and he cannot be faulted for adopting an inclusive and participatory approach to remedy the current and obvious failings.

Smart leaders understand the importance of organisational culture. Research shows that the dominant reason that strategy fails is not because it is bad strategy, but rather, it is because of organisational culture issues that serve to undermine the strategy in question. The leader’s primary focus should be on ensuring a culture that brings out the best in others. This is what Arthur is attempting to do and time will tell whether or not his approach works. What cannot be tolerated is the individual disregard for efforts being made to rectify the obvious problems that reflects poorly on the entire team. The Australian authorities were right to send the four home. Those former players who sit smirking at the current mess should know better – and one is tempted to say, to ‘grow-up a bit’ and recognise that things change.

Will Arthur succeed in the changes that he and his management team recognize need to be made? I am not sure but what is patently obvious is that if the Aussies don’t get their act together – and fast, the debacle that is the Indian tour, will stretch on into the battle for the Ashes that awaits.

Smart leadership: The Power of Questions – A (Japanese) Story.

Posted on: March 12th, 2013 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

“You can eat an apple,” I said, and gave him the green fruit.

It was as if he had seen an apple for the first time. First he just held it there and smelled it, but then he took a little bite.

Apple 2“Mmmm,” he said and took a bigger bite.

“Did it taste good?” I asked.

He bowed deeply. I wanted to know how an apple tastes the very first time you taste it, so I asked again, “How did it taste?”

He bowed and bowed.

“Why do you bow?” I asked.

Mika bowed again. It made me feel so confused, that I hurried to ask the question again.

“Why do you bow?”

Now it was him who became confused. I think he did not know if he should
bow again or just answer. “Where I come from we always bow, when someone asks an interesting question,” he explained, “and the deeper the question, the deeper we bow.”

That was the strangest thing I had heard in a long time. I could not
understand that a question was something to bow for. “What do you do when you greet each other?”

“We always try to find something wise to ask,” he said.

“Why?”

First he bowed quickly, because I had asked another question and then he
said, “We try to ask a wise question to get the other person to bow.”

I was so impressed by the answer that I bowed as deeply as I could. When I
looked up Mika had put his finger in his mouth. After a long time he took it out.

“Why did you bow?” he asked and looked insulted.

“Because you answered my question so wisely,” I said.

Now he said very loudly and clearly something that has followed me in my
life ever since. “An answer is nothing to bow for. Even if an answer can sound ever so right, still you should not bow to it.”

I nodded briefly. But I regretted it at once, because now Mika may think that I bowed to the answer he had just given.

“The one who bows shows respect,” Mika continued, “You should never show
respect for an answer.”

“Why not?”

“An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.”

Those words were so wise, I thought, that I had to press my hands against
my chin not to bow again

Source: Jostein Gaarder, 1996 in Norway

Smart leaders ask good questions. Smart leaders know that not all questions should be answered. Smart leaders know the transforming power of ‘open-ended’ questions – and are not afraid to ask them.

Go on, take another few minutes to read this story again and then ask yourself, ‘what are the questions pointing you to your future?’

How smart a leader are you?

Leading Diversity: three simple things you can do

Posted on: March 6th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Leading and managing diversity is not optional for the contemporary leader. It is also not as easily done as it is stated! Of course ‘diversity’ is as complex as it is nuanced and much has been said and written on the subject. I am currently in Istanbul doing a day on ‘leading diversity’ for an international pharmaceutical company who are intent on equipping their senior leaders in this vital area. It is a wonderful city in which to explore this topic and a good part of the day is spent out and about in the city getting a first-hand engagement with diversity.

Leading DiversityThere are three things the delegates are asked to pay attention to when they are in the city. They are three things that any leader ought to be attentive to when it comes to engaging with their own context as it concerns diversity.

1.    Pay attention to what is happening around you. Context is important and so always be aware of your context.
2.    Pay attention to what is happening within you. You lead out of who you are and so becoming aware of internal shifts and emotions is critical when engaging with diversity. Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence and nowhere is this work more important than in the desire to master diversity.
3.    Pay attention to what is happening amongst you (amongst your team). Good leaders pay attention what is happening amongst those with whom they share the journey.

Three simple yet practical stepping-stones towards exploring diversity. Why not create a setting that will allow you and your team to engage with something different and then pay attention to these three areas? It might surprise you what emerges!

Leading Diversity: three simple things you can do

Posted on: March 5th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Leading and managing diversity is not optional for the contemporary leader. It is also not as easily done as it is stated! Of course ‘diversity’ is as complex as it is nuanced and much has been said and written on the subject. I am currently in Istanbul doing a day on ‘leading diversity’ for an international pharmaceutical company who are intent on equipping their senior leaders in this vital area. It is a wonderful city in which to explore this topic and a good part of the day is spent out and about in the city getting a first-hand engagement with diversity.

Leading DiversityThere are three things the delegates are asked to pay attention to when they are in the city. They are three things that any leader ought to be attentive to when it comes to engaging with their own context as it concerns diversity.

1.    Pay attention to what is happening around you. Context is important and so always be aware of your context.
2.    Pay attention to what is happening within you. You lead out of who you are and so becoming aware of internal shifts and emotions is critical when engaging with diversity. Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence and nowhere is this work more important than in the desire to master diversity.
3.    Pay attention to what is happening amongst you (amongst your team). Good leaders pay attention what is happening amongst those with whom they share the journey.

Three simple yet practical stepping-stones towards exploring diversity. Why not create a setting that will allow you and your team to engage with something different and then pay attention to these three areas? It might surprise you what emerges!

From Dust to Dust: Making Conferences Count

Posted on: March 5th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

This has been a subject that I have wanted to write about for some considerable time. Somehow though, I have been procrastinating as it seems, well… so mundane. I mean let’s face it, an article about the role and execution of ‘the corporate conference’ is hardly likely to have scriptwriter clambering for the rights to transform it into a Hollywood blockbuster. But my pen (well you know what I mean) can be idle no longer after being subjected to yet another conference fiasco.

ConfIn my role as a consultant (people who, if they can’t solve the problem, do their best to prolong it) I get to attend several conferences across a broad range of industries and businesses. Of course the upsides of this are the interesting people I get to meet and locations experienced. However it seems that conferences that are well thought out and strategically utilized within the greater scheme of things are few and far between. Then there is the extravagance that usually accompanies such conferences (especially it would seems those linked to sales) and one cannot but wonder if the resources that it took to stage the conference could not have been better and more effectively utilized within the business.

But let me retreat a little and attempt something of an ‘idiots guide to conference planning’ that hopefully will save some a lot of money or at least ensure that their conference achieves more than they could have imagined. (Please note the use of the ‘third person’ here as not for one minute am I idiotic enough to regard you as an idiot. Notwithstanding  my admiration for anyone who can write such a series with that title and still get people to by the books! )

The obvious starting place is to ask, ‘why a conference? It would seem that some ancient wisdom placed a conference in the corporate calendar and whilst there must have been good reason for doing so, the strategic motivation has given way to routine practice. “Nobody really remembers why we have the conference in the first place but we just do” was one more honest response I once received. By failing to revisit the ‘why?’ question it is easy to lose sight of why it was necessary to have a conference in the first place. I guess challenging standard assumptions and practices within business with the ‘why?’ question would be sound business practice… period! Why then are you having a conference? Answers such as the previous one, or derivatives thereof, are simply not good enough. There has to be a better reason than simply tradition or precedent when it comes to staging a conference.

The purposes for having a conference are as varied and surprising as Springbok lineout calls. Reasons can include strategic, motivational, review, announcements, teambuilding etc… and invariably when asked the purpose of a conference, one gets a mixture of all of the above and then some. This ‘one-stop’ approach is usually the start of the problem as too much is attempted in too short a time with the inevitable result that none of the intended objectives are really delivered.

A clear, articulate answer to this question will then shape the entire planning and execution of the event. Failure to understand the motivation for staging a conference inevitably leads to poorly executed events. And by this I am not implying that there can only be one singular purpose for staging a conference. However, the more outcomes added, the greater the complexity of putting the event together.

This settled, the next obvious question becomes, ‘who needs to be at the conference? A clearly determined focus will ensure that the right groupings of people are invited. This will extend to what type of external input is required for the conference programme. Shotgun approaches to speaker’s agents to fill the gaps can be avoided by a more deliberate approach to matching the purpose of the conference with resources needed to ensure the desired outcome. To give you a current example: this week a colleague and I are attending the same conference for a large corporate, invited through entirely different channels, to deliver two presentations…and this is not the first time it has happened.

Conferences are also potentially great places to invite participation from the wider community linked to the business be that spouses, suppliers, clients, strategic partners etc…but their involvement then needs to be deliberate and aligned with the purpose of the event.

Having determined the purpose for the conference and who should be there, the duration of the event needs to be considered. Again it seems an obvious aspect in planning a conference but so often poorly planned conferences either leave themselves short of time or seem to drag on way beyond their sell by date. In my experience the former scenario, too much to do and too little time to do it in, is the more common of the two. The purpose of the conference will shape how much time is needed and this in turn will be influenced by the numbers attending. For example, if the conference is to be strategic in nature with the intention to invoke participation, the number attending will largely determine the length of time needed. Aside from the old wisdom that holds that work will always expand to fill the time available, enough time needs to be planned to ensure that the needs of the agenda are met. The need to understand the dynamic of process is critical when attempting group formation or agendas that lean towards the strategic aspects, as process requires time. And when insufficient time is allocated to such matters the potential to do more harm than good is a very real threat.

This brings us to our next question…

What is the desired outcome for each of the agenda items? It is all too easy to add agenda items to the conference list resulting in an impressive mass of ‘work to be done’. However, it is helpful to ask if the item is there for information purposes (in which case a good question to ask is, ‘is there not a better way to disseminate the information?’), discussion, debate and input, for a decision, or for ratification of a decision. Clarifying each of the stated agenda items through this filter can sharpen discussion and remove ambiguity from the conference. Agenda items can then be grouped appropriately. It is always a good tip to create some small wins by dealing with some of the ‘shallow water’ agenda items before heading into the deeper waters and rough seas. Another good tip in handing tough agenda items, especially when deadlocks occur, is to break away and re-establish momentum by dealing with some of the easier decisions / discussions before navigating back into the deep.

Careful consideration to such questions then allows one to plan a conference that is appropriate to the immediate context and beneficial to the greater cause. One needs to step back and review the flow and anticipate energy levels, highs and lows and ensure that there is some sort of continuity to the whole event. Of course considering an appropriate venue then becomes critical. British management guru, Charles Handy talks about the need for structure to precede form. In this context, answering the listed questions concerning conference represents the ‘structure’ and the venue, the ‘form’. The choice of venue needs to suit the purpose and intended outcomes of the conference, not the other way round.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consideration should be taken to the bigger context. By this I mean looking at the conference in the context of what has gone before and what will come after the event. I believe that it is appropriate to plan conferences in cycles, whether that is in 3, 5 or (put a number in here) years is up to you. By planning ‘conference cycles’ it ensures that you avoid trying to do too much all at once. It also provides greater continuity and develops the corporate strategic muscle of the company.

Remember that whilst there are people who make a living from staging conferences and who, in many cases do a good job, conference is your responsibility. Guard that responsibility and ensure that your conference becomes a vital component in your success rather than a very expensive item in the budget that, when the dust has settled, has accomplished very little.

Best beats good every time – something smart leaders know.

Posted on: February 26th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Although individuals in leadership, those at the top of an organisation, might discover what is good for an organisation, contrary to centuries of perceived wisdom they will never discover what is best.

The reason is simple. It is because, as the saying goes, nobody is as smart as everybody.

Chequered flagIt was Peter Drucker who first coined the expression, ‘knowledge worker’ – and that was back in the 1960’s! Today it has become a cliché to talk about business as being in the ‘knowledge era’ and that the greatest knowledge available in any business, is spread throughout the many minds that make up that enterprise. While many leaders will nod their heads in agreement with this notion, most by their very actions, will squeeze any potential life out of the patient. ‘Participative management’ has become a popular buzzword in management circles yet in my experience the concept of what is meant by ‘participation’ is more often than not severely restricted and limited. At its worst it becomes a straight jacket for those who merely echo the boss’ opinions.

So how then do those entrusted with leadership ensure that they never stop at good when best is waiting just around the corner?

Firstly, they need to really believe that nobody is a smart as everybody and be willing to risk testing this out. In other words, ‘live it out’ as an attitude from which tangible actions flow. How often do leaders make decisions that impact others without ever consulting them and canvassing their opinions? At this point I can just imagine some rolling their eyes and thinking, “Another Wise Guy, if you only knew…” however, stay with me here. There are times when all the right structures, procedures and processes are in place and the leaders defence council can impressively elaborate on all these mechanisms that would seemingly indicate that every possible effort has been made to solicit the opinions of others. However, often some deeper digging reveals staff who, in spite of all this, feel unheard, alienated or who failed to really contribute to the conversation. There are times, in mitigation of leadership, where sincere efforts have been made, and it is not uncommon to hear leaders express the real frustration that, “having been given the chance to contribute, nobody did”. Rather than retreating at this point or shifting the blame, something many leaders do, going further and asking why this is so, becomes the critical first step to discovering best.

There are a number of possible reasons for this muted response. It could be due to cultural misunderstandings; the organisations’ own unique culture; the perceived or real gap between management and workers; the inconsistent nature of opportunities to participate, something which creates uncertainty – much like the uneven bounce for a batsman on a badly prepared cricket wicket; and even mistrust due to a lack of feedback or broken promises. All of these potential reasons could contribute towards sincere efforts to incorporate others into meaningful decision making ending in disheartening failure.

A starting place for leaders is to get out from behind that imposing desk, descend from the rarefied atmosphere and comforts to which you have grown accustomed, and mingle with those who don’t usually form the mix of your daily business. Sounds simple enough – and it is. Yet so often leaders simply don’t do it, or perhaps just don’t get it? Perhaps there was a time they did, but for most, once they have acclimatised to the thin air that characterizes the upper echelons of corporate life, they find it hard to function back at ‘sea level’.

A case in point was a national conference in which TomorrowToday.biz were invited to participate. The conference was attended by the Chairman of the entire group. Both the group and the Chairman are significant players within the South African business context. However the Chairman acted as though the conference was there to serve his reputation and his agenda. Not only did his presence demand restructuring the programme at the 11th hour, but then he was in and out the conference quicker than an English batsman, having originally indicated that he would be present for the entire time. No mingling with the masses for this Chairman! It was a pity because he lost an ideal opportunity to learn, grow and build relationships. His actions exposed his attitude and it was not lost on the general managers present.

Should you think this represents an isolated example, let me share yet another recent incident that I experienced which mirrors the point being made. Once again we had been invited to participate in a conference for an international company of some repute. At a meeting with the Chairman prior to the conference, he had talked about the strong relational aspect of his leadership style, emphasising the steps he had taken to ensure that he was completely approachable for all his staff. It was impressive stuff! Certainly his style behind the podium at the conference was informal and relaxed. However, during the breaks, one couldn’t help but notice how nobody seemed to approach him. I often observed him standing alone whilst elsewhere were dotted groups of smiling, animated staff members obviously enjoying themselves. There certainly seemed to be a yawning chasm between his perception concerning his approachability and the reality of the situation. This ‘gap’ between the leader’s perception and the reality of the situation seems to be a common phenomenon, a ‘blind spot’ that blights the majority of leaders, in spite of their denials to the contrary.

So how does a leader begin to put in place and shape a behaviour that lends credibility to the belief that others have something worthwhile to contribute? He / she needs be willing to:

Start conversations and listen.
Ask questions and remember the answers.
Give it time and be persistent as at first it will seem stilted and unnatural, because it is.

Some of the questions to ask could include: How long have you been with us? Why do you work here? What is it you enjoy about the work? What don’t you like about working here? What would you like to change? How do you think we could do that? Where do you live? Tell me about your family? What do you think I should be giving attention to? You get the idea…

Real listening will involve going behind the words spoken, and demand tangible responses. It will certainly reshape some of your agenda. But, as you begin to act on what is sensed and heard, just watch what happens!

Secondly, there is the need to be willing to ‘fail whilst trying’. And not only to encourage experimentation, but reward efforts that result in failure as well as those which result in success. “Reward failure?” you may ask somewhat incredulously. Yes, you heard correctly, reward failure. If the effort has been one to attempt something new, discover a better way or enhance the value of the business and those involved, then such efforts deserve recognition not censure. Encouraging genuine participation means creating an environment free of the fear of failure. It is deliberately creating a zone in which the fear factor is not present and one in which staff (and clients / customers / suppliers etc…) can share their ideas, express themselves and have some sort of discretion to discover new and better ways. How best to incorporate this into the very DNA of your business would depend on the business you are in and your own particular environment. 3M have done some work in this regard, including their renowned Failures Forum where opportunity is provided for staff to share what ‘hasn’t worked’. It was out of this forum that the Post-it note emerged, a product that significantly impacted 3M.

There are two obvious benefits to flow out of authentic participation. Firstly, it creates ownership. Any smart leader knows that when those both inside and outside the business have a sense of ownership, then the business is likely to enjoy good health. In fact, the sense of ownership is directly proportionate to the degree of policing or controlling needed. When those involved feel as though it is ‘their business,’ issues relating to motivation, discipline, security and control slide off the main page of the leader’s agenda – and I know many a CEO  who would be grateful to see the back of those items on his / her agenda! This is as true for any business leader as it is for a parent in the area of raising children. Both are a process and not instantaneous. Both require the leader / parent to see the ‘big picture’ and actively and intentionally work towards achieving the desired state. Both will encounter set-backs and disappointments along the way. Both will learn not to play to the applause or the jeers that are certain to mark the journey. Both will produce results desired by some and envied by others.

Secondly, authentic participation leads to innovation. As those surrounding the business share their perceptions and are allowed to participate in working towards finding better ways to do things, genuine innovation will occur. Participation and freedom to fail are the very soil from which innovation grows. How often have I heard leaders express the desire for innovation within their business but who remain unwilling, or unable to create the type of environment in which innovation can thrive. In the times in which we live it is the ability to adapt, to innovate, to change, that will ensure survival. It is not about “survival of the fittest” – a phrase first coined by sociologist Herbert Spencer, but rather about the ability to adapt and evolve. The ability to do this requires businesses to give attention to intentionally developing their innovative muscle. One motivation for doing this is then very real possibility that the core of what constitutes your business may simply not exist in 10 years time!

Best beats good every time! Now go out and do your best…start by looking for someone to talk with and listen hard! I can just imagine it…someone who routinely crosses your path but who you have never really acknowledged, gets home tonight and says to his / her spouse, “Honey, you’ll never guess what happened to me today…”

Go ahead, make their day…it will make your future.

Competitive Advantage: What matters most today and how we got here

Posted on: February 21st, 2013 by Keith Coats 4 Comments

The Connection Economy – Competitive Advantage:  What matters most today and how we got here

By Keith Coats, TomorrowToday International Partner

Competitive advantage has always existed and understanding the evolution of what constitutes competitive advantage in today’s context, is important for any business. It may seem obvious and yet there are many companies who persist in playing by ‘old rules’ when it comes to their endeavour to create a competitive advantage for their service or product. A way to understand today’s competitive advantage – and for many it will strategically be ‘tomorrow’s competitive advantage’, is to ‘go back to the future’.

By tracing what constituted competitive advantage through a succession of economic eras, we are able to see the evolution of what remains central to business success. This journey through time builds an appreciation for how each new era precipitates what we could call the ‘rules of the game’ in the quest to establish a competitive advantage. The secret is in understanding these changes to the rules of the game and of course interpreting them into one’s own context and practice. This is not always easy. The inability to do this is a contributing factor in the fall from grace that has beset many companies who at one or other time might have appeared impregnable as they strode like a colossus across their particular industry.

What follows then is a sprint through 100,000 years of human history viewed through a lens of economic eras in which we unpick what constituted competitive advantage in each of the eras examined. Naturally this represents a very generalized overview; nonetheless there are valuable insights to be gained for future success through undertaking such a journey. The other golden threat to be aware of is that although what constitutes competitive advantage differs from era to era, there are important carry-through lessons to be learnt from the past as we navigate our present and future realities.

The Hunter-Gatherer Economy:

If we estimate human history to span 100 000 years, then approximately 90% of this period would have been dominated by the ‘Hunter-Gatherer’ era. In this era a nomadic, tribal lifestyle would have been the norm. Experience was essential to both survival and the transfer of knowledge. It stands to reason then that the elders were the leaders within the tribe. Those whose stories stretched back the furthest were the leaders.  Remembering was revered, as it was essential to survival. In this era achieving a greater sense of focus than your competitors forged competitive advantage. By ‘focus’ it is meant the ability to hunt, ensure the tribe’s safety and act on vital knowledge. In essence the ability to action or translate this ‘sense of focus’ secured a competitive advantage. In this economy leadership would have devolved to the strongest of the species. In the tribal context this meant that men would have exerted dominance when it came to leadership matters.

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 13.29.11

Competitive Advantage through the Economic Eras

There are two important lessons for us today from this particular era: The tribal cohesion and loyalty that helped ensure survival and the importance of storytelling in the context of preserving and transferring fundamental values.

What is interesting is the resurgence in both these concepts – tribes and story, in the context of the modern company.

The disruptive shift that occurred which changed the rules of the game was the ability to harness animal power to plough – and of course the plough itself. One way to understand ‘disruptive shift’ is to tag it ‘technology’. This then emerges as a consistent lever in the transition from one era (economy) to the next. Technology is always the ‘game changer’ and is also a simplistic way to understand the respective transitions that we are exploring. In reality, it is not this simple. We know that events – local and global, as well as other factors also impact on such transitions. However, for our purposes, we will concentrate purely on the major technologies that served as a catalyst to the rules of the game changing when it came to competitive advantage.

 

 

(more…)

The Connection Economy

Posted on: February 21st, 2013 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

Competitive Advantage – What matters most and how we got here

global talentCompetitive advantage has always existed and understanding the evolution of what constitutes competitive advantage in today’s context, is important for any business. It may seem obvious and yet there are many companies who persist in playing by ‘old rules’ when it comes to their endeavour to create a competitive advantage for their service or product. A way to understand today’s competitive advantage – and for many it will strategically be ‘tomorrow’s competitive advantage’, is to ‘go back to the future’.

By tracing what constituted competitive advantage through a succession of economic eras, we will be able to see the evolution of what remains central to business success. This journey through time will build an appreciation for how each new era precipitates what we could call the ‘rules of the game’ in the quest to establish a competitive advantage. The secret is in understanding these changes to the rules of the game and of course interpreting them into one’s own context and practice. This is not always easy. The inability to do this is a contributing factor in the fall from grace that has beset many companies who at one or other time might have appeared impregnable as they strode like a colossus across their particular industry.

What follows then is a sprint through 100,000 years of human history viewed through a lens of economic eras in which we unpick what constituted competitive advantage in each of the eras examined. Naturally this represents a very generalized overview; nonetheless there are valuable insights to be gained for future success through undertaking such a journey. The other golden threat to be aware of is that although what constitutes competitive advantage differs from era to era, there are important carry-through lessons to be learnt from the past as we navigate our present and future realities.

The Hunter-Gatherer Economy:

If we estimate human history to span 100 000 years, then approximately 90% of this period would have been dominated by the ‘Hunter-Gatherer’ era. In this era a nomadic, tribal lifestyle would have been the norm. Experience was essential to both survival and the transfer of knowledge. It stands to reason then that the elders were the leaders within the tribe. Those whose stories stretched back the furthest were the leaders.  Remembering was revered, as it was essential to survival. In this era achieving a greater sense of focus than your competitors forged competitive advantage. By ‘focus’ it is meant the ability to hunt, ensure the tribe’s safety and act on vital knowledge. In essence the ability to action or translate this ‘sense of focus’ secured a competitive advantage. In this economy leadership would have devolved to the strongest of the species. In the tribal context this meant that men would have exerted dominance when it came to leadership matters.

There are two important lessons for us today from this particular era: The tribal cohesion and loyalty that helped ensure survival and the importance of storytelling in the context of preserving and transferring fundamental values.

What is interesting is the resurgence in both these concepts – tribes and story, in the context of the modern company.

The disruptive shift that occurred which changed the rules of the game was the ability to harness animal power to plough – and of course the plough itself. One way to understand ‘disruptive shift’ is to tag it ‘technology’. This then emerges as a consistent lever in the transition from one era (economy) to the next. Technology is always the ‘game changer’ and is also a simplistic way to understand the respective transitions that we are exploring. In reality, it is not this simple. We know that events – local and global, as well as other factors also impact on such transitions. However, for our purposes, we will concentrate purely on the major technologies that served as a catalyst to the rules of the game changing when it came to competitive advantage.

Summary of this Hunter-Gatherer Economy :

Competitive advantage: Focus

Leadership: The strong

Time: Historical

Disruptive shift: The plough, harnessing animal power

The Agrarian Economy:

It was approximately 10 000 years ago that agriculture emerged leading to a change in the way life was lived. The plough, the advent of animal husbandry and the invention of the water mill, all led to an increase in available energy. In essence muscle power was replaced by this ability to harness animal-power and nature.  The nomadic nature of tribal live gave way to permanent homesteads that combined both life and work. All contributed and children guaranteed a succession plan was in place.

In this context competitive advantage was forged by those who were able to extract more from their main asset – their land, than others. Those who understood the benefits of subsistence farming and were able to practice it, created for themselves a competitive advantage. ‘Sweating your assets’ it would seem is a phrase that is rooted deeply in the past, as this is exactly what it took to create a competitive advantage in the Agrarian economy.

Leadership in this context centred on those who owned the land. Owning land become the means whereby power was exercised and naturally birthed a supply and demand dynamism that underpins commercial trading to this day.  The lesson for today from this era would be the need to work your assets and yet, whilst the ability to do that created a competitive advantage, technology was soon to once again ruin the party.

The disruptive shift that occurred was the introduction of the industrial revolution.  The industrial revolution started in Britain around 1750.

Summary of the Agrarian Economy :

Competitive advantage: Working you main asset

Leadership: The landowners

Time: Cyclical

Disruptive shift: The steam engine, the printing press

The Industrial Economy:

Innovations such as the printing press and the steam engine were to revolutionize society and lead to rapid urbanization and a redistribution of the population mass. Factories emerged and with this work became organised. This was the birth of modern day management as Fredrick Taylor and others proposed theories around how best to maximize efficiencies in the pursuit of profitability. It is in this era that organizational hierarchies emerged and the logic that produced clichés such as, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ and, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ was formed. A clear distinction between the bosses (management) and the workers emerged – or between the ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ workers as it became known. Management provided the ‘head’ (the eyes, ears and brain) power and the workers the body – the muscle power.

Powerful and lasting political and economic ideologies grew out of such an environment – nationalism, socialism, communism, liberalism and capitalism all trace their roots back to this context. During the nineteenth century global markets started to evolve, something that was to gain momentum during the twentieth century, underpinned by mass production and ever increasing efficiencies, especially in the area of transportation.

The shadow of the industrial era has cast a long shadow, one that still has many a contemporary company in its shade. Daniel Pink makes the telling point that our current management systems (which can be traced back to the Industrial era) are designed to bring about compliance. In doing that they are successful however, today, as we shall see later, it is not compliance that we need but rather engagement. This then is one compelling reason to be rethinking our standard management mind-sets and practice.

Achieving greater business efficiencies forged competitive advantage in the industrial economy.  The irrepressible force to achieve such efficiencies is evidenced in the production line assembly system made famous by Henry Ford. Soon everybody was using such methodology and a significant and powerful shift took place in what had been the norm in the previous economic era – that of the Agrarian era.

In the Industrial economy leadership was transferred to those who were the factory owners, the educated.  Access to education was limited and in some cases, restricted – and those who were able to exploit the benefits of access to education became the leaders. The uneven distribution of global wealth accelerated and the dichotomy between wealth and poverty within society became ever more pronounced. Time shifted from the cyclical (in the Agrarian economy) to linear as a bright future beckoned through the never-ending wave of technological advances.

The disruptive shift that occurred happened in the 1960s with the arrival of technologies that elevated our ability to access and store information.

Summary of the Industrial Economy:

Competitive advantage: Business efficiencies

Leadership: The educated

Time: Linear

Disruptive shift: Information technologies

The Information Economy: 

The early mark of the forth economy was the emergence and / or dominance of companies such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Motorola. Knowledge overtakes capital in importance as capital shifts from being physical to intellectual or as Jensen phrases it, ‘It (capital) resides in our heads, not in bank accounts or in machines’. British management guru and author Charles Handy points out that at last, Marx and communism were proved right by the emergence of the Information economy.

In the same way that the Industrial economy ‘abolished’ manual labour replacing such with machines, so the Information economy has taken over much of the cerebral and sensory work done by humans. This of course has happened through the increasing use of computers and scanners to perform those functions once done by people. The Information economy has grown exponentially with the rapid and pervasive technological innovations that have occurred. Omnipresent telecommunications, 24/7 TV channels, personal computers and smartphones being the obvious examples.

In this economy, competitive advantage can no longer be found in ensuring greater business efficiencies. As with all the other economies, when the transition occurs, the old factor that secured a competitive advantage becomes a hygiene factor.  It moves from being the distinguishing feature to merely a necessity in what constitutes competitive advantage. In the Information economy competitive advantage is found in the ability to extract relevant information from within and without the system – and use that information to create a strategic advantage. We call it ‘business intelligence’.

In this economy companies mine data – or pay others to do so on their behalf. This part of the equation is understood – the need to have access to data. However, having the data is not enough, one has to show it and use it is ways that people both understand and find helpful. Many large multinationals, in a world where business efficiency reigned supreme, created silos within their structures. These silos are often blighted in their ability to communicate with each other. Now that the world has shifted to a more integrated context, this inability to rapidly share relevant information, leads to a distinct disadvantage – especially when the customer or consumer’s expectations are for speedy, integrated service or delivery. For a current example of this, think no further than many of the large banks.

In the Information economy time moves from linear to being open-ended. It becomes ‘real time’. Reality is portrayed live and events, even though separated by distance, become simultaneously experienced in a world that is increasingly connected. Leadership is centred on those who have access to the data and who display agility and nimbleness in the face of the insistent, rapid and ubiquitous change that has become the new norm.

An interesting footnote in tracing leadership throughout the respective economies is that this is the first economic era conducive to the role of women in leadership. This is not to say that there were no women leaders in the other eras but simply that the context did not support women in leadership positions and roles. For example, in the Hunter-Gatherer era leadership would devolve to the physically strongest – men were stronger; in the Agrarian economy it would have been the land-owners – women were generally forbidden to own land or have the title deeds; in the Industrial economy leadership fell to the educated – women were prohibited from accessing tertiary educational institutes. In the Information economy, for the first time, women were not obviously prejudiced in their aspirations to formally occupy leadership roles and positions. It is little surprise then that in the corporate world, it was the information technology sector that led the way in appointing female CEOs.

The disruptive shift that is occurring is the rapid advance of social technologies that are changing the rules of the game in how we connect, collaborate and communicate.

Summary of the Information Economy:

Competitive advantage: the ability to extract and use information

Leadership: Those with access to information technologies

Time: Open-ended, reality

Disruptive shift: Social technologies

The Connection Economy:

The Information economy is giving way to the emergent ‘next economy’ that we in TomorrowToday have tagged the, ‘Connection economy’. The new economic era has also commonly been referred to as the ‘relationship economy’, the ‘experience economy’ and even the ‘dream society’ (Rolf Jensen). It really does not matter what descriptive title you ascribe to it – the point is that once again the rules of the game are shifting and with that, what constitutes competitive advantage.

It is a shift that is an extension of the use of technology to not merely extract business data but to be used for personal connection. It is the emergence of social technologies (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc…) that connect people and are used to initiate, develop and establish personal relationships. It sounds very ordered, logical – even contained, until viewed through a generational lens in the context of the work environment.

The Connection economy is being played out against the backdrop of a ‘changing of the guard’ within both the workforce and leadership domains within organizations. Essentially it is a clash between Boomers (who could at best be described as ‘digital immigrants’) and Gen X (‘digital natives’) and it is on the battleground of this generational ‘war’ where it is easiest to see the emergence of the Connection economy.  The clash in values between Boomers and Gen X when it comes to life / work balance, work ethic, career development, change, teamwork and motivators (to name but a few), is pronounced. Technology – and specifically the use of social technologies, forms the cutting edge to this generational divide.

In the Connection economy, competitive advantage shifts to the ability to form meaningful connections or relationships. In the context of access to information, personal choice and competitive pricing, the question of ‘why buy your product or engage your service?’ becomes ever more narrow. The decisive criteria in that decision comes down to that of personal ‘connection’: I want to do business with you because I like you, trust you, I believe in your cause, your values – we have a relationship. It is that simple, it is that complicated.

Perhaps the most obvious arena in which to see and understand this shift is in what has been dubbed the ‘war for Talent’. The attraction and retention of ‘Talent’ (the next generation) is paramount to any organization’s future. Talent has become big business and for all the activity and effort in this area, few are getting it right. Essentially, it is a connection issue. Attracting, retaining and engaging Talent is all about connecting with a group who for the most part look, think and act differently to those who have gone before – to those responsible for writing the existing ‘rules of business’ that are under such siege.

The Connection economy sees a shift toward meaningful relationships both inside and outside of your organisation. PR has to be tuned inwards. Social technology and a generation who know how to use it (in fact who cannot imagine life without it) is driving a different agenda around the why, how and what when it comes to connecting. In an economy where connection is essential, many IT policies appear archaic and require serious rethinking.

Leadership in the Connection economy will pass to those who understand the fundamental shift taking place and what that means for their own leadership thinking and practice. The term ‘authentic leadership’ is making its appearance with ever increasing frequency in leadership development programmes; emotional intelligence is gaining ground and the host of tools associated with how to measure and develop it (a trap of Industrial age thinking perhaps?). There is a growing appreciation for understanding leadership as a ‘character ethic’ rather than merely a ‘skill set’.  There is greater urgency in ensuring that ‘who we say we are’ as a company, is ‘who we really are’. It is an alignment between the corporate values and the corporate behaviour. It is a consistency being driven by a connected generation arriving at work unafraid to ask questions in this area – and unafraid to share their findings with their extensive networks.

Further evidence of the emergence of the Connection economy is the increasing emphasis being given to ‘social business’ – a term that would have been something of an oxymoron to an earlier generation! IBM is increasing using ‘social business’ as a leading mantra and smart companies understand the need to drive and support social business that is really nothing more that ‘internal connectivity’. Welcome to the Connection economy! It is a context in which time is virtual and one which is forcing a serious rethink in areas such as organizational design and structure, strategy, leadership, marketing, PR, training and development.

Summary of the Connection Economy:

Competitive advantage: Authentic connection – inside and outside your business

Leadership: The emotionally intelligent

Time: Virtual

Disruptive shift: (?) A good question to be asking…watch this space and keep looking out the window!

There are a few important points to make in closing:

  • The future has already happened but it is unevenly distributed. There are places, many emerging economies, where a convergence of the economic eras spoken about is evident.
  • This is a framework that allows us to better understand contextual change, the disruptive drivers of that change and impact, specifically what constitutes competitive advantage. In a world of increasing paradox, frameworks are important in helping us understand the paradox (right-right situations) at play and making sense of what is often incorrectly engaged with as ‘right-wrong’ situations. Frameworks offer a simplistic understanding of complex developments or situations. This particular framework whilst simple (in understanding evolving economic history) is helpful in getting to heart of understanding context and the ‘rules of the game’ concerning competitive advantage. In TomorrowToday we understand both the importance and limits of frameworks. Nonetheless we continually develop and use frameworks to achieve enhanced understanding and surface better questions. This is one such framework. If the Connection economy framework leads to asking more intelligent questions of your business and people, then it has achieved something worthwhile.
  • The ability to transition from one economic era to the next is fundamental to continued and sustained business success. Few manage to achieve this yet, in a world of increasing complexity and ubiquitous and unrelenting change, the need for such is beyond debate. Smart leaders get this and understand the need to build adaptability and nimbleness into the very DNA of their organization. This is why we in TomorrowToday place such emphasis on the need for models such as adaptive leadership and invitational theory – and why we speak a great deal about the need to seriously rethink the way we do things!
  • The work of Rolf Jensen (The Dream Society) was foundational in developing this framework. We applaud and recommend Jensen’s thinking and work and acknowledge his influence on our own thinking within TomorrowToday when it comes to this particular framework.

Finally, three quotes that we make repeated use of for their ability to arrest one’s attention, say much with little, and for their enduring wisdom in guiding us today and in navigating our tomorrows:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the story present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our situation is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves if we are to save our country”   -   Abraham Lincoln, December, 1862 

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”    -   Alvin Toffler, FutureShock, 1972

 “It isn’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble but what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  -   Mark Twain

Charred Lullaby: A Lesson in Leadership

Posted on: February 19th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

I want to share a hauntingly beautiful story with you. The source is E. Valentine Daniel, and is titled, Charred Lullaby.

As you read it, contemplate what you understand and know about authentic leadership. The powerful story will doubtlessly invite you down other pathways, but I would at lease encourage you to pause and consider this through a leadership lens.

Holding handsIn the 1977 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka, Mr. J.D. Immanuel, a retired Tamil school principal was boarding the 3:15pm train to Kandy.  Formally dressed, he chose one of the old red train cars, with two long wooden benches, one with its back against the windows and the other, across from it, facing the outside.  The only passenger in the compartment was a Sinhalese woman.  Mr. Immanuel narrates:

She was a typical Kandyan Sinhalese with the sari worn the Kandyan way.  She wore Kandyan jewelry and a blouse with puffed-up sleeves that only Kandyan Sinhala women wear.  She was seated on the window side; I sat on the bench against the wall, away from the door.  She could have been the mother of any of those many Sinhala boys and girls I had taught for fifty years.

I knew the riots had started in Kandy town.

I knew that the thugs were coming and was praying that the train would start before they entered the station.  But the steam engine gave only one blast and a short whistle, then the mob entered the station and reached the platform. The guard could have given the signal; and the driver could have pulled out.

I don’t know what happened.  Either they were frightened by the mob or they wanted to see the fun.

I was hearing thugs shout in Sinhala, “Get the Tamils out!  Kill them!  Kill them!”  I didn’t look.  I could hear passengers being pulled out and beaten. There was lots of screaming but no other words from the victims.

All the talking was coming from the rioters. Rioting, cheering.  Then I heard screaming in the very next compartment behind ours. The next moment, our door was being opened.  As the thugs were climbing the steps to our compartment, this woman suddenly gets up and comes and sits beside me. I have my hands on my legs to stop them from shaking. She puts her hand on my left hand.

She does not say a word. I do not say a word.

The mob come and stick their heads through the window. Three young men get in.  Look at us.  Turn around and say, “No Tamils here, go on to the next compartment.”  Few minutes later, the train pulled out of the station.  Tamil passengers from the train were still being chased, beaten and stabbed.

This woman did not let my hand go until we reached Gampola (thirty five minutes later).  She didn’t say a word.  Not one word.  I didn’t say anything.  I couldn’t.  Life passed through my head like a reel.  All the schoolchildren, all the teachers, all the parents, all the sports meets, all the cricket games, all the prize-giving’s.  Like a reel.

At Gampola, she gets off the train and leaves.

She doesn’t even look at me. I don’t even know her name.  I reached Nawalapitiya an hour later.  Still alive, thanking God.

I still hear the screams of those people. I start shivering in my sleep.  Pushpa (my wife) says, “Wake up! Wake up!  You are having a bad dream.”  Then I feel that woman’s hand on my hand. I stop shaking.

Three Things Leaders Can Do To Maintain Their Balance.

Posted on: February 12th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

The captivating picture is of Licia Ronzulli and her seven-week-old daughter, Victoria. Periodically Licia would bend forward and gently kiss her sleeping daughter. It was an image that captured the media’s attention and was published worldwide.

Licia RonzulliIt was taken in a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg where Licia is a MEP from Italy. The voting session was on proposals that were before the parliament to improve women’s employment rights. It was not one of those, ‘bring your child to work’ days and although Licia admitted to being partially motivated by the attention it would draw to her cause, it is a practice she has since maintained. Victoria is now two years old.

The captivating image sparked a lot of debate about the role of women at work, parenting, gender equality and other such topics. Licia was both praised as she was criticised. There was very little ‘middle ground’ surrounding the issues framed by the photo.

What I would like to briefly focus on is not so much the ‘right – wrong’ of Licia’s decision but rather on how this single image powerfully captures societal shift. It (societal shift) is something that we in TomorrowToday speak about a great deal about in both our T.I.D.E.S. framework (disruptive change drivers) as well as in our Mind the Gap presentation (Generational Theory).

Dealing productively with shifting values is not easy. It is not easy for individuals nor is it easy for society at large. It also poses one of the biggest leadership challenges as leaders find themselves consistently required to lead their people through change within their organizations. When values shift it always leaves hordes of people behind and they are easily recognizable by listening to the language they use. It is punctuated by the past tense and it seems that they are walking forwards yet with their heads turned backwards. Their view is locked more into the rear-view mirror than it is looking down the road.

Our message in TomorrowToday is that if you want to survive the future – better yet, if you want to thrive in the future, adaptability is essential. A CEO once asked me what, in my opinion, was the most important leadership trait necessary to successfully navigate the future. Without hesitation my answer was, ‘adaptability’. When comfortable values begin to shift from under our feet, smart leaders pay careful attention to what is going on. When this happens I would suggest three things that you should be doing as a leader:

1.    Look to see and understand what is causing that shift. The forces causing the shift are not always readily identifiable and they may be embedded deep underground – or away from the obvious. Too many leaders with whom I engage or not paying enough attention to shifting forces that are causing familiar and comfortable values to disintegrate.

2.    Act to regain balance. You will need to shift your stance, change your position. If you don’t, you will fall. When things are moving – as they always are, smart leaders pay attention to maintaining their balance.

3.    Hold onto others. The best way to keep your balance is to support others and to be supported by them. Different people experience shifts differently. For some the shift that you are experiencing represents their stability. Be aware of this and don’t assume ‘your normal’ is ‘everyone’s ‘normal.’ Challenge assumptions and look for the opportunity of new support rather than bemoan the loss of old supports.

Standing steady on shifting ground is the thing that smart leaders perfect. Societal values are shifting ground: life-work balance, what we want out of life / work / relationships, how we communicate and access information, views on equality, gender, sexuality, what we will fight for – and what we live for, how we see diversity, teamwork, loyalty, relaxation and commitment. All of these things represent shifts that are happening beneath us and whilst we may have strong opinions as to the right & wrong of such things – I suspect that such discussions are seldom helpful in regaining our balance.

Practical ‘weapons’ in the war against flat-earth thinking

Posted on: February 6th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

In my recent ezine article I wrote about how leaders needed to avoid the trap of ‘flat-earth thinking’. I suggested three things that could be employed in avoiding the trap, namely: Curiosity, courage and commitment.

I went on to say that whilst curiosity, courage and commitment may not seem the ideal ‘how to’ tools to add to your leadership toolkit I have since been asked to provide some practical pointers as to how one could go about developing such tools.

Here then would be some suggestions to consider as to how best to intentionally cultivate these three ‘weapons’ in the war against flat-earth thinking.

  • Ask questions that start with ‘why?’
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Don’t be afraid to initiate a ‘pause’ in meetings to think some more
  • Start your meeting with a period of silence – and take note of the responses
  • Look to learn from failure. Suspend judgement and interrogate the entire process that led to the failure
  • Read biographies of those you deem to have been courageous and committed. Share their stories with your team
  • Define what you mean by ‘committed’. Answers might surprise you depending on the age of the respondent!
  • Watch children at play…then go and play with them. Allow them to be ‘the Boss’ of whatever it is you are engaged in.
  • Journal
  • Watch movies / TV programmes that you might not ordinarily watch
  • Take a different route to work every day for a week
  • Rearrange your office. Do without your office.
  • Look to learn something new every week. Keep a record of your learning.
  • Invite others to perform functions that you usually reserve for yourself. Watch how they go about it.
  • Take the youngest / newest / oldest / most maverick member of your team / staff to lunch and ask them questions about what they think / see / feel when it comes to working in your team / company
  • Identify the urgent things driving your agenda. Then list the things that are important. Discuss your findings with someone you feel might be able to reflect with you / offer some helpful perspective
  • Read the Dr Seuss’s book; ‘Oh the places you would go’
  • Ask five good customers / clients what you could do differently in your dealings with them – things that would enhance the relationship or add value. Now do the same with five customers / clients that you would rather not have that conversation with!
  • Ask your team (individually) to hold you accountable for something that you want to improve concerning how you lead
  • Explore the Enneagram as a personal assessment tool / framework
  • Find / meet with a Mentor.
  •  Identify people you deem to be curious / courageous / commitment and try to get to know them better
  • Watch the sunrise / sunset every day for a week
  • Identify what was the most courageous thing you have ever done and then reflect on the circumstances, results and impact of that event / moment. What insights do you take from this for where you are today?
  • Volunteer to help out at a charity / non-profit for a short period of time
  • Invite yourself to diner with a staff member who is from a different culture / background to yourself
  • Walk the floor, visit places in your office / factory that you seldom get to
  • Do somebody else’s job for a morning / day
  • Ask ‘is there a better way’ to at least five things in which you are routinely involved within the context of your work / leadership. Explore the options
  • Suspend some rules / restrictions in the ‘way things are done’ in your company and see what results
  • Ask five people for the ‘best book’ they have read – and read them. Make sure at least two are fiction.
  • Ask people what is important to them concerning their work. Don’t settle on the first thing (or even the second thing) they tell you. Dig deeper.

I think you get the point. Now select 10 things from this list; add 10 further things of your own and then start doing them. Start actions that will nurture habits and see where that takes you. Some of what you elect to do may be private, others you may want to share – or even invite participation.

This type of ‘stuff’ isn’t really that hard. It is just that many leaders neglect it…and then forget about it altogether and the trap of flat-earth thinking is sprung without them even knowing it!

Share your story as you try some of this ‘stuff’. It will be a story worth sharing and as you do so – others will follow.

KC-S Keith is a founding partner of TomorrowToday. His skills lie in his ability to find appropriate frameworks, insights and processes for individuals and companies in the area of strategic leadership.

Keith works with leadership teams and senior leaders to explore and evaluate their concept of the New World of Work. Keith can be emailed on keith@tomorrowtoday.co.za and found on Twitter at @keithcoats

The Leader’s Magical Running Shoes

Posted on: February 5th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

‘Man these shoes are fast…I can hardly keep up with them’ I thought as I tried out my new ultra light-weight Adidas running shoes for the first time. My legs were a blur as they pumped furiously just to keep in touch with the bright neon shoes that screamed, ‘look at this guy – make way, serious runner coming through’. Things passed in a blur, time seemed suspended and the theme tune from Chariots of Fire played loudly in my head.

Running shoesAll right, I admit I was running on a somewhat dilapidated and noisy hotel treadmill, staring at a blank wall as I did so, but it still felt like I could run forever. It still seemed as though, given half a chance, an Olympic gold was not out the question. I was a new man, impregnable, Thor-like and simply poetry-in-motion.

That’s what new running shoes did for me.

Of course it has absolutely nothing to do with the shoes. Same old legs, same sad level of fitness and same rasping for breath…the shoes are merely part of the package and make very little difference. But it just didn’t seem that way at all. Somehow the moment they were laced up I wanted to run, felt like a runner and seemed to run like a champion. Amazing!

So, where am I going with this? Well, my altered state got me thinking about what ‘running shoes’ for the Executive or CEO would look like. What would be the thing that would inextricably ‘lift your game’, generate optimal performance and make you feel like anything is possible? And before you answer, drugs are not an option!

There will always be circumstances, resources and perhaps people that spark the kind of reaction that my magical shoes produced. Sometimes we know it in the moment and on other occasions we only recognize it after the fact. It doesn’t really matter, what does matter is that as a leader, you know who or what sparks such performance or elevates your awareness. I guess it has something to do with energy and we are often told that we should surround ourselves with those who contribute positively to our own energy and enthusiasm rather than those who rob us of the same.

I think leaders would do well to identify such sources of energy and then intentionally work to put themselves in the direct line of receiving such boosts. There are surely enough moments that rob you of energy and times that take away your enthusiasm and one accepts these as part and parcel of what it means to be a leader. But what ‘gets you going?’ What is it that makes you see things clearly? Who are those people that inspire, challenge and leave you wanting to do more, be better – who leave you feeling that anything is possible?

Somehow I don’t think it is just about external sources of motivation as important as these might be. It also has to do with unlocking internal sources of motivation and knowing what these are and how to access such a resource. As a leader, if you know what I mean by this, then maybe you are in a position to help others around you locate their own such source – help others find their own ‘running shoes’.

At some level perhaps this is exactly what leadership is about: helping others find their own running shoes and getting them on that treadmill! (or off it as the case might be!).

Go on then. Find those ‘magical’ shoes whatever they might be, start intentionally running in them and see what happens. You may just be surprised with the result!

I’m off to the gym…now where are those shoes?

A Question to leaders: What do you love about leadership?

Posted on: January 29th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

A somewhat unusual question I know but an important one nonetheless. Leadership comes with various pros and cons and the responsibilities associated with leadership can cast a long shadow and present a heavy load. Some talk about leadership as being lonely and most understand it as the place where final accountability rests. I say ‘most’ because when it comes to South African politicians this seems a redundant concept!

Love leadershipLeaders seldom seem to have time, are on call 24/7 and rarely seem able to free themselves from the ties that bind them to their work. They are seldom free from public scrutiny and accept that their behaviour will be subject to higher standards than that of those around them. They seldom please everybody and often it seems, they please nobody. It is a tough ask yet is something we are told to aspire towards and when rewarded with positions of leadership, are told that we have ‘arrived’. Leadership leaves its mark on those who lead as well as those who follow. There are countless examples of good leadership as well as bad leadership; of toxic leadership as well as the type of leadership to which we should aspire; of those who succeed in their practice of leadership, and those who don’t.

A lot is said and written about the subject and theories abound as to what it takes to be an effective leader – or what it is to even be a leader. Leaders are given countless tips and pointers as to how best to thrive in leadership – or perhaps merely survive leadership. Some hold onto leadership positions whilst others understand it as something they are entrusted with for a period of time. Some seem to grow in the position whilst others seem to stagnate. Some leave well and many don’t.

Like I said, it is complicated.

But if you can answer this one question: ‘what do you love about leadership?’ …it might be that the maze that is leadership will become just a little clearer to both you and those who follow. It might just be that being able to authentically answer this question will be a source of motivation, clarity of purpose and ultimately, inspiration.

I think it is a question every leader should be able to answer without too much of a pause. Many questions that leaders have to field are outwards focused but the really important leadership questions are those that are inwardly focused. It is these questions that are the most ignored and the consequences of such neglect are plain to see. This question is perhaps foundational to several others that could and should be asked. A smart leader learns to ask good questions – of themselves as well as of others. A smart leader understands that the very core of leadership intersects with who they are and that it is at this intersection, that the real heart of leadership is to be found.

So, what is it about leadership that you love? …and why is that?

China and Ethics Matter: Two Bottom Line lessons for Leaders Everywhere

Posted on: January 23rd, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Two headlines in the Business Report caught my eye this morning. The first had to do with China’s economic performance.  Later today I am flying to Guangzhou, China for a day’s work with London Business School on the Nestle Leadership Programme. Given TomorrowToday’s extensive work in China and the region, articles on that part of the world always feature prominently on the radar.  And so they should for all leaders serious about a global context and the big picture as the 21st Century will certainly become known as the ‘Chinese century’.

The headline was, ‘Chinese economic growth speeds up’ (by Kevin Yao and Aileen Wang) and it stated: ‘Evidence of a burgeoning recovery in exports, stronger than-expected industrial output and retail sales, together with robust fixed asset investment, all signalled that Beijing’s pro-growth policy mix has gained sufficient traction to underpin a revival without igniting inflationary risks yet’. The challenge China’s leaders face in the face of an economy that is growing as fast as it is will be to ensure economic, political and social stability. This is a view shared by Chris McNally, a political economist and global authority on China. China’s leaders are steering towards a number of economic reforms designed to address various imbalances that exist; imbalances that if not addressed, could lead to social upheaval in the future. China is entering the global economy at its own pace and in its own way and the sheer size and momentum of it economic engine mean that the Western economies cannot afford to ignore what is happening in this part of the world. The Chinese economy depends on a healthy global economy but so too is the global economy dependent on a healthy Chinese economy.

Of course the key to doing business in China is to have a good liver! The social aspect is integral to doing business in China. Most in the West approach business primarily from a contractual point of view but the Chinese regard relationship as equally important. It is referred to as ‘Guanxi capitalism’ and you ignore the relational aspect at your peril in forging economic ties with China.

Bottom line: As a leader you need to keep you eye on what is happening in China. One way or the other China will impact your industry, market and playing field.

(more…)

The Leadership Trap of Flat Earth Thinking

Posted on: January 22nd, 2013 by Keith Coats 3 Comments

earthIt was 16 February 1600 and a crowd had gathered to watch Italian friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Giordano Bruno being burnt at the stake having been condemned as a heretic. To go against the ‘truth’ as the church defined it was to run the risk of being labelled a heretic. Copernicus was also condemned as a heretic and met a similar fate as that of Bruno – also in 1600. It seemed to be a busy year for the church!

Their crime? They proposed ‘new truths’ about the universe and how it worked at a time when the church believed the earth was both flat and the centre of the universe. Of course we now know that both Bruno and Copernicus were on the right path in believing what they did, but that counted for little when stacked against the prevailing status quo – the  ‘truth’ of the day.

Recently I was having breakfast with a mentor who has been a constant source of encouragement, challenge, resource and example when an interesting conversation unfolded.  It started with me asking him what he thought represented today’s ‘flat earth thinking’. When the future looks at our current era and context, what will they consider to be our ignorance in the light of what they already know? It is the kind of question (and discussion) that immediately tends to suspend the present and allows one to look from the outside in as it were. It creates a different perspective and can lead to some interesting debate and discussion. It certainly did in this instance.

Flat earth thinking flourishes in every era. One of the more important leadership responsibilities is for leaders to identify such thinking and be able to lead their organization away from the precipice that inherently comes with a flat earth belief. This is easier said than done. The forces invariably opposing any new thinking have marshalled in their corner the majority, the status quo and conventional wisdom.  It is a formidable array of weaponry to have at one’s disposal!

There is no silver bullet when it comes to changing a business. Change processes are a dime a dozen and certainly there is no shortage of resources when it comes to embarking on any change initiative. Today, change is big business. Certainly this is justified when considering the context in which businesses operate – it is one of ubiquitous, non-linear and constant change. Turbulence is the new norm and leaders had best learn to fly in such conditions if they are to succeed going forward.

Flat earth thinking flourishes when the current dogma goes unchallenged. Dogma can be described as ‘perceived truth’. Calling out ‘perceived truth’ is risky business. Certainly it is likely to have career inhibiting consequences and as a result, there seem to be few willing to run the risks involved in challenging current ‘wisdom’ and the prevailing worldviews, whatever they may be. But if we are to move forward this is precisely what we have to do. As Abraham Lincoln said to the American Congress in the December of 1862, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As the situation is new so we must think anew and we must act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves if we are to save our country”. 

Decoupling or ‘disenthralling’ oneself from favourite methodology, pet theories or simply well worn traditions that have outlived their usefulness and purpose, is never easy. Yet this is what the work of challenging flat earth thinking entails. In furthering this discussion with a client from a major law firm, he added a valuable insight into why it is that dogma is so difficult to let go of or to challenge. “It becomes dogma because you live it. You don’t choose it at the outset, it becomes such over time as you come to defend it and so start to live it” he said. He is right.

There are three things that leaders can utilize to counter flat earth thinking. 

  1. Curiosity. I believe the enemy of dogma – of flat earth thinking, is curiosity. The presence of curiosity will always mean that things that are taken for granted will be challenged. Children are born curious but then as then enter formal education that natural gift that is curiosity is educated out of them. Educator Ken Robinson has a wonderful TED Talk on the subject and it is hard to argue with his point that we in fact steer our children away for their inborn curiosity in the pursuit of educational objectives. Smart leaders look to nurture and foster curiosity within the DNA of their organisations. Smart leaders understand that well directed curiosity can lead to wonderful things and so they actively encourage such, believing there is always a better way to do things. Here might be an interesting exercise for you to conduct: at your next team meeting, count the number of questions asked without telling the participants what it is you are doing. It might be worth recording the actual questions asked and then categorising and evaluating them. Questions for the sake of questions aren’t always helpful. Learning how to pose the ‘right’ question is the art that needs developing. This might take time but one has to start somewhere in the quest for quality questions as a natural ingredient in your meeting mix.
  2. Courage. If you are going to be curious, courage will be required. Courage means that you are willing to live with the consequences of where your questions and subsequent actions might lead you. Courage means you are not prepared to play the political games that characterise many work environments; courage means that you are willing to be wrong; courage means that you value authenticity; courage demands values – values that serve to anchor your curiosity and that provide reassurance to others who choose to follow you into the unknown, into the unchartered territory.
  3. Commitment. Leaders need to be committed to the process that challenging flat earth thinking will require. We live in work environments dominated by programmes and quick fixes. There is often little appreciation or patience for things that require process. Commitment means an appreciation for processes and the willingness to see things through – even though it may take time and no small amount of effort. To challenge prevailing wisdom and turning that into a new way of seeing / doing / being is seldom instantaneous or done easily. Disruptive processes are the lifeblood of innovation and newness and what such processes look like requires wisdom, perspective and…commitment.

Curiosity, courage and commitment may not seem the ideal ‘how to’ tools to add to your leadership toolkit. However if you are willing to start with curiosity you will quickly discover the need and importance of courage and commitment! You might well have further suggestions to assist you in your quest to identify and challenge the flat earth thinking that marks your environment. I hope that next time you are in a meeting that you will start to filter the conversation and ask yourself whether or not what is being said is representative of flat earth thinking. Identifying the presence of flat earth thinking within your team and the willingness to challenge it might just be your GPS to navigating the future!

China and Ethics Matter: Two Bottom Line lessons for Leaders Everywhere

Posted on: January 22nd, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

Two headlines in the Business Report caught my eye this morning. The first had to do with China’s economic performance.  Later today I am flying to Guangzhou, China for a day’s work with London Business School on the Nestle Leadership Programme. Given TomorrowToday’s extensive work in China and the region, articles on that part of the world always feature prominently on the radar.  And so they should for all leaders serious about a global context and the big picture as the 21st Century will certainly become known as the ‘Chinese century’.

HeadlinesThe headline was, ‘Chinese economic growth speeds up’ (by Kevin Yao and Aileen Wang) and it stated: ‘Evidence of a burgeoning recovery in exports, stronger than-expected industrial output and retail sales, together with robust fixed asset investment, all signalled that Beijing’s pro-growth policy mix has gained sufficient traction to underpin a revival without igniting inflationary risks yet’. The challenge China’s leaders face in the face of an economy that is growing as fast as it is will be to ensure economic, political and social stability. This is a view shared by Chris McNally, a political economist and global authority on China. China’s leaders are steering towards a number of economic reforms designed to address various imbalances that exist; imbalances that if not addressed, could lead to social upheaval in the future. China is entering the global economy at its own pace and in its own way and the sheer size and momentum of it economic engine mean that the Western economies cannot afford to ignore what is happening in this part of the world. The Chinese economy depends on a healthy global economy but so too is the global economy dependent on a healthy Chinese economy.

Of course the key to doing business in China is to have a good liver! The social aspect is integral to doing business in China. Most in the West approach business primarily from a contractual point of view but the Chinese regard relationship as equally important. It is referred to as ‘Guanxi capitalism’ and you ignore the relational aspect at your peril in forging economic ties with China.

Bottom line: As a leader you need to keep you eye on what is happening in China. One way or the other China will impact your industry, market and playing field.

The second headline that caught my attention was, ‘Ethical investors look to shun shares of companies that dodge tax’ (by Tom Bergin and Sinead Cruise). They use a term, ‘ethical investors’ that has been part of our TomorrowToday lexicon for some time. We have been warning companies about the increasing rise in ethical consumers and that in the future, your company’s stance on the green issues, on ethical issues and the like, will play a key role in the decision-making process when it comes to buying your product or engaging your service. There are a growing number of investors (and consumers) that are exercising a more socially responsible approach and mandate when it comes to considering what it is you have to offer.

The article reveals that the FTSE Group, which compiles the share indices that fund managers use to build investment portfolios, is looking into excluding companies with what it calls ‘overly aggressive tax reduction policies’ from its ethical index group, FTSE4Good. This type of thinking will only gain momentum and in part, it is driven by a generational approach that is markedly different from that which we have become used too in the past.

Bottom line: As a leader you ignore this at your peril. It is important and will becomes increasingly so with the passage of time.

But now it is time to pack for China. I look forward to further lessons that will no doubt emerge from simply being in this part of the world. During my last visit there was extensive building activity in the city – I look forward to see what progress has been made: I suspect it will be nothing short of remarkable!

Leadership: What is your ‘flat-earth’ thinking?

Posted on: January 16th, 2013 by Keith Coats No Comments

I have always been interested in trying to understand our current context when viewed from a future perspective. Of course this is an impossible task until that is time travel makes it way into our reality! However in the same way we look at the past and ask with a degree of incredulity, ‘what were they thinking?’ – what will future generations say of our era? How will they view our preoccupations and concerns from their vantage point?

I call this ‘flat-earth thinking’. In other words, what are the issues we are dealing with today that, when viewed with the benefit of hindsight, will be seen as flat-earth thinking?

At the time when the flat-earth perspective ruled, those who first suggested an alternative reality were considered deranged and in some quarters, heretics. Being branded a heretic carried with it severe consequences given the role that the church played at the time. The outcome of being condemned a heretic by the church would be to be burnt at the stake. That would be enough to make one think twice before going against the grain!

(more…)

Leadership: What is your ‘flat-earth’ thinking?

Posted on: January 15th, 2013 by Keith Coats

I have always been interested in trying to understand our current context when viewed from a future perspective. Of course this is an impossible task until that is time travel makes it way into our reality! However in the same way we look at the past and ask with a degree of incredulity, ‘what were they thinking?’ – what will future generations say of our era? How will they view our preoccupations and concerns from their vantage point?

Flat earthI call this ‘flat-earth thinking’. In other words, what are the issues we are dealing with today that, when viewed with the benefit of hindsight, will be seen as flat-earth thinking?

At the time when the flat-earth perspective ruled, those who first suggested an alternative reality were considered deranged and in some quarters, heretics. Being branded a heretic carried with it severe consequences given the role that the church played at the time. The outcome of being condemned a heretic by the church would be to be burnt at the stake. That would be enough to make one think twice before going against the grain!

Calling out contemporary flat-earth thinking still carries with it a stigma and exclusion and may even, in extreme circumstances, still possess a life-threatening menace. Certainly it is likely to have have career inhibiting consequences and as a result, there seem to be few willing to run the risks involved in challenging current ‘wisdom’ and the prevailing worldviews whatever they may be. However, it is a great question to be considering: what constitutes flat-earth thinking in how we are going about seeing and doing things?

If we were to pause more regularly and ask this question, it might have the effect of creating greater innovation, providing clearer insights and allow us to move forward more confidently. It might serve to enhance the debate, even change the debate and free us from getting stuck as we so often do when it comes to contentious issues. I suspect that for the church, current flat-earth thinking can be seen in the current debate swirling around the gender issue. In the same way that the church (for the most part) sided with slavery (and in South Africa with Apartheid), the majority stance and viewpoint on the gender issue will, in the sands of time, be seen for what it is – flat-earth thinking!

But enough about the church, what about big business? What are the prevailing mind-sets that constitute flat-earth thinking?

I think there are many and it seems that most have to do with either technology or global geo-economic shifts that are taking place. Here is a thought: flat-earth thinking flourishes when we are unable (or unwilling) to move away from dogma. What is ‘dogma’? Perceived truth. And therein is the rub. When I (we) think we have a corner on the ‘truth’, what is there to debate?

This notion of flat-earth thinking deserves greater consideration and with a TomorrowToday ezine deadline looming, I think I might just use that outlet to think and write further on the topic.

So what is your flat-earth thinking?

Leadership: The Obvious Question

Posted on: January 8th, 2013 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

I know that Christmas has come and gone and we are already rushing headlong into 2013 armed with untainted resolutions and expectations. Reality will meet us at some point but before this happens I do want to pose an important question to get you thinking.

3 Wise menDuring my December break I was given the David Walsh book, Seven Deadly Sins – My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. I must confess to having always been in Armstrong’s corner until recent findings proved beyond doubt the extent of his deception. It was an articulate John Robbie article some time back that first alerted me to Walsh’s book and now that I have read it, it simply adds an irrefutable amount of evidence to the fraud that is Lance Armstrong. Current reports circulating are speculating that he may make a public confession as to his doping. How magnanimous of him! Anyway, let me not get side-tracked by this sad deception but rather come to the point. In reading Walsh’s book he writes about the death of his 12-year-old son John (to a biking accident!) and John’s remarkable ability to ask the unasked question. The question John once asked his teacher (who later relayed it to David Walsh) was one that had to do with the Nativity story. It is a story we have told and heard told hundreds of times yet here was a question that I am guessing you (and certainly I) have never entertained midst all that is familiar about the well-worn story.

It was a question that David (Walsh) used to underpin his investigative journalism and one I suggest could assist you in your own leadership practice. I have always been a collector of great questions and this is certainly one to add to the list.

As we know Mary and Joseph were visited by a band (three is pure conjecture) of wise men (or scholars) bearing gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. Educator Ken Robinson tells a wonderful story of a little boy in a Nativity play that played the part of one of the wise men. On making his entrance he proudly announced his gift as, “Frank sent this”.

But I digress.

Now frankincense and myrrh can be used and I am sure were used to good effect by the new parents, but here is the question young John Walsh asked his teacher a question that begs asking: “what did Mary and Joseph do with the gold?”.

It is a good question.

These were poor, humble people who besides being parents to a child that was to change history (talk about a tough parenting gig!) had been given what one can only presume was a fair quantity of gold. What did they do with that gift?

Of course we will never know but it would be an interesting diner conversation to speculate just what they might have done with such a gift. It was one that had the potential to dramatically change their situation and alter the course of their lives. It might have jumped them several notches in the social ladder or perhaps paid for the education of their children, funded some A-grade camels  (out with the donkey), or maybe a holiday cottage on the Dead Sea. Point is we will never know but it remains a detail of the story that has largely been left unexplored.

Good leaders ask good questions. Good leaders look for the ‘unasked question’ – the question that will unlock new avenues and new conversations. In the same way that David Walsh used this question to sharpen and fuel his reporting, it is having the foresight or perhaps courage to ask the obvious question that takes you beyond the obvious. Strategic thinking will be required at all levels of our organisations and in developing such mind-sets and skill-sets, good questions will be an essential tool in that development. Sometimes by not asking the obvious question we miss out on going beyond our present circumstances or context with the result that we get ‘stuck’.

What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold? It took a 12-year-old boy to find such a question, one overlooked by most in our lazy familiarization with the Nativity tale. In the day-to-day activities within your team or organization, what are the questions you might be missing? What is that ‘unasked’ question – that obvious question that once identified, might change everything? It might be a question that is important not for the answers it provides but rather for the mind-set it represents.  We need more of that kind of thinking within our organisations and when you find that ’12-year-old-boy’ – that maverick, make sure you hold onto them!

So we have packed away the tinsel, Christmas trees and festive décor but maybe there is a question from this time that we can take with us into that part of the journey we mark as ‘2013’.  A question that will exercise our thinking and sharpen our focus; a question so obvious to a 12 year old tragically taken before his time yet hidden to the vast majority; a question that has done no favours to a certain Lance Armstrong but that we all could use to good effect in our own leadership practice.

What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold?

Three Things Good Leaders Should Be Asking Santa

Posted on: December 14th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

santaOf course only good leaders get to ask Santa for anything, bad leaders’ Christmas stocking is likely to be empty! So what would a good leader want from Santa for the journey marked 2013?

The leadership context is one of a world where turbulence is the ‘norm’; one in which uncertainty, rapid change and connectivity are the daily currency with which leaders will have to deal. It is certainly not a context for the faint-hearted. Wishful leaders would be asking Santa for lengthy periods of uninterrupted growth, economic, social and political stability and a surplus of resources to take advantage of new markets and opportunities on offer. But as I said, this would constitute wishful thinking. It will not be the case other than perhaps in isolated pockets and for short periods of time.

Good leaders know that as they lead their people into the future they will need specific mind-sets and skill-sets if they are to successfully face and engage the future and not merely adopt a survival mentality. So here then are three things that I suggest good leaders should be asking of Santa for 2013. Be warned, you will need a big stocking!

1. The ability to unlearn. The broader application of this is an ability to challenge guarded assumptions, entrenched viewpoints and the ‘way things have always been done around here’ mentality. The willingness and ability to do this is the key to being able to adapt and change in ways that are needed, appropriate and future-relevant. The ability to unlearn prefaces an ability to learn and unless you have a ‘learning organisation’ I am not optimistic about your chances of ‘surviving’ the future, let alone thriving in the future. So much about the context in which you are leading your business is changing and with that change the ‘rules of the game’ are being transformed. A failure to understand this and fully grasp the internal and external implications can prove to be a lethal hammer blow to your business future.

It is not surprising that much of the global work that we have done in TomorrowToday this past year has focused on our TIDES of Change framework which articulates the five major disruptive change drivers impacting business. How these disruptions play out will be context specific but not paying attention to them is simply not an option, all of which brings me to the second thing that good leaders will be asking of Santa this Christmas.

2.  A balcony. A balcony? Yes, a balcony…let me explain. In this context of exponential change and uncertainty, good leaders understand the need to look for ‘sense making’ patterns. In order to do this work, leaders need to position themselves ‘on the balcony’ rather than be on the ‘dance floor’. This powerful (and helpful) analogy comes from Ron Heifetz of Harvard whose book, ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’ is a must-read for any leader. Undoubtedly there are times when leadership is required to be ‘on the dance floor’. However, in my experience, leaders often spent too much time on the dance floor from where their perspective and view is restricted. This tendency is understandable given that it was because of their dance floor prowess that contributed to their assuming a leadership position in the first place. The desire to remain in an area of competency is thus understandable. However, the leaders’ role – your role, is to survey things from the vantage point that the balcony offers. It is from here that you are able to detect the patterns and see the big picture.  Failure to access the balcony and then translate what it is you see from this vantage point means that whilst your business might be reflect operational efficiency and excellence, it might remain ignorant of broader changes that could render such competencies redundant or obsolete in the near future. There are plenty of case studies of such instances and one only has to look at the music industry to see how their failure to see and anticipate technology shifts coupled with changing customer needs and habits brought industry giants to their knees and in some cases, their graves.

The balcony offers a view of the past as well as one of the future. Alfred Chandler, the renown Harvard business scholar and lecturer on strategy, once said, “How can you know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been?” In TomorrowToday we speak a great deal about the need to ‘think like a futurist’ – and how best to do that, but this has to be balanced by an appreciation for the journey already travelled. The historian Carl Becker said that the past was a kind of screen on which we project the future. As a good leader who hopes to lead your organization into the future, one of your most powerful tools will be a sophisticated understanding of your past. Great military leaders are always steeped in a deep understanding of military history but understand that today’s war cannot be fought successfully by using the previous war’s tactics. The reality is that history does not repeat itself but it often rhymes (insight attributed to Mark Twain) and so good leaders lead attuned to the rhymes they see, feel and encounter. Perhaps the greatest gift of the past is that of context. Leadership is always context specific and context is always the work of intelligently looking both backwards and forwards.

So what is your ‘balcony’? The answer will differ from person to person and from business to business. As a leader you need to know what your balcony is and you will need to be clear about what it is you see from the balcony. You will need to help take your executive team to this vantage point and then learn to ask the right questions as you survey your business and the landscape in which you find yourself. An easy measure of this is to look at your current executive agenda. How much of it would constitute ‘balcony’ conversation? Most executive meetings that I sit in on are filled with dance floor items and doing the balcony work is hard and unfamiliar (that is often why I am there!). So, as a good leader, you will need to get this balance right and again, there can be no set formulae for what this process will look like  – but do ensure that your 2013 has a balcony build into it and that your trips to the balcony are frequent and consistent.

The third thing that good leaders will request of the guy in the red suit come Christmas is:

3. Night vision goggles. Every little person’s (although I would concede that it would mainly be boys) dream! The ability to see the ‘invisible’, the hidden – to see the things that are obscured from one’s natural vision. The ability to ‘see the invisible’ is an essential part of the ability to lead diversity. When we in TomorrowToday teach on leading diversity, one of the foundational points we make is that leading diversity requires the individual (the leader) to recognise your own lenses or filters through which you interpret the world around you.

Our own biases and prejudices mean that we don’t see the world with 20/20 vision. Understanding this reality becomes the stepping-stone to an engagement with diversity and leads to cultivating an intentional awareness and behaviour of ‘seeing the invisible’.  This translates into seeing people around us who have largely remained invisible; people we may ‘see’ but not think they have anything worthwhile to contribute. This might be due to rank or position; it may be due to educational or societal filters; it may be due to age, race, gender, personality, status or any number of filters that prohibit us really seeing the ‘other person’.

Good leaders deliberately cultivate this ability to see others. It is that ability that translates into being fully present and attentive and when this becomes your natural disposition it is one that has a remarkable impact on those around you. I recall a ‘lowly’ clerk in a large financial institution who spoke with awe of being ‘trapped’ in an elevator with the CEO who not only “knew my name but asked for my opinion and then really listened”. It was a chance encounter that had a marked impact on her and it was one that the CEO in question would have been unaware of given that this was simply who he was and how he recognised people.

This sounds pretty basic doesn’t it? It sounds rather like ‘leadership 101’ but then why is it that so few people share the experience of the clerk in the elevator? We all know what it means to ‘be invisible’ and how demeaning that can be. Why is it that so many leaders don’t see and because of their not seeing, fail to learn, hear and inspire? There is a Buddhist saying that suggests that it is never the lack of teachers that inhibits our learning but rather it is our inability to see the teachers that surround us that inhibits our learning. Good leaders remain open to lifelong learning and they recognise that a rich source of such learning can be found in cultivating an ability to ‘see the invisible’. In the quest to ‘see the invisible’ a good place to start is to give the invisible a name. Once that happens, seeing becomes pretty easy!

I would guess that good leaders intent on continued personal growth and determined to lead successfully into the future would be asking for many more things from Santa than the three I have suggested. So perhaps a good place to start imagining would be to ask yourself if there such a ‘wish list’ for the CEO of the North Pole, a list of goodies that you would hope he would put in your Christmas stocking, what would that list look like?

The great thing about starting with a ‘wish list’ is that the next step is to begin transforming that into a tangible action list that will lead to real benefits. Sometimes we hear that we need to be ‘careful for what we wish for’ as the reality of our wishes can lead to a radical transformation that then challenges unexpected things and leads to untold adventures. We started out by saying that good leaders learn to challenge their own (and their organizations) perspectives and assumptions. Getting what you wish for might just lead to this happening! This process (of unlearning) is seldom neither easy nor comfortable but you have been warned!

 So, not long until Christmas and thoughts of a much anticipated (should you home be inhabited by little people) and welcome visitor descending chimneys with loads of presents; time to reflect on a journey travelled and one that awaits; time to share, celebrate our blessings and remember those less fortunate than ourselves is soon to be upon us no matter where it is we reside.  I would hope you enjoy a restful and meaningful Christmas and that 2013 arrives with you invigorated and determined to grow in your leadership effectiveness. May you take the best and worst of 2012 and learnt from it and I trust that the year ahead will prove to be the best yet!

Ho, Ho, Ho and a merry Christmas to you and yours.

Four Leadership Lessons from the Road Most Traveled

Posted on: December 11th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

The curtain call on 2012 is almost due. It is the time to reflect on what has been and perhaps what might have been; it is the time to begin to contemplate what waits on the other side of 2012 and to again dream of what could be. This has been a busy year for me: 129 flights, 13 overseas trips to 8 different countries (UK, Switzerland, India, China, Russia, the USA, Turkey and Argentina) – two of them for the first time (India & Turkey). Spending about 52 days overseas and countless others in the air or lounging around airports. The most visited countries were the UK (five) and Russia (two) whilst my longest trip was to the  Asia Pacific Leadership Program, Hawaii (two weeks – smart I know!) and the shortest was Switzerland (one day). Add to this the load of domestic trips and it is easy to see why it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to walk into airport lounges with a, “Honey I’m home” greeting! Yes, it has been a busy year but there will be no complaints from my side as in our TomorrowToday context, busy is good. Busy means we are getting by, busy means we are doing what it is we love.

We all undertake journeys of one sort or another and the journey of 2012 need not have taken you to different places around the country or globe to constitute ‘a journey’. So my fellow-travellers, here are some personal reflections and lessons that I have learnt  along the way of the journey tagged ‘2012’:

Tourist take pictures, pilgrims collect stories. I make a conscious effort to travel as a pilgrim. Yes, I do take pictures (with an iPad) but I try not to miss the moment because I am stuck behind a lens. I make a deliberate effort to find the story when travelling although I must admit that the stories usually find me! Whilst in Turkey I knew that having a Turkish bath simply had to be on the agenda. The fun was convincing three others that we needed to share in this experience and so off we went without a clue as to what to expect. We got a story! It was one that I suspect others in the group regretted not having shared, their courage failing then when the recruitment drive was on (or maybe they simply knew what was in store!). Point is, travel as a pilgrim. Collect stories and let the stories find you. You won’t be sorry you did!

Embrace the whole experience. I love encountering different places and destinations. What is not to love about being in Honolulu, Istanbul, Moscow, London, New Delhi, Beijing or Buenos Aires? But getting there is easy not to like. Hours in a tin tube at 37 000’, sitting in airports, standing in queues, delayed or cancelled flights, next door passengers who fail to grasp the concept of a ‘shared armrest’ and of course one could continue with a list of woes. However, if I were to start hating the ‘getting there’ my life would be miserable as so much of it is spent ‘getting there’. So I intentionally embrace the journey as much as I do the destination. Of course the occasional business class ticket certainly takes the edge off travel and once this year I even got upgraded to First Class on an Emirates flight from Dubai to Moscow (they had to forcibly evict me from the plane as I grimly held on to the seat wanting to spend another week there!). Embrace the entire experience – the good and the ‘bad’ for by doing so you open yourself to a greater sense of appreciation and expectation. Not to do so is a little like wanting the benefits of being physically fit without willing to put in the hard yards to get fit!

Stay grounded – be present. Strange when so much of my life is ‘in the air’ but what I mean by this is that we need to remember who we are and from where we come. Staying grounded is important in maintaining the attitude of being a learner. To stay grounded is to not believe the hype or one’s own ‘press’. It means maintaining a sense of wonder that others want to hear what it is you have to say – and seem to enjoy doing so! Staying grounded means understanding that things change in a blink and so to enjoy the moment and live the present. Here and now, that is what is important; here and now – that is what matters most. It is all too easy to live in the past – or the future, and so rob the present of your full attention and absorbing all it has to offer.

Look for sense making patterns. When so much of my time is spend in situations that ‘make no sense’ (to my understanding or worldview) the challenge is to look for sense making patterns. There is always a logic that underpins actions that may seem bizarre – the trick is to find that logic and seek to understand it. This is what it means to engage in diversity and so looking for sense making patterns means that I have to suspend my own judgments – something easier said than done when encountering difference!

Of course there are countless other ‘lessons from the road’. One would be to always ensure you have the right documentation! I nearly had to spend 10 days in Buenos Aires as a result of not having my Yellow Fever inoculation certificate with me… but that is another ‘story’! I am sure you must have your own ‘travel’ lessons from 2012 and it might be a good idea to carve out some uninterrupted time to allow those insights and lessons to surface. I don’t think you will be sorry you did!

Bon voyage.

Leading Diversity: the work leaders cannot ignore

Posted on: December 5th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

One of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is that of leading diversity. It is also something that leaders cannot ignore, avoid or neglect – although many do.

Diversity is a well-worn term and is often confused with variety. In fact understanding the distinction between diversity and variety is fundamental to the approach one adopts. The best picture I can provide of this distinction comes from Dr. Peter Hershock, Coordinator of the Asian Studies Development Program at the East West Center in Hawaii. Peter is a quite brilliant thinker and I have been privileged to hear him lecture on a number of occasions. He likens variety to a zoo: a system that relies on external input and one that is carefully managed and contains limited interaction. Diversity he says is like a rainforest: systems within systems that are both cooperative and competitive. It is a system that evolves towards equilibrium and where disruption is welcomed as a catalyst for growth and evolution. Peter delves deeper into this analogy to good effect but suffice to say that it provides a helpful picture to understand the difference between variety and diversity. Why this is important is that in my experience, most companies deal with diversity as though it were variety and therein sits a fundamental flaw in the approach to leading diversity.

The benefits of harnessing diversity are immense. Innovation, greater team participation, resilience and the means to better understand and enter new markets are the obvious ones. However, if these benefits are to be realised then diversity has to be led in such a way that they are able to flourish. This is easier said than done. In her excellent book unleashing leaders, Hilarie Owen writes, “Diversity should be regarded as a positive. Too many organizations say they support diversity but in reality they want compliance. Diversity here means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations”

(more…)

Leading Diversity: the work leaders cannot ignore

Posted on: December 4th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

One of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is that of leading diversity. It is also something that leaders cannot ignore, avoid or neglect – although many do.

Diversity is a well-worn term and is often confused with variety. In fact understanding the distinction between diversity and variety is fundamental to the approach one adopts. The best picture I can provide of this distinction comes from Dr. Peter Hershock, Coordinator of the Asian Studies Development Program at the East West Center in Hawaii. Peter is a quite brilliant thinker and I have been privileged to hear him lecture on a number of occasions. He likens variety to a zoo: a system that relies on external input and one that is carefully managed and contains limited interaction. Diversity he says is like a rainforest: systems within systems that are both cooperative and competitive. It is a system that evolves towards equilibrium and where disruption is welcomed as a catalyst for growth and evolution. Peter delves deeper into this analogy to good effect but suffice to say that it provides a helpful picture to understand the difference between variety and diversity. Why this is important is that in my experience, most companies deal with diversity as though it were variety and therein sits a fundamental flaw in the approach to leading diversity.

The benefits of harnessing diversity are immense. Innovation, greater team participation, resilience and the means to better understand and enter new markets are the obvious ones. However, if these benefits are to be realised then diversity has to be led in such a way that they are able to flourish. This is easier said than done. In her excellent book unleashing leaders, Hilarie Owen writes, “Diversity should be regarded as a positive. Too many organizations say they support diversity but in reality they want compliance. Diversity here means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations”

As I write this I am in transit to Buenos Aires to facilitate and teach on ‘Leading Diversity’ as part of a major international business school’s programme for an international pharmaceutical company. TomorrowToday has the responsibility of shaping the day on leading diversity in this programme that is held in Singapore, Russia and Argentina. As I fulfill this responsibility I am again reminded just what an inside track South Africans have when it comes to this topic. South Africa is, according to the United Nations index, the most diverse country on the planet (South East Asia is the most diverse region) and as such, South Africa knows a thing or two about the subject. Of course the mere presence of such diversity is no guarantee that the benefits will be harvested, it will still require skillful and mature leadership but having such diversity certainly provides a good head start!

Leaders need to understand that leading diversity is part of the contemporary leadership terrain. As a leader you need to pay attention to the mindset and skillset required to lead diversity in your organisation and then be intentional about ensuring these are cultivated throughout your ranks. Leading diversity is built on an awareness of the lenses through which you view the world and the impact these lenses have on your attitudes and behavior. Leading diversity requires both head and heart and there can be no better way to undertake this dual work than through an appreciation of story. Story connects both head and heart and so story offers a helpful pathway into a deeper understanding of, and engagement with, diversity. Leading diversity will also require ‘seeing the invisible’ – paying careful attention to those we tend not to notice, those we don’t ‘see’. As we begin to see the ‘invisible’ we open ourselves up to the possibility of diversity and all it offers.

TomorrowToday has developed an internationally tested package on leading diversity and whilst this blog is in no way intended to be a plug for this presentation / workshop, it is nonetheless one that I would highly recommend. After all Nick (Barker), Graeme (Codrington) and I are flying all over the world doing this work – why not invite one of us in to meet with you in order to discuss how best to tailor this programme to your needs?

Leaders have to understand the need to move from being different ‘from each other’ to being different ‘for each other’. This is the journey that diversity invites if you are serious about leading diversity within your organization.

Four Titles I wish were mine: and four leadership challenges they pose

Posted on: November 20th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There is the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s book that details behavioural changes needed to get the summit of business. Goldsmith is an Executive Coach who I met at the Global Leader’s Conference in China a few years ago. The title captures the idea of journey – it epitomises looking back and looking forward whilst suggesting the power of the moment  -the power of the present.

In a single sentence the title is descriptive of the challenge facing contemporary leadership. In a single sentence there is the stark and urgent warning to companies who believe that past success is a guarantee for future success. It is simply not the case. Balancing how we look back and how best to look forward is a critical function of leadership. There has to be an understanding and appreciation for ‘what got us here’ but smart leaders understand that they need to learn from the future, not the past. The single biggest fault line of the ‘Built to Last’ logic was that we can simply implement what ‘great’ companies have done over the past fifty years (or longer) in order to replicate that success. Curiosity, not being afraid to make mistakes, being quick learners, knowing how to think like a futurist, understanding our context and what is shaping it, and asking the right questions are the stepping stones to what it will take to ‘learn from the future’.

Alone Together is the title of Sherry Turkle’s book on the new tools we use to connect, technology tools that are changing our social interaction. I have always enjoyed the fun and humour that is captured in an oxymoron. An oxymoron is the placing together of two incongruent words and examples of such are plentiful: Plastic glasses, jumbo shrimp, airline food, military intelligence and my all time favourite…Virgin Active. The power of an oxymoron to resonate and create meaning and fresh insight is obvious.

Much of leading today’s organization involves both oxymoron and paradox. Smart leaders recognise this new reality and don’t waste energy trying to resolve things that are simply beyond being resolved. A better use of that energy is to try to understand what is happening and build helpful frameworks as a sense-making response to paradox and oxymoron. A good exercise might be for you to pause a moment and consider what paradoxes and oxymoron you have within your environment and then re-examine what has been your response.

Why Should Anyone Be Lead By You?  This is the title of Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones’ book on leadership. I met Goffee when we worked on the same leadership programme in China and was impressed by some of his leadership insights and stories. It has been said that the mind works best in presence of a question. If that is true, and I think it is, then right off the bat it is an evocative question that invites engagement. It is a question that every leader would do well to ask and answer. Leaders are increasingly leading in a context where respect has to be earned and not expected based on the position or title. It is a ‘generational thing’ and not matter how much it might irk you, it is part of the new reality. Get used to it and now go back to that question and give it your serious consideration. It will be sure to yield some beneficial insights and challenges for you as a leader.

All I Really Need To Know I Learnt In Kindergarten is the title of Robert Fulgham’s delightful book on everyday wisdom from unlikely sources. In fact the title for my book, ‘Everything I know about leadership I learnt from the kids’ was sparked by how well Fulgham’s title resonated.

The lesson here for leaders is to be willing to learn from unlikely sources. It is about ‘seeing the invisible’ and once leaders develop this awareness and cultivate the habit, some amazing things start to happen. Many important ‘truths’ get forgotten or neglected on the ‘way to the top’. Leaders forget to play, forget to enjoy ‘doing nothing’, neglect what is important and become victims of the tyranny of the urgent; many leaders I know fail to take time for wonder and stop being curious and inquisitive. They become more used to giving answers than asking questions and so the lessons from the playground become distant memories lost in another time and age. That is a great pity. I once encouraged a group of senior leaders to go to a kindergarten, take off their shoes and socks and play with the kids. It was a real effort getting them there; it was an even greater effort getting them away from there.

When last did you play? What is your source of learning? Why is this so and what might you be missing by failing to learn from unlikely teachers? It is never the lack of teachers that inhibits our learning; rather it is our lack of awareness of the teachers that surround us! I have also come to realise that when the learner is ready, the teacher will appear.

Fly Emirates: How an Airline gets it right in all but one thing

Posted on: November 15th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

November. Dubai. Emirates business lounge. ‘Home’.

I do a lot of flying. It comes with the territory and let me say right upfront, travel is not as glamorous as it is sometimes made out to be! Any frequent flyer will know this to be the case. Travel has taught me many things and by ‘travel’ I don’t mean the destination but rather the journey itself.

I have learnt the shortcuts, developed patience when it comes to the waiting game and walking into various airport lounges almost has a, ‘welcome home’ familiarity about it. However, the essential element in any journey is the transport itself – the airline. I have tried a few and one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest – and here I am referring to Emirates. There are both leadership and customer service lessons to be learnt from experiencing first hand how Emirates go about their business.

They make you feel as though they are flying for you. Well of course they are, but how often have you been made to feel as though ‘they’ (those tasked with your travel safety and comfort) are doing you a favour? On Emirates is all about you. They don’t do this as a matter of training (although clearly there is a great deal of training that has taken place), but rather they convey this through their attitude.  You feel it at a deeper level. It is just present and you don’t feel as though it is only switched on the moment you walk on-board. I don’t know how they get this right but it is something that Emirates would do well to safeguard and ensure they perpetuate in transmitting their staff.

(more…)

Fly Emirates: How an Airline gets it right in all but one thing.

Posted on: November 13th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

November. Dubai. Emirates business lounge. ‘Home’.

I do a lot of flying. It comes with the territory and let me say right upfront, travel is not as glamorous as it is sometimes made out to be! Any frequent flyer will know this to be the case. Travel has taught me many things and by ‘travel’ I don’t mean the destination but rather the journey itself.

I have learnt the shortcuts, developed patience when it comes to the waiting game and walking into various airport lounges almost has a, ‘welcome home’ familiarity about it. However, the essential element in any journey is the transport itself – the airline. I have tried a few and one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest – and here I am referring to Emirates. There are both leadership and customer service lessons to be learnt from experiencing first hand how Emirates go about their business.

They make you feel as though they are flying for you. Well of course they are, but how often have you been made to feel as though ‘they’ (those tasked with your travel safety and comfort) are doing you a favour? On Emirates is all about you. They don’t do this as a matter of training (although clearly there is a great deal of training that has taken place), but rather they convey this through their attitude.  You feel it at a deeper level. It is just present and you don’t feel as though it is only switched on the moment you walk on-board. I don’t know how they get this right but it is something that Emirates would do well to safeguard and ensure they perpetuate in transmitting their staff.

They have systems that allow them to stay ahead of the game. It seems as though their staff anticipate bottlenecks or problems and are able to be proactive rather than reactionary. I recall once waiting in a shower queue in the Dubai lounge when a ground staff member asked the boarding times of those waiting and then took those with the most pressing timeframe, to the hotel where additional shower facilities had been arranged. No fuss, no big deal – just thoughtful intervention that hadn’t been requested and wasn’t expected. The queue wasn’t even that long.

All flights get delayed and Emirates is no exception although that said, I have experienced a remarkable punctuality whilst flying with Emirates. However during a recent  – and minor, boarding delay at Moscow ‘s Domodedovo’s airport, I witnessed a remarkable action. We passengers were standing at the boarding gate like a lost tribe as the Emirates personnel were busying themselves getting the logistics in order. One staff member needed to make a couple of trips between the boarding gate and the aircraft – she ran.  It was impressive for not merely the fact that she performed this feat wearing high heels (I wouldn’t know how difficult this is in case you are wondering but can only imagine it can’t be that easy!) but because, as with the shower, it really wasn’t necessary (from a customer point-of-view). It was, as I say, a minor delay but clearly there was a sense of urgency amongst the staff to meet expectations. I have often been caught up in flight delays where the aggravation is compounded by the lack of urgency and seemingly ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude displayed by the staff present. Infuriating isn’t it? But these are times when they are doing you a favour remember! Again, a small and isolated action – but one that spoke volumes for the underlying attitude and mind-set.

They know who you are. Of course as a frequent flyer I have built-up some travel privileges. However, over the years I have done this on more than one carrier but the way Emirates recognises it’s regular customers, has outdone my experience on other airlines. Even when not flying business (which is fairly frequently) I will be sought out and welcomed on-board. The first time this happened surprised me as much as it did those around me! Nothing dramatic or overstated, but rather, just a quiet sincerity that is routinely practiced. This little touch is appreciated of course and speaks of a system that thinks about the client / customer. How often have you experienced a ‘system’ that does exactly the opposite when it should be serving your best interests?

On my recently flight from Moscow there was a mother with a 10 month old baby opposite me. Not always a good thing to be stuck within earshot of an infant! The Emirates staff were fantastic throughout the flight. They made a point of ensuring the mom had everything she needed and routinely played with the baby to give the mother a break. They took a picture of the couple and then gave it to her as a memento of the flight. This little initiative is the type of thing that could easily be routine but it is the way in which it is done that impressed me. Nothing was too much trouble and it was done with a friendliness that went beyond training.

There is a seamless integration of excellence at all levels of the Emirates customer experience. From the check-in to the actual flying experience care is taken to ensure consistency and excellence flow throughout. Again, in my experience this has seldom been the case with other airlines. There might be a pocket of excellence but the ‘next step’ undoes the good generated. When Emirates have control of the customer experience chain, there is a consistency that reveals integrated systems and training designed to provide seamless customer service. I have been impressed at how they have got this right when so many fail to do so and don’t seem to really care that they have failed to do so.

I have yet to meet a disengaged or grumpy Emirates staff person. They all seem to want to be there, they seem delighted to be serving you and bring charm, energy and efficiency to all they do.  This can only speak of an organisational culture that has got it more right than wrong. I am sure there must be exceptions to this rule but I am yet to find them. Good customer service has to be built on a healthy corporate culture and environment. Good training can only go so far, authentic excellence in the customer experience demands something beyond mere training and certainly Emirates have it.  It would be a good research case study to undertake and maybe one day I will ask the airline for permission to do precisely that – some behind the scenes investigation to understand what it is they do to motivate their staff.

You would think they are paying me to write this wouldn’t you! They’re not. I love encountering service that delights and surprises (in a good way) – and am always intrigued as to the ‘why’ behind such service. Most times it is down to a remarkable individual but Emirates seem to have been able to master this at an entire systems level. I find this really impressive. I am sure there must be some bad stories out there – how can there not be in this industry? However, I bet the positive stories concerning this carrier vastly outweigh any negative ones.

All this reflects on leadership excellence. Clearly there is a leadership philosophy within Emirates that is being lived. So often there is a significant dislocation between what is said about leadership and how it is practiced.  For this level of customer service there must be a powerful leadership philosophy that is being lived by those at the very top. Organisational culture starts at the ‘head’ and Emirates leadership must be doing something right. I suspect that any deeper investigation of Emirates would reveal some wonderful leadership insights and lessons. Another story, for another day perhaps.

Yes, Emirates get it right – as demonstrated by the friendly person who has just this moment relieved my table of its multiple breakfast dishes. I almost feel like recalling her to get her name, as it seems someone ought to get some credit for what I have experienced. But if I were to do that, I would need to get several names and that list?  – Well, it would be an awfully long one! That, and collecting names might just be interpreted in entirely the wrong way!

Nearly time to board (again) and so let take my leave of ‘home’ to return home.

Safe travel.

P.S. And the thing Emirates doesn’t get right? They are the shirt sponsors of Arsenal! Now how can that be a smart move?

A Trait of Smart Leaders: Seeing With Your Ears – Listening With Your Eyes

Posted on: November 10th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

How do submarines ‘see’? Well, everyone knows that submarines ‘see’ by using ultrasound…essentially submarines see by hearing, by using their ‘ears’. So should leaders.

Social intuition is the term used to describe the ability to spot and read clues around you very quickly without knowing how you are doing it. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about social intuition in his bestselling book titled, Blink. He referred to it as, ‘listening with your eyes’. Nainoa Thompson, the Wayfinder (Navigator) of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s vessel, Hokule’a talks about navigating the notorious doldrums with his ‘eyes shut’ as the only reliable way ‘to see’.  Terminology that seems contradictory, paradoxical and nonsensical.

Or is it?

Learning to see by hearing remains the internal work that leaders need to recognize and cultivate. It forms an essential part of the leader’s ability to navigate uncharted territory. Learning how to do this, how to cultivate this inner skill can begin by learning how to surface underlying theories. Doing this starts by mastering what Bill Lucas (rEvolution: How to Thrive in Crazy Times) terms the, 3 A’s’:

Assumptions: finding words for underlying hypothesis. This can be accomplished by asking the question, ‘what is going on here?’

Analysis: undertaking more detailed analysis to produce possible solutions. This can be achieved by asking the question, ‘on what basis do we think this?’

Actions: moving from mature analysis to implement specific activities. The question to unlock such activities is, ‘so what should we do then?’

The inner work of leadership, or what I term ‘inner landscaping’ – is the most neglected work amongst leaders. Yet, most contemporary research on leadership indicates that the leader’s ‘character’ is fundamental to effective leadership. The corporate leader has to take seriously this aspect of his or her leadership. It is not work ‘done’ but remains ongoing and dynamic in nature. One pathway to such work begins by repeatedly asking the questions posed – they offer insights that sit beneath the surface and it is this terrain that leaders need to know how to negotiate and navigate.

A further compelling reason why smart leaders understand that doing this work is essential has to do with leading diversity. As I write this I am Moscow bound to present / teach a module for a leading business school on leading diversity. The client is an international pharmaceutical company that have recognized the need for their senior leaders worldwide to firstly understand the importance of diversity and then to develop the necessary competencies required to effectively lead diversity. Part of the programme in Moscow will involve an immersion experience in the city in order to better understand diversity. Next week I will be involved in a South African based programme with an international wholesaler where the participants will get to spend a couple of days in a ‘township’ for the same purpose. Both promise a degree of discomfort and are certain to create some disequilibrium. The degree to which this is the case is likely to be the degree to which the benefits extend.

When learning about diversity ‘seeing with your ears’ or ‘listening with your eyes’ is essential. When learning to lead diversity, doing ‘inner work’ – understanding one’s own biases and filters’ is a necessary part of the process.

Smart leaders understand this and so cultivate this awareness and skills in themselves as well as ensure that they form part of any leadership development within their company or organization.

A Trait of Smart Leaders: Seeing With Your Ears – Listening With Your Eyes

Posted on: November 6th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

How do submarines ‘see’? Well, everyone knows that submarines ‘see’ by using ultrasound…essentially submarines see by hearing, by using their ‘ears’. So should leaders.

Social intuition is the term used to describe the ability to spot and read clues around you very quickly without knowing how you are doing it. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about social intuition in his bestselling book titled, Blink. He referred to it as, ‘listening with your eyes’. Nainoa Thompson, the Wayfinder (Navigator) of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s vessel, Hokule’a talks about navigating the notorious doldrums with his ‘eyes shut’ as the only reliable way ‘to see’.  Terminology that seems contradictory, paradoxical and nonsensical.

Or is it?

Learning to see by hearing remains the internal work that leaders need to recognize and cultivate. It forms an essential part of the leader’s ability to navigate uncharted territory. Learning how to do this, how to cultivate this inner skill can begin by learning how to surface underlying theories. Doing this starts by mastering what Bill Lucas (rEvolution: How to Thrive in Crazy Times) terms the, 3 A’s’:

Assumptions: finding words for underlying hypothesis. This can be accomplished by asking the question, ‘what is going on here?’

Analysis: undertaking more detailed analysis to produce possible solutions. This can be achieved by asking the question, ‘on what basis do we think this?’

Actions: moving from mature analysis to implement specific activities. The question to unlock such activities is, ‘so what should we do then?’

The inner work of leadership, or what I term ‘inner landscaping’ – is the most neglected work amongst leaders. Yet, most contemporary research on leadership indicates that the leader’s ‘character’ is fundamental to effective leadership. The corporate leader has to take seriously this aspect of his or her leadership. It is not work ‘done’ but remains ongoing and dynamic in nature. One pathway to such work begins by repeatedly asking the questions posed – they offer insights that sit beneath the surface and it is this terrain that leaders need to know how to negotiate and navigate.

A further compelling reason why smart leaders understand that doing this work is essential has to do with leading diversity. As I write this I am Moscow bound to present / teach a module for a leading business school on leading diversity. The client is an international pharmaceutical company that have recognized the need for their senior leaders worldwide to firstly understand the importance of diversity and then to develop the necessary competencies required to effectively lead diversity. Part of the programme in Moscow will involve an immersion experience in the city in order to better understand diversity. Next week I will be involved in a South African based programme with an international wholesaler where the participants will get to spend a couple of days in a ‘township’ for the same purpose. Both promise a degree of discomfort and are certain to create some disequilibrium. The degree to which this is the case is likely to be the degree to which the benefits extend.

When learning about diversity ‘seeing with your ears’ or ‘listening with your eyes’ is essential. When learning to lead diversity, doing ‘inner work’ – understanding one’s own biases and filters’ is a necessary part of the process.

Smart leaders understand this and so cultivate this awareness and skills in themselves as well as ensure that they form part of any leadership development within their company or organization.

Leaders…attention! A vital lesson for all leaders from an unlikely source: the military.

Posted on: October 30th, 2012 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

“I might take a bullet to my head and so whoever takes my place needs to be better than me. I train and mentor others to be better than I am”. So said the Lt Colonel with whom I happened to be chatting to about the difference between the military and the corporate worlds when it comes to leadership. He believed that the practice of developing leaders in the corporate world was tainted by leaders withholding information from those being groomed for leadership responsibilities. He explained it as a practice designed by leaders to preserve their own position and power. Development happened of course but only up to a point.  That point would be defined by the threat posed by the person being groomed for leadership.

I think the Lt Colonel has a point.

I don’t think you will find anyone in the corporate sector that would be quite as brazen about this allegation as our military friend but I do think that most would privately acknowledge this to be the case. After all, why would I groom someone to take my place? Why would I not be threatened by someone who sits lower down the pecking order but who clearly shows more talent and potential than I represent to the corporate enterprise?

Power and politics exist in every setting, a point confirmed by the Lt Colonel who said that this would also be true of the military. I didn’t want to tell him that I already knew this based on my knowledge of having watched the TV show Army Wives, as I didn’t think admitting such a source would add to my credibility in the context of our conversation!

The military has always been associated with ‘command and control’ leadership. However, somewhat surprisingly, the military leads the way in the understanding of disseminating information and allowing those ‘on the ground’ to make vital decisions. “We need our troops to be able to think for themselves. We give them as much information as we can in order for them to execute the intended strategy – and strategy often becomes redundant in the heat of battle,” explained the Lt Colonel. It made perfect sense. Yet, I know of many corporate environments where this would be said but not practiced. The gap between what is said when it comes to leadership and what is practiced within the specific corporate environment would make traversing the Grand Canyon seem like a mere hop, skip and jump.

We don’t promote others better than ourselves as they might well become a threat to our position; we withhold information for having that information is what gives power and leverage in the game that is corporate politics. It is a sad reality and it is one that needs to be called and challenged if we are to build the kind of environments capable of meeting the challenges of the 21 Century.  One of the significant changes that has occurred in recent times is that information has become accessible to almost everybody. No longer is information the right or preserve of those in leadership and the gap between leaders having the information and it getting to the masses has shorted considerably. Leaders need to understand this shift in the rules of the game. Many don’t.

It is entirely possible to develop corporate cultures where providing access to vital information, in order for people to better execute their responsibilities, is practiced. Creating such an environment requires a radical mind shift from those in leadership. Ironic isn’t it that we need to look to the military as the pacesetters in the understanding that command and control leadership is defunct for our current context?

Does this mean that there is no place for command and control leadership within our environments? No, this isn’t the case. Leadership is always context specific and there will be a context where command and control is entirely appropriate.

The context is that of crisis. When it comes to crisis decision-making there is never the time to consult and in order to save lives perhaps, someone needs to make a rapid decision. A great example of crisis decision making and adopting a command and control stance was that of airline Captain B. ‘Sully’ Sullenburger and US flight 1549 on January 15, 2009. Sullenberger wasn’t flying the plane at the time when, shortly after take-off from New York, a flock of Canadian Geese took out both engines reducing the plane to a mere glider. At a crucial moment in the ensuing communications between the control tower and the cockpit, Sullenberger simply said, “my plane” and in that instant took over command of the stricken aircraft before making aviation history by successfully landing the plane on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board survived.

Those in leadership need to understand the need to build corporate cultures where decision-making can be pushed down to where it is needed – at the customer inter-face. Leaders need to understand that empowering staff to act like owners, owners who know where the company is heading and how it plans to get there, is a good thing. Leaders need to recognise that doing this is easier said than lived but smart leaders know that there really isn’t a choice. It will necessitate building different corporate cultures. It will mean having different conversations and engaging in different questions. It will mean letting go of past assumptions about how the world looks, works and interacts. It will necessitate that current leaders become learners. Mistakes will be made along the way but initiatives to play the game this way will need constant backing and encouragement. Lessons will need to be learnt quickly and over time the culture will change and with that, so will the results.

As I said, it won’t be easy. But if the military can learn and implement such a shift, then surely the corporate world can too?

Fall out.

The Goldilocks Principle: On Learning Leadership

Posted on: October 16th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Some years ago I asked a friend who was responsible for some of the most successful TV adverts in South Africa – she was the advertising agency’s account manager for a fast food brand – what made the adverts so successful. “That’s easy” she said, “the client leaves me (and my team) alone to do what we do best – deliver on the brand and in so doing, make award winning adverts”. She went on to explain that the norm was for the client to constantly interfere with the creative design and process, thinking that they (the client) knew best when it came to what worked and didn’t work.

It doesn’t make sense to pay an advertising agency a premium price to only then interfere with them doing their job. But that it seems, is what invariably happens. Of course in most cases, as my friend explained, the advertising agency has to compromise on the creative and artistic integrity in order to keep the client happy. “We know green works best, but they will insist on blue” she said and so it goes, to the point where the end product is dull, unimaginative and simply a waste of money. We have all seen those adverts and wondered how on earth they could make it to the small screen, especially knowing something of the costs involved. They become the type of adverts that ensure that the coffee or tea break is taken and are the type of adverts best forgotten.

This particular brand that my friend referred too would turn over the entire creative process to the experts and trust them to deliver an end product that exceeded expectations. That they usually did is borne out by the many rewards won and the best test of all – the public stir the adverts always seemed to generate. They were always memorable adverts that got people talking.

As I thought about this somewhat obvious but neglected point – leave it to those who know best, it occurred to me that precisely the same thing happens in leadership development / education. I know this to be the case as I have repeatedly experienced it first-hand.

Let me explain.

(more…)

Neglected but Essential: The Work All Leaders Need To Do

Posted on: October 16th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Thinking about today’s brand of leadership it seems to me that the shear pace and complexity that leaders encounter on a daily basis has all but eroded one of the fundamental leadership disciplines. I am referring here to the discipline of ‘reflection’: taking deliberate time to think about one’s leadership. It is the intentional pause, during which real listening and observation become possible midst the drowning cacophony and clutter of busy lives. Stillness and introspection do not enjoy popular support within leadership development and if they do get a mention it is usually spoken about rather than experienced. In the content driven approach to leadership development this is perhaps hardly surprising. Such practices are not normally associated with leadership, yet without them, I am not sure that reliable leadership is possible.

Given the importance of the discipline of reflection in the development of yourself as a leader I want to offer you some thoughts on writing reflections as a beginning to the development of this critical habit.

Reflections offer us time to think aloud, about what has happened and our role in that; about what to change and how to change things; it affords us the opportunity to develop clarity and courage. Meg Wheatley, in her book, Finding Our Way, frames it this way, “If we want our world to be different, our first act needs to be reclaiming time to think. Nothing will change for the better until we do that”. She goes on to add, “Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin”.

So here then are some random thoughts as to how best to capitalize on this wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the leader you are and the leader you hope to become.

When it comes to recording reflections on your leadership…

It is not an academic requirement. In reality this is exactly what they might be (should you find yourself part of some or other leadership development programme) or this is perhaps how you started out in your approach to the task. However if you adopt this mindset, you will never explore the depths the exercise invites. This needs to be about you and primarily for you. It is not something that ‘needs to get done’ and I would encourage you to resist undertaking this task with such an attitude.
Write for yourself. Others may get to read what you write but the moment you write with this possibility in mind (that others will read your reflection), you erode the authenticity of the reflection. Write as though no one else will read what you write. Write from both the head and the heart and in a manner that you are satisfied with when complete. Don’t write to impress someone else.

Be honest. One of the most difficult things that I have encountered in my own journaling experience is the ability to be honest. “I can’t write that” I would catch myself thinking as I acted as my own censor to my reflections. The ability to reflect honestly might well come easier for some that for but it remains a journey that all who desire to be authentic leaders need to undertake. You will be the only one who can determine what ‘being honest’ looks like but I invite you to begin to reflect honestly even if being honest looks messy, irrational and open-ended. Honest writing leaves an imprint on all fortunate enough to encounter such treasure. But you know this because I am sure you have encountered such writing in your own journey.

Reflection is a habit. Without reflection we often go on blindly along our way ignoring the lessons offered to us day in and day out. Trying then to trawl these collective memories for what they teach becomes difficult and results in many gems slipping through the net. Keep a journal in which you capture your experiences and reflections on an ongoing basis. You can determine what ‘ongoing’ looks like. It is a good habit to acquire and savvy leaders cultivate good habits. It is amazing to me how much I do, but how little time I spend reflecting on what I just did. Currently I am doing some research on what ‘survival’ takes and why it is that in moments of physical crisis, some live, some die and why this is so. I think that there will be some insightful lessons for those in leadership and this is where I am heading with the research. However, one obvious early lesson to emerge is that those who survive the crisis, whatever it may be, were prepared. But here is the lesson: their preparation did not begin the moment the crisis hit, but rather took place before they encountered the particular hardship they found themselves in. The crisis only served to reveal what was already there. Their character was not forged by the crisis but rather the crisis served to reveal their character. The benefits and fruit borne out of reflection are revealed in the inevitable crisis that leaders everywhere will have to face.

Look for patterns. Over time reflections offer us the chance to see and identify patterns in our own leadership journey. This can be helpful in our development and in taking responsibility for our attitudes and subsequent actions. People who ‘blame others’ are those who remain blind to patterns in their behavior that would empower them to take responsibility for who they are and who it is they wish to become. So keep your reflections and re-read them from time to time. You might be surprised by what you find as you do so.

Great questions to help shape your reflection: For some, getting in touch with their internal and external responses comes almost naturally. They are the lucky few! Here are some questions I have found useful in helping to shape my reflections until a more natural style emerges:
–    What was the situation? (Briefly describe the context, events you encountered)
–    What was my response / part in the events and how did it make me feel?
–    How does my response reveal something of my past, my present and possibly my future?
–    Pause and read your reflection and then ask: what would I say to myself having read this reflection?
–    What will I take with me as a result of this reflection? (here the ‘answer’ might only emerge over time but it is worth asking the question at the time as well as reflecting on possible lessons  further ‘down the road’)

Leadership has for a long time, bent towards extroversion. Parker Palmer in, ‘Let your Life Speak’ put it this way: “Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend towards extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we ‘compartmentalize’ it, walling it off from our public work.” Savvy Leaders work hard to reclaim this lost ground and neglected aspect of leadership. This discipline becomes a tool that is fundamental and foundational to authentic leadership. Reclaiming the time and space to reflect, to think, will not be without struggle (and I’m sure the usual chorus of skeptics) but those serious about leadership, cannot afford not to strike out purposefully in this direction.

I hope that something offered here would enable you to further develop your ability to reflect as a natural reflex in your leadership character.

Belum. (An Indonesian word that implies a ‘journey continued’… )

The Goldilocks Principle: On Learning Leadership

Posted on: October 15th, 2012 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

Some years ago I asked a friend who was responsible for some of the most successful TV adverts in South Africa – she was the advertising agency’s account manager for a fast food brand – what made the adverts so successful. “That’s easy” she said, “the client leaves me (and my team) alone to do what we do best – deliver on the brand and in so doing, make award winning adverts”. She went on to explain that the norm was for the client to constantly interfere with the creative design and process, thinking that they (the client) knew best when it came to what worked and didn’t work.

It doesn’t make sense to pay an advertising agency a premium price to only then interfere with them doing their job. But that it seems, is what invariably happens. Of course in most cases, as my friend explained, the advertising agency has to compromise on the creative and artistic integrity in order to keep the client happy. “We know green works best, but they will insist on blue” she said and so it goes, to the point where the end product is dull, unimaginative and simply a waste of money. We have all seen those adverts and wondered how on earth they could make it to the small screen, especially knowing something of the costs involved. They become the type of adverts that ensure that the coffee or tea break is taken and are the type of adverts best forgotten.

This particular brand that my friend referred too would turn over the entire creative process to the experts and trust them to deliver an end product that exceeded expectations. That they usually did is borne out by the many rewards won and the best test of all – the public stir the adverts always seemed to generate. They were always memorable adverts that got people talking.

As I thought about this somewhat obvious but neglected point – leave it to those who know best, it occurred to me that precisely the same thing happens in leadership development / education. I know this to be the case as I have repeatedly experienced it first-hand.

Let me explain.

A company approaches a well-respected business school to craft a leadership development process for the company. Instead of then trusting the educators to design and deliver a process that exceeds expectations, those inside the company constantly interfere with the architecture and design of the process until the educators spend more time managing the client than doing their job. The programme is one of appeasement and invariably the costs outweigh the outcome. There is a lot of activity but little change. There is a lot of programme but little real learning. The programme binding looks impressive but turn the pages and there is little substance.

The biggest outcome of all this are ‘safe programmes’ – programmes designed to keep the participants happy and comfortable. It seems the higher up the organizational tree that the programme is aimed at – the greater the spin to keep it safe and comfortable.

The problem is that real learning happens at the edge of comfort. Real learning is invariably found in the zone of discomfort and we know this to be true when we look at life itself. It would be nice if it weren’t the case, but that isn’t how life seems to work. Too many leadership development programmes play it too safe and the air-conditioned, five star comforts have reduced learning to listening to talking heads punctuated by sorties to decimate the considerable buffet tables that lie in wait outside the room. There is a lot of information being transferred but little real game-changing learning-taking place. The measure of this is how little leadership behaviour changes once the programme is over.

Many organisational cultures that are in desperate need of overhaul and refurbishment seem stuck in spite of the multiple training that is taking place. Leadership development seems to be an investment in maintaining the status quo rather than in moving the organisation forward. There are always the tell-tale signs, the most obvious one being the cautiously asked question, “has my boss heard this”. A deeper-rooted sign that leadership development is not taken seriously is the lack of pre and post interest shown by the “boss” in those who attend the course.  I usually ask participants what was done by way of preparation before they arrived on the session; if they have received a call or mail from their boss while they have been on the session and then challenge them to let me know if they are taken to lunch on their return (by their boss) and asked what they learnt, what could or should change and other ‘learning’ questions. The answers and responses I get make for depressing reporting. There is a serious dislocation between the effort to develop people and the integration of that learning back into the organization. The failure to surround formal learning in an incubator that will ensure the translation of that learning to the benefit of the organization is nonsensical, yet in most cases, that is precisely what happens.

Those involved in leadership education know that ‘keeping the client happy’ has gotten in the way of real leadership development. In some instances they have strayed far enough to have forgotten what it is they should be doing – they have strayed from their calling, their true north as leadership educationalist. Instead of saying to the anxious client, “trust us and leave us to do our job” they bend and scrape to the every whim and wish of a client nervous about not antagonising his or her colleagues and sometimes, a client driven by the need to be seen to be in charge. It proves to be a lethal mix in the cocktail that is leadership development.

I know this to be the case as I have repeatedly experienced it first-hand.

I call this depressing dance between the educator and client the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – to hot, to cold, to soft, to hard, to little to much and so it goes. The end result is a compromise in which everyone continues to smile and the game goes on: leadership processes that fail to grow leaders.

What is to be done about it? How do we stop the music and start a new dance – one that is relevant, needed and that will be effective?

I have some suggestions, some of which you may not like depending on your position on the dance-floor.

Educators need to grow a pair…well you know what I mean. I wince at the crudeness but feel compelled to write it, as it will take some pretty harsh words to snap educators out of their comfort and politeness – or ‘client-management’ as it is known. Let the client know that you know best – and you do, or should do at least! Design processes not merely programmes; be willing to risk the participants being disgruntled, angry and upset at various points along the journey. Know that many of your current measures are usually inadequate, superficial and invariably done at the wrong time: participants are usually asked to evaluate the day’s programme when the truer test of what has been learnt would be better served months from the time and place of instruction. Educators need to take back their domain – something that should be easy when client trust is earned and relationship developed. They need to tell the client when it needs to be ‘green’ (and not ‘blue’) and not compromise on process and content they know is needed.

Clients (and here I speak of those within organisations tasked with learning and development – or who are the link between the organisation and the service provider) need to be bolder when it comes to articulating learning needs, organisational culture and the ‘norms’ that need changing. These people often find themselves caught in the cross hairs between senior executives who resist change and have suspended themselves from learning. You know what is needed but all too often your own anxiety between creating the right climate for the change and managing internal expectations and politics – produces a damp-squid of a process. Is it easy to be the one to articulate the change needed or to draw the flack when there are disgruntled learners? Absolutely not, but then again, doesn’t this sound an awful lot like parenting? So my word to the ‘client’ is to pick your service providers carefully, give them what they need and then let them get on and do the job you have hired them to do.

And Bosses…I have a word for you as well! It all starts with you really. If you have delegated the learning and development (and certainly most of you have) and then show little real interest, how then can you expect the results to be anything like what they need to be in an ever-changing world? Before you are quick to protest your innocence and excuse yourself from this lecture (I don’t apologize) – notice I wrote ‘real’ interest. I know you are interested for you routinely show up on opening night and say the right things and you may even grace some feedback presentation with your presence. That is not what I mean by ‘real interest’. Real interest cannot be faked and perhaps the litmus test for you would be to ask those (your people) responsible for such processes and programmes if they truly feel your interest. If they are honest, you may not like their answer. Ask them what it is they expect from you and how best you can support the learning culture within your organization. It might be one of the most important conversations you will have.

Here is a suggestion for you if you really want to go beyond mere lip service: how about insisting that every member of your executive be present at (you pick an amount / time here) select leadership development programmes? Imagine the impact of senior people showing-up to learn, build relationship and hear first-hand what is being taught and learnt? I know this would reverberate throughout the organisation for I have often asked course participants (your people) what they would make of such behaviour. You should hear their answers…well you could if you were there!

Here would be another suggestion closer to home. Were I to sit in on your executive meeting what evidence would there be of learning? Would I encounter open-ended questions that lead to open-ended discussions? Would I find intentional learning agenda items or would the agenda be one of operational matters perhaps thinly disguised as ‘strategy’? How are you learning from the future and what is it you are reading? I can almost hear you dismissing all this with a, “we don’t have time for that” and then I would say to you that you have fallen prey to the tyranny of the urgent: the important stuff has been replaced by the urgent. Continue like that for long and you will soon have plenty of time on your hands, as there will be no business to lead!

If you are not a learning organization you will not survive the future. The current way we are conducting much of our leadership development does not necessarily mean that learning is taking place. Something needs to change and all those involved in the process that is leadership development have a voice and role to play in the changes that are needed.

Fit bodies, fat minds: The need to read

Posted on: October 10th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Leaders read. Learning organisations have institutionalized a reading habit – it has become an essential part of their DNA and not to read, is not to fit with the organizational culture.

Executives across the board have become lazy when it comes to reading and harnessing other digital forms of knowledge acquisition. It is a neglectful habit that will catch up with both them and the organization. It has become a case of ‘fit bodies and fat minds’ and if you don’t believe me, just ask your team what they are reading and more importantly, how they are translating that into every day practice. The answers you get might shock you!

Every CEO should have a reading audit in his or her team and it might take some hard work initially, as does any initial burst of exercise, but the longterm results make it worthwhile.

How to you develop a reading culture in your team? How do you ensure that the good gained permeates throughout your entire organization?

(more…)

Fit bodies, fat minds: The need to read

Posted on: October 9th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Leaders read. Learning organisations have institutionalized a reading habit.  It has become an essential part of their DNA and not to read, is not to fit with the organizational culture.

Executives across the board have become lazy when it comes to reading and harnessing other digital forms of knowledge acquisition. It is a neglectful habit that will catch up with both them and the organization. It has become a case of ‘fit bodies and fat minds’ and if you don’t believe me, just ask your team what they are reading and more importantly, how they are translating that into every day practice. The answers you get might shock you!

Every CEO should have a reading audit in his or her team and it might take some hard work initially, as does any initial burst of exercise, but the long term results make it worthwhile.

How to you develop a reading culture in your team? How do you ensure that the good gained permeates throughout your entire organization?

Here is how:

  1. Pick the categories or detail specific areas on which to focus and agree on reading allocations and responsibilities. The chances  are your team may just think you are joking and so you may need to hold them accountable.
  2. Determine the best publications to be reading / authors to follow in each category.
  3. Decide on a way to capture the best of the content and record your questions.
  4. Build internal vehicles to engage with those questions.
  5. Make select questions part of your Executive agenda.

A further suggestion that I have seen work well is to start a book club at work. Invite your readers to read on behalf of the company. Find a way to allow them to meet regularly, sift the best ideas and then channel those ideas into the organization. I know of an executive team who would entertain the best ideas from the book club at their monthly meeting. It fed a constant stream of new ideas into the organization and the entire process that underpinned the cultivation of ideas also served to develop people, provide a strategic voice throughout the organization and contributed to the development of a learning culture.

And to get you started allow me to make a suggestion. Make one of your categories, ‘Futures’ and then subscribe to The Futures Magazine. To do so you might have to join the World Future Society (www.wfs.org). I think this might just be the most important publication you will ever read.

Too busy to read? Then you are too busy.

Leaders read.

Musings of a Time Traveller

Posted on: October 2nd, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Well to be honest, I’m not really a ‘time traveller’. However, if flying North, then over the top of the earth (in a North-East kind of direction I guess?), then South and finally West for 30 hours, plus 9 hours waiting in ‘departures’ and crossing 12 times zones in the process counts for anything – then just maybe, I am a type of ‘time traveller’.

This year has been one of extraordinary travel: London (x3), Switzerland, India, China, Thailand and Russia. Before the year is ready to be consigned to the shelf there will be further trips to China (x2), Russia, Turkey, the UK, Argentina and Sweden…of course that is what is known but there can’t be too many others –  unless someone out there knows how to turn rain-dancing into days-dancing  and then shares that with me!

This time warp that I referred to is what it takes to get from Durban, South Africa to Hawaii. It is the 11th time I have done this trip and whilst I think that deserves some respect and sympathy, strangely none is forthcoming. Of course I go to work in Hawaii but somehow that too (work – Hawaii) falls on the rocks of oxymoron and elicits unwarranted (in my opinion) scepticism and ill feeling. It is hard to understand although I must admit that tales of hair blowing Harley Davison rides, horse riding, scuba diving and leisurely drives to the North Shore haven’t helped dispel the myth surrounding my trips. I argue that this is a crime infested island and every year I deliberately place myself in harm’s way for the sake of leadership development.  You just have to watch Hawaii 5-0 to understand this but again no, no one seems to listen much less show some concern for the peril I face so bravely.

But as said, this is my 11th occasion to be part of a fine leadership programme hosted by the renowned East -West Center and I’m referring of course to the Asia Pacific Leadership Program (APLP). It draws high calibre participants from throughout Asia Pacific and is by some distance the most diverse classroom I encounter in the work I do.

Here then, in no particular order are some musings from my experience of having made this trip so frequently. They are thoughts that I hope will spark deeper reflections of your own as you live and practice the art of leadership.

Sometime you just have to go there and back to see how far it is. This novel idea isn’t mine but I like the notion it conveys. Often I have been asked if, in the case of a willingness to try something new, something different, if it will succeed or secure the desired results. The answer is, “I don’t know, you’ll just have to try it and see” or put another way, “you just have to go there and back to see how far it is”.

Life has to be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. This too isn’t mine but it suggests that every now and then it is good to pause, look in the rear-view mirror and wonder. A kind of wonder that leads to understanding; understanding for the often-incomprehensible path trodden. Time travelling does this for me and somehow it opens the portal to deeper understanding as to the journey thus far –  the everyday, the normal, and the routine. I think we call such a portal ‘perspective’ but talk of ‘time travel’ and ‘portals’ is much more fun!

Alone Together is possible. Again I cannot claim ownership of this oxymoron. However, it is a vivid description of 21 Century living and often when I am sitting in a tin capsule hurtling at high speed at a great height, ‘alone together’ seems apt. I am not a big talker when travelling and I can become engrossed in the ‘alone’ yet ever conscious of the ‘together’. I think that we need both and I somehow think that this oxymoron will, better than most, be descriptive of that time when we each have to face death as something intensely personal yet universally shared.

Happiness is not a place or destination.  It is a state of being that can exist anywhere. Hawaii is often referred to as, ‘Paradise’ and it is not hard to see why – something that also doesn’t help my cause! However, being in Paradise doesn’t mean the end to pain, loneliness, heartache and suffering. Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor suggests in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that life has to be lived with purpose. Happiness is something we grow inside out and it is not to be found outside in. Many ‘outward things’ masquerade as happiness but as many will attest, true happiness is a state of being rather than something we can acquire.

Home is where the heart is. Not once have I left home, no matter the destination, when I have not dragged my feet somewhat. You see my heart is at home and so leaving home always involves leaving some of my heart behind. It evokes those dark days of leaving home for boarding school –  something I never really adjusted to as much as I enjoyed the environment once there. It was the leaving that was hard. It still is. It is the way it should be.

Life is a journey. This is the first sentence of my personal mission statement crafted many years back (oh so Boomerish I know!). It is followed by… ‘A journey shared’. My wanderings have unlocked previously unimaginable places and destinations. Before my ‘travel days’ really started, I remember yearning to travel –  to see, experience, learn and grow from encountering different cultures and places – and I remember once expressing this yearning (and my frustration over a lack of travel opportunity) with a wise mentor. He listened thoughtfully before offering me the wisdom that if it (travel) was meant to be, it would happen but that I needed to live in the here and now, be present, and trust the navigation process. At the time it was sound advice albeit with an improbable rider, but how the road since then has yielded up the improbable! I have been most privileged. With that comes a responsibility to learn, share, be rooted and always, always appreciative. I work at such, not always successfully.

Here then are some simple musings from this Time Traveller. I hope they provide you with an opportunity to pause and find some of your own wisdom and insights from the road you have travelled.

Oh, and by the way…today I met a real live astronaut, an American who has twice been on the shuttle, Challenger. Who says there is no such thing as time travel?

Meaning: Your Responsibility!

Posted on: September 25th, 2012 by Keith Coats 4 Comments

During a recent conversation with my colleague, Dean, a conversation had whilst driving through the beautiful Ascot in England, a thought was expressed to which Dean responded, “Keith, you really need to blog that thought”.

This then is the blog that captures that thought.

It is a simple thought but one that I believe is fundamental to finding meaning in life, or at least in our avocation – that which we do. It is something that we all need to engage with, regardless of our role and responsibility in the organisation or business in which we serve.

Dan Pink in his book Drive, explores the science of human motivation. He makes a compelling case for the need to employ intrinsic motivators for the definitive tasks of the 21 Century rather than the more usual extrinsic motivators, which he describes as ‘carrots and sticks’. Intrinsic motivators he articulates as, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Pink describes ‘purpose’ as the understanding that we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves; another way of perhaps understanding purpose would be to describe it as ‘meaning’. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor wrote his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning in which he argues the fundamental need is for people to have a sense of meaning in their life. Frankl’s book is a ‘must read’ – at least it is on my list of books that every leader should read.

So then, what was this ‘must blog’ idea on meaning?

It is that meaning is not to be found in what we do, but is rather, something we bring to that which we do.

If meaning is to be found in what we do then for the majority of jobs and occupations would seemingly be ‘without meaning’? For those involved in saving the world,  saving the rhino, feeding the orphans or restoring sight, it is not difficult to find meaning in what they do. But what then for those who pack boxes, clean-up, sort, file and do any number of tasks that might seem ‘meaningless’ when viewed in isolation?

Meaning is brought to work not found in work. Meaning is your responsibility. It is something that comes from within. It is a little like happiness in the sense that when we understand this, the agenda changes. Of course meaning can be found in work but then what if we no longer get to continue with that work? No, meaning is our responsibility and understanding it as such changes everything.

Of course this thought implies a journey, an inner journey, one that if you are willing to make, will yield rich dividends.  It is a journey that has to be explored personally and although there can and should be help along the way, it is always an intensely personal journey.

So let me not clutter this thought with more words. Meaning is something we bring to that which we do.

That’s the thought. It is a thought that begs a question: So what meaning do you bring to work? Careful how you answer that!

Humility in Leadership

Posted on: September 19th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Think Big, Act Small by Jason Jennings is a worthwhile read (Kindle edition here). He looks into what has made best performing companies (in the USA) sustain their ‘start-up spirit’. In the book Jennings offers some arresting insights based on solid research done at the coal face of business . (It was written in 2005, before the recession, but is still highly relevant.)

One of the companies examined is that of Koch Industries, a firm founded by Fred Koch in 1940 with roots in the refining industry. The company’s annual revenues currently exceed $100 billion and according to Forbes, it is America’s second-largest privately held firm. Today, Charles and David Koch, the sons of Fred Koch, lead Koch Industries. Charles recalls two pieces of advice he was given by his father when he first joined the family business and was immediately given a part of the business (Koch Engineering Company) to run. The first bit of advice was to travel to Europe and explore what amounted to an operational strategic option. But this isn’t the advice that caught my attention – rather it was the second piece of advice that Fred gave to his son: that his son’s first deal would be a loser, “because otherwise you’ll think you are a lot smarter than you are.”

It was all about being, and remaining, humble.

In fact Koch’s leadership development programmes intentionally focus on keeping humility alive within the organisation’s culture. It is so different to the brash, over-confidence and arrogance that I have often encountered in leadership circles. It is advice that stands in contrast to much of the current ‘wisdom’ doing the rounds –  wisdom which promotes that the individual or company adopts a swagger designed to impress, intimidate and dominate. It goes against much of what I know to be authentic and true.

The problem with humility as a personal trait is that it is one that eludes being recognized by the ‘carrier’. The moment one recognizes humility is the moment one is not (humble). It is one of those paradoxes. Humility is a quality recognized by others; it is confirmed from the outside in, as it were.

(more…)

Humility in Leadership

Posted on: September 18th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Think Big, Act Small by Jason Jennings is a worthwhile read. He looks into what has made best performing companies (in the USA) sustain their ‘start-up spirit’. In the book Jennings offers some arresting insights based on solid research done at the coal face of business.

One of the companies examined is that of Koch Industries, a firm founded by Fred Koch in 1940 with roots in the refining industry. The company’s annual revenues currently exceed $100 billion and according to Forbes, it is America’s second-largest privately held firm. Today, Charles and David Koch, the sons of Fred Koch, lead Koch Industries. Charles recalls two pieces of advice he was given by his father when he first joined the family business and was immediately given a part of the business (Koch Engineering Company) to run. The first bit of advice was to travel to Europe and explore what amounted to an operational strategic option. But this isn’t the advice that caught my attention.  Rather it was the second piece of advice that Fred gave to his son: that his son’s first deal would be a loser, “because otherwise you’ll think you are a lot smarter than you are.”

It was all about being, and remaining, humble.

In fact Koch’s leadership development programmes intentionally focus on keeping humility alive within the organisation’s culture. It is so different to the brash, over-confidence and arrogance that I have often encountered in leadership circles. It is advice that stands in contrast to much of the current ‘wisdom’ doing the rounds – wisdom which promotes that the individual or company adopts a swagger designed to impress, intimidate and dominate. It goes against much of what I know to be authentic and true.

The problem with humility as a personal trait is that it is one that remains eludes being recognized by the ‘carrier’. The moment one recognizes humility is the moment one is not (humble). It is one of those paradoxes. Humility is a quality recognized by others; it is confirmed from the outside in, as it were.

We need more humility when it comes to our theory and practice of leadership. There are some amazing examples, if only we would look. How do you go about ensuring that humility is part of the DNA in your development of leaders? Real humility opens the door to learning; it invites feedback and is willing to take advice. Traces of humility are to be found in questions more so than in answers.  Humility defers to others and doesn’t need to be centre-stage or constantly in the limelight.

We have much to learn from those who truly embody such qualities. They seem effortless but I suspect they are not. I suspect that such traits are the result of intentional cultivation and the wise input from others. They are the result of nurture and perhaps some nature.

Yes, I think we could do with more humility in our approach to leadership. I wonder what such a journey, such a process would look like for you? Over the next few days I will be teaching in a leadership programme in the UK. I plan to keep such thoughts top of mind as I do so.

A question to leaders everywhere: What questions are you asking?

Posted on: September 11th, 2012 by Keith Coats 3 Comments

Most people collect something or other. For some it is stamps, for others it might be model cars or antiques or things that have little significance beyond the passion of the collector. I too have a collection, albeit an unusual one but one that I think every leader would do well to imitate. I know that may sound somewhat presumptuous but I really do believe that my collection can make a significant difference to those tasked with the heavy responsibility of leadership.

To be honest I’m not quite sure when it all started and it is not the kind of collection that one can display; nor is it one that could be sold as it really doesn’t have any intrinsic value in and of itself. Yes, it is an unusual collection but one I would like to share with you as you make your way in the journey we call ‘leadership’.

I collect questions.

Not just any questions but those kinds of questions that seem to have the ability to turn things inside-out, upside-down and sometimes, right-way up. The kinds of questions that can serve as a companion for quite some time and that tend to stick with you whether you like it or not. The kind of questions that are hard to ignore and the type of questions that somehow invite new insights and fresh perspectives. The type of questions that act as gateways to paths previously thought unattainable.

But you know what I mean.

We have all encountered the magic of such questions: ones that seem to be carefully crafted for a specific time and place and that can change things forever when they intersect with our busy lives. They often take us by surprise and there is no set template from where they come. They can appear innocuous, incongruent and unpredictable as to when they show up.

Smart leaders understand the importance and power of good questions. It is said that the mind works best in the presence of a question and so the right question leads to ‘right thinking’ and ultimately, the ‘right actions’. The need today is for leaders to remain curious rather than certain for as Mark Twain put it, ‘It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble but rather what we know for certain that just ain’t so.’

Questions engage, unlock, challenge, and reveal. Questions allow us to slow down or catch-up. Used wisely, they are the weight that builds the muscle that leaders and organisations need if they are to make their way successfully into the future with all its inherent paradox, convergence and complexity. Smart leaders understand that the time when ‘leaders had all the answers’ is long gone. They understand that their role is to be asking the right questions at the right time to the right people. That is not as easy as it may sound. In fact, smart leaders start by asking of questions of themselves that challenge their own certainties, assumptions and viewpoints. An easy way to spot whether leaders do this is to see how they handle questions asked of them.

Yes, good questions have the potential to move us forward. They have the potential to take us deeper and when we understand that ‘you lead out of who you are’, the importance of finding the ‘good questions’ becomes obvious.

I collect questions.

Some have been uncomfortable companions and others are still to be authentically engaged. But here then, for your consideration, are some of the questions that have made my list over the years. Why not write some of them down – those that resonate with you – and then start your own list? You will find questions suitable for yourself as well as those with whom you live and work. I don’t think you will be sorry that you did so (start your list) when viewed from the vantage point that we call ‘hindsight’.

But, as I said, smart leaders already know this! Some of these questions (from my list below) can only be asked of the individual, others can be asked of a team, organisation or collective. Some simply need to remain private. Here then, in no specific order, are some from my collection:

• Have you found joy in your life?

• Has your life brought joy to others?

• Where is the place of your deepest learning?

• What do I want?

• Can I let go of that which I don’t want to lose?

• What is the change that I am avoiding?

• What am I learning?

• To whom do I need to prove myself– and why?

• What can I learn from moments of embarrassment?

• What defines me?

• What makes me defensive – and why is this?

• What do I find in the silence?

• What in the silence finds me?

• What is the background music in my life?

• With whom or what am I competing?

• Where do I belong?

• Where did we come from?

• Who did we leave behind?

• Who are the guardians – and what are they guarding?

• Who are the paradigm shifters – and what are they saying?

• What do we / I need to learn next?

• What gifts have I received?

• What is my gift?

• What is my trapdoor?

• What direction am I facing?

• What has been the hardest feedback you have received?

• What was ‘the truth’ in such feedback?

• When last did you receive feedback – what did you do with it?

• How would you like to be remembered?

• Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?

• What is our ‘ridiculous’ idea about our future?

• What would it take to realize this idea?

• What do we need to stop / start doing?

• Am I afraid of dying – why is this?

…these then represent just a sample from my collection. Some are mine; most are not. I would be keen to hear what questions you have that have proved significant in your journey. Thank you.

A question to leaders everywhere: What questions are you asking?

Posted on: September 11th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Most people collect something or other. For some it is stamps, for others it might be model cars or antiques or things that have little significance beyond the passion of the collector. I too have a collection, albeit an unusual one but one that I think every leader would do well to imitate. I know that may sound somewhat presumptuous but I really do believe that my collection can make a significant difference to those tasked with the heavy responsibility of leadership.

To be honest I’m not quite sure when it all started and it is not the kind of collection that one can display; nor is it one that could be sold as it really doesn’t have any intrinsic value in and of itself. Yes, it is an unusual collection but one I would like to share with you as you make your way in the journey we call ‘leadership’.

I collect questions.

Not just any questions but those kinds of questions that seem to have the ability to turn things inside-out, upside-down and sometimes, right-way up. The kind of questions that can serve as a companion for quite some time and that tend to stick with you whether you like it or not. The kind of questions that are hard to ignore and the type of questions that somehow invite new insights and fresh perspectives. The type of questions that act as gateways to paths previously thought unattainable.

But you know what I mean.

(more…)

Leaders: Can you say this about your brand?

Posted on: September 5th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Recently I was sitting in an Executive meeting in which conversation was centred on rethinking the company’s vision and brand. To be honest what should have been an engaging, energetic conversation was rather like pulling hen’s teeth. There wasn’t much to enthuse over and I made a mental note to revisit the ‘why’ behind this lack of energy and engagement.

However, one of the participants shared a story that immediately sparked my imagination and was something worth sharing. He was talking about passing through customs between South Africa and Mozambique. It was a somewhat dour and laborious process until one of the Mozambique customs officials noticed his company’s logo on his shirt. With a broad smile he started tapping the logo and speaking excitedly in Portuguese.  “I didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying but I knew he was happy and I realized the power of our brand,” said the Executive.

What kind of response would your brand elicit? Would your brand stand the translation test and be something that would generate that kind of response? Perhaps it is not relevant given the scope of your business but it is certainly a worthwhile question to consider.

(more…)

Leaders: Can you say this about your brand?

Posted on: September 4th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Recently I was sitting in an Executive meeting in which conversation was centred on rethinking the company’s vision and brand. To be honest what should have been an engaging, energetic conversation was rather like pulling hen’s teeth. There wasn’t much to enthuse over and I made a mental note to revisit the ‘why’ behind this lack of energy and engagement.

However, one of the participants shared a story that immediately sparked my imagination and was something worth sharing. He was talking about passing through customs between South Africa and Mozambique. It was a somewhat dour and laborious process until one of the Mozambique customs officials noticed his company’s logo on his shirt. With a broad smile he started tapping the logo and speaking excitedly in Portuguese.  “I didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying but I knew he was happy and I realized the power of our brand,” said the Executive.

What kind of response would your brand elicit? Would your brand stand the translation test and be something that would generate that kind of response? Perhaps it is not relevant given the scope of your business but it is certainly a worthwhile question to consider.

Great brands are not accidental. They are the end product of intentional activity. They are the result of hard work and of guarding the right things along the journey to greatness. I am no brand expert but I do know that your brand is important. It is the symbol of what you stand for and the test of one’s brand is something that is always determined from the outside-in. No matter what you think, the litmus test is always about what others think; no matter what you believe, it is about what others believe about you.

Smart leaders understand this and pay careful attention to their company’s brand. Howard Schultz of Starbucks talks about walking into a Starbucks (after he had stepped down from being the ceo) and smelling burnt cheese (a result of the Starbucks breakfast offering). Instantly he knew that this was far from the purpose for which Starbucks had been established and he knew then that he had to do something. It was a realization that culminated in Schultz resuming the mantle of ceo (and yes, he refuses to use capital letters in designating the title). He talks about the “smell of the place” and smart leaders pay careful attention to the “smell of the place”. Internally that translates to the ‘organizational culture’ and externally it translates to your ‘brand’.

Smart leaders choose the words around such issues carefully and deliberately. It can be tiresome work getting to the right wording but those words, once decided, need to inspire and mean something. All too often they are decided, only to be placed on the wall somewhere – and forgotten. Smart leaders understand the importance of consistently linking words to actions and to ensure coherency between ‘who we say we are’ and ‘how we behave’.  Smart leaders understand the importance of getting authentic agreement around vision and values and that, as when one engages in the task of getting physically fit, there are no short cuts.

Your brand has to be lived. The other day I was on a flight when a group of loud and obnoxious ‘adults’ made their way on board. With little regard for anyone else on the flight they were of little credit to themselves or their company as they all boldly displayed their company shirt and logo.  I wonder if they had any notion of the damage they did to their company through their thoughtless behaviour that day? I’m sure they didn’t but the reality is that they did do harm to a company who I think would have expected more from them.

Your brand is important. Everyday is an opportunity to either enhance it or detract from it. It goes beyond the hype and spin that brands usually come wrapped in; it is all about how the brand is lived.

But as I said, smart leaders know this and they are attentive to it, starting with themselves.

From Russia with Love: Pilgrim or Tourist?

Posted on: August 28th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

This week I will be in Moscow doing a day on ‘Leading Diversity’ as part of a leadership programme for Boehringer Ingelheim- one of the top twenty international pharmaceutical companies. I have been fortunate enough to have been to Russia on several occasions for TomorrowToday and it is place I always find challenging. I love going there.

I say ‘challenging’ as I have always found a degree of ‘menace’ – something that never allows you to feel completely relaxed. There was the time the taxi I was in was pulled over and the driver shaken-down by the police; there was the time that I had to pay a $1000 ‘fine’ (bribe) just before boarding my flight to leave in what was clearly another shakedown. I had no choice and it was no time to take the moral high ground. I was just glad to escape the interrogation room and process that was befitting of any B-grade movie. There was the occasion I was in Moscow at the time of violent riots that left cars burnt and people dead; there was the time I got lost in the Moscow subway and had an official chase me when I asked for help.  (I guess some explanation is required on this one!)

I was to meet my friend, Igor, and the only way to navigate the subway then was to count stations as none of the signage was in English. Russia uses the Cyrillic alphabet that makes it hard to recognise for anyone unfamiliar with the letters. Anyway, I miscounted; tried to auto-correct, and ended up getting really lost! Finding someone to help proved difficult in rush hour madness and although I targeted younger people in the hope of finding someone who could understand English, my efforts proved fruitless. Then I spotted this official sitting in a small booth type structure at the foot of the escalator. Enthusiastically, making sure to don a friendly smile, I tapped on his window and asked for directions. His response was somewhat startling to say the least! He bellowed something that didn’t sound like, “Welcome to Moscow!  How can I assist you?” and came charging out the ‘office’ like a wounded bull elephant intent on maiming. I quickly abandoned any hope of diplomatic negotiation and on pure instinct turned and ran for my life. He pursued me for some distance but clearly sitting in his coup day after day hadn’t done his athletic prowess much good. It was a curious scene I’m sure but one that left the regular commuters unfazed.

I later found out that his job was to keep an eye on the crowded escalator and being a job that must have required undivided focus and concentration, had a large sign on his booth warning against asking for directions (clearly I wasn’t the first) but the problem was…it was in Russian. Just when I was considering a future as a busker in the subway (I would have starved) help arrived in the form of Igor.

As I was saying, trips to Russia always seem to pose opportunity and threat in equal measure. The people are wonderful. Not obviously friendly or outwardly welcoming but beneath this somewhat austere exterior, sits a deep sense of hospitality. I recall my host on the first occasion that I did work there, warning me that if the participants thought I was wasting their time, they would be quick to let me know! In winter it is a harsh place to be and much of the city creeks under the parade of old cars, systems and a façade that seems in need of updating. But all this merely adds to the charm, the mystique and the thrill that is Moscow.

My first visit to Red Square coincided with sunset and standing in this famed place was mesmerizing.  I understood why it is called Red Square as the brickwork glowed under the setting sun.  Then there is the ritual around the banya (Russian bathhouse or sauna) – something that could occupy an essay all on its own! Another time perhaps as I certainly have some stories about this that include running outside into the freezing night and thick snow, in nothing other than a towel and hugging a tree!  And I might add – I was completely sober at the time! But as I said, that is another story for another occasion.

I was once told that ‘tourists take pictures but pilgrims collect stories’. I have tried to travel as a pilgrim ever since. I have no doubt that this week will once again yield further stories.  It is something I look forward to.

Good advice that – travel as a pilgrim. In fact, in dealing with the challenge of leading diversity I will be using ‘story’ or narrative as the means whereby we can get to grips with the challenge of diversity: learning how to move from being different from each other to being different for each other.
Go on then, travel as a pilgrim and instead of taking pictures, collect stories. You won’t be sorry you did!

On Leadership: Regretfully…

Posted on: August 21st, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

We all live with a few regrets, or so a survey that I read the other day would have us believe. But I think it would be true that there can be very few people who, in all honesty can say, “I don’t have any regrets” when it comes time to taking stock – whenever that might be. In fact three-quarters of those interviewed said that they didn’t think it was possible to live without regrets.

So what are the things that we regret? The survey revealed the top ten regrets to be:
1.    Not having saved more money
2.    Not having worked harder at school
3.    Not having exercised more
4.    Not seeing more of the world
5.    Taking up smoking
6.    Not staying in touch with people more
7.    Not having taken more care of our bodies when younger
8.    Not having appreciated an elderly relative more before he or she passed away
9.    Not having taken more photos of experiences growing up
10.    Getting married too early

It would seem that the main areas of regret are our love lives (20%), family (18%), career (16%), health (14%) and finances (14%). Two-thirds of those surveyed felt that their regrets spurred then on to greater achievement and 17% blamed others for their regrets.

One thought as I looked through that list was how it might change from generation to generation. For one thing, the next generation will have no regrets about recording their history. The other day one of my kids stumbled across a faded photo of me in my youth. Of course it was the subject of much comment- most of it derogatory! The comment that arrested the flow of conversation that was going against me was a simple (but I would like to think profound), “well there aren’t too many old photos of me but think what your kids will do with your Facebook time-line one day?” Enough said!

An interesting survey on a thought-provoking topic. It got me thinking about the kind of regrets a leader might identify were he or she to be asked about what they regretted when it came to their own leadership practise. I suspect that the list would be long and that it would be very context specific – after all, leadership is always context specific. Nonetheless, it would be a great question to ask a group of leaders and I suspect that the conversation to follow would be well worth noting.

Leading without regret hinges on two important elements.

Firstly, it relies on healthy self-awareness. You lead out of who you are and the character ethic in leadership is indispensable. Knowing who you are and knowing your strengths and weaknesses are the building blocks to setting your future agenda as a leader. I think that the more work leaders do in these areas, the less likely they are to live with massive regret when it comes to reviewing their leadership journey.

Secondly, to lead without regret means to take responsibility for the choices you make. Covey regarded this as fundamental to emotional maturity and avoiding the ‘blame game’ is something good leaders do. It is a lesson perhaps that many in the South African government are still to learn, but that is another subject for another time.

Leading without regret is not the same as leading without error or mistake. It is not about being perfect but rather it is about engaging head-on with the challenge of life and leadership and having a full go. It is about knowing that you have done your best and that you have been honest, real and consistent. It is to acknowledge your flaws, oversights and omissions. Leading without regret will involve showing up every day and will demand time to think, reflect and recharge. Knowing what these look like for you is the first step; practicing them to the point where they become a leadership habit, is the second.

What would leading without regret look like for you? I would think it a great conversation for both those starting out on their leadership journey, as well as those grizzled veterans of the journey we tag ‘leadership’! Perhaps it is a conversation we should have more often in both leadership development programmes and the board room.

So, what would leading without regret look like for you?

Source: The survey was not mentioned by name but was written about in The Independent on Saturday, 3 March,2012, page 10.

11 Things Smart Leaders Know, Do and Live

Posted on: August 17th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Charlie Parker, a genius when it comes to the saxophone, once said, “Jazz comes from who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”

Charlie was spot-on – at least when it comes to leadership… I wouldn’t know about jazz!

Leadership is about who you are. It is about character. It is about looking inwards in order to lead outwards. The source of leadership is within rather than a set of external skills. The best leaders are those who know themselves, know their strengths and play to those strengths. They understand something of the connected, relational and paradoxical nature of the world in which they live and lead. They embrace change as an opportunity rather than a threat and they remain humble, lifelong learners who find wisdom in the small, the simple and the overlooked.

Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine and member of the Global Business Network, writes in Rethinking the Future that, “The network economy is reshaping and revolutionizing every sector of business” (p258). In this network economy, or what we at TomorrowToday refer to as the ‘Connection Economy’, relationship forms the core organizing principle. It represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about the world and in how we understand leadership. For leaders to grasp this and begin translating it into tangible corporate practice is in essence to plot true north in navigating the future. Smart leaders will be those who are able to create and build process and relationship into the very DNA of their company. They will change what they pay attention to in the organization. They will focus on things more fundamental to strong relationships and will be attentive to the workplace’s capacity for healthy relationships in addition to its organizational form in terms of tasks, functions, span of control, and hierarchies. Smart leaders will need to become savvy about how to foster relationships and participate in networks as a means of nurturing growth and development.

In the Connection economy the competitive edge is not situated in business efficiencies but rather is found in the quality of the connections – both external and internal connections. The so-called ‘war for Talent’ is a prime example of this shift in where competitive advantage is to be found. Business efficiency is important but it is now taken as a given – if you are not efficient, you are simply not in the game.

(more…)

11 Things Smart Leaders Know, Do and Live

Posted on: August 16th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Charlie Parker, a genius when it comes to the saxophone once said, “Jazz comes from who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”

Charlie was spot-on: at least when it comes to leadership… I wouldn’t know about jazz!

Leadership is about who you are. It is about character. It is about looking inwards in order to lead outwards. The source of leadership is within rather than a set of external skills. The best leaders are those who know themselves, know their strengths and play to those strengths. They understand something of the connected, relational and paradoxical nature of the world in which they live and lead. They embrace change as an opportunity rather than a threat and they remain humble, lifelong learners who find wisdom in the small, the simple and the overlooked.

Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, and member of the Global Business Network, writes in Rethinking the Future that, “The network economy is reshaping and revolutionizing every sector of business” (p258). In this network economy, or what we in TomorrowToday refer to as the ‘Connection Economy’, relationship forms the core organizing principle. It represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about the world and in how we understand leadership. For leaders to grasp this and begin translating it into tangible corporate practice is in essence to plot true north in navigating the future. Smart leaders will be those who are able to create and built process and relationship into the very DNA of their company. They will change what they pay attention to in the organization. They will focus on things more fundamental to strong relationships and will be attentive to the workplace’s capacity for healthy relationships in addition to its organizational form in terms of tasks, functions, span of control, and hierarchies. Smart leaders will need to become savvy about how to foster relationships and participate in networks as a means of nurturing growth and development.

In the Connection economy the competitive edge is not situated in business efficiencies but rather is found in the quality of the connections – both external and internal connections. The so-called ‘war for Talent’ is a prime example of this shift in where competitive advantage is to be found. Business efficiency is important but is it now taken as a given – if you are not efficient you are simply not in the game.

So just what will it take to lead in a connection economy? Well here at least are 11 practical pointers as to what it takes:

  1. Value relationships more than transactions. In the new economy, relationships will ultimately be more important than transactions. In other words, a fundamental understanding that in this connection economy, relationship transcends transaction. Whilst efficient, cost effective transactions remain important business practices, more will be required in tomorrow’s world. The customer will demand relationship and that is what will determine loyalty and create word of mouth sales.
  2. Listen to customers, staff, suppliers, others…really listen! The individual now has unprecedented power to ‘create noise’. If you don’t listen or take feedback seriously, you might just find yourself dealing with a social media storm that is virtually impossible to control. Given how the rules of the game have changed when it comes to the broadcasting of information and opinion, how we listen also needs to change. I know of many influential companies where their ‘listening skills’ lag their other effeciencies and compencies. It is an imbalance that will need to be addressed urgently given the influence and impact of social media in today’s context.
  3. Ensure that reliable feedback (of course this is another way of saying really listen) is not only gathered but is acted on or synthesised. All growth, be that in the biological world or that of organisations, occurs through what has been described as the ‘feedback loop’: Action – Feedback – Synthesis. Without feedback there can be no growth- assuming of course it is incorporated into new actions. What systems do you as a leader have in place whereby you can benefit from reliable feedback? The tragedy is that many leaders have either intentionally or unintentionally placed themselves above direct feedback on their own performance. Yes, there is a close focus on delivery when it comes to the bottom line but beyond that focus, little else. Sometimes this means that delivery comes at a high price- one that goes unnoticed until it is too late.
  4. Who you are matters most. Who you are (character) and how you live (behaviour) must be aligned / are important. The emphasis on leadership development and education is slowly reflecting this swing in understanding leadership as not merely a set of skills but rather as being about character. How you develop character differs sharply from how you develop necessary skill-sets. There is more said about the importance of emotional intelligence and slowly the realization is dawning on the work needed to secure fitness in such areas of leadership. In my opinion more can and should be done in this area and those responsible (business schools and internal leadership programmes) need to be bolder and more intentional in this area. Progress in this area can be held back by current decision-makers who have been schooled in a different context and who fail to grasp the shift that has taken place.
  5. Understand paradox. Paradox is part of life and business.  Understand it (as opposed to trying to resolve it), work with it and learn from it. Examples of some of the paradoxical forces at work would include: global v local, big v small, relational v technological (for some this represents a paradox but for a younger generation it isn’t), centralised v decentralised. Contemporary leaders are required to lead in a world of paradox. Your only defence in such a context is to arm yourself with frameworks that will allow you to understand the paradox at play. Generational Theory would be a good example of such a framework: it doesn’t answer every question but it does provide some profound insights as to the generational paradoxes you will encounter within your professional (and personal) environments.
  6. Imprint adaptability. Business growth comes about not through planning but through adapting. Adapting becomes the new way of living, of changing (in a predicable, ordered world planning was possible. No longer is this the case given the systemic nature of the world in which we do business. Systems theory holds that the more complex the system, the less predictable it becomes). Delete (or perhaps shred) the elaborate plans that stretch beyond even where the Starship Enterprise has ventured and rather focus on ensuring that the inherent capacity for adaptation is imprinted throughout your business.
  7. Change from Controller to Collaborator. In a relational and networked world, leadership is no longer about control but rather about collaboration. This of course is far from simple but there is a lot being said, studied and written about the need for collaboration and it is something that ‘won’t go away’. Expect to see more on this subject and expect the ‘volume to get louder’! Leaders need to understand that influence is now the new frontier of leadership. Thanks to the reality of social technologies,  leaders can no longer expect to control the conversation. However, you can and must influence the conversations taking place that are of concern to you.
  8. Invite participation, create ownership at every level. Make a note of this point. Write it some place where it will shout at you daily. Look at it and think about how you can do it. Invitational leadership suggests that it is a leader’s responsibility to create the kind of environment that invites the best out of others. If those around you are not delivering their best, Invitational Leadership suggests that the blame for such starts with the leader!
  9. Embrace diversity. Diversity is the soil from which the twin challenges of (healthy) conflict and innovation will grow and flourish. Research shows that diversity leads to resilience and what leader would not want a resilient company? However, leading diversity is easier said than done. TomorrowToday, in conjuction with a leading international business school, has developed a day progamme on leading diversity. It is scheduled for progammes located in both Russia and Singapore in the near future. In essence we need to learn how to move from being different from each other to being different for each other. This is the challenging road in the quest towards harnessing diversity.
  10. It will be more important to remain curious rather than be certain. This means that success will emerge from failure and we will need to be willing to ‘try a lot of stuff and keep what works’ (Collins). It was Joseph Campbell who wrote, ‘Where you stumble, there your treasure lies.’ Work environments need to become ‘safe sandboxes’ – places where experimentation and risk-taking are encouraged; places of sheer play. What then are the questions you should be asking that will spark learning and curiosity?                                                                                                                                              This will mean embracing the marginal, the fringe. This is where the future is. Physicist, David Bohm once said: “The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.” Smart leaders know where to find the fringe and how best to manage it in order to create change and stimulate progress. Who represents ‘the fringe’ in your business? Contact them now and set-up a time when you can take them to coffee and explore their thinking and ideas.
  11. Become a Storyteller. Stories matter. So too stories about stories. Smart leaders will increasingly be seen as the ‘Storytellers’ within the organisations they lead. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart. We inhabit the great stories of our culture. We live through stories. We are lived by the stories of our race and place. Look for the stories! Next time you are in a bookstore, browse through the children’s section or if that is too difficult then buy, Who Moved my Cheese and read that. (It requires lower literacy ability than any of the Harry Potter series…yet becomes a business best seller!) We have used Dr Seuss’s classic, ‘Oh the places you will go’ in a leadership programme and I once facilitated an entire strategy process using a story framework. Stories provide content; they give context; they bring about coherency; they foster and nurture connection and can be used as a catalyst for change. The work I mentioned that we will be doing on leading diversity (point 9) includes a story component as one cannot explore diversity without an appreciation for story.

For many of you facing up to the demands of leadership, some or several of these points may represent ‘foreign territory’. They may represent an agenda or a journey that will require bold exploration and /or creating a new set of reference points altogether. It involves learning (and maybe ‘unlearning’) a whole new language and new customs. Acquiring these navigational points and skills, unfamiliar as they may be, will ultimately determine whether or not companies heading for tomorrow will thrive, or forever be “lost at sea”.

Go on, take Charlie’s advice…live it! You won’t be sorry you did.

Future-proof your Organisation: 4 things leaders need to know about tomorrow

Posted on: August 15th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

“Change is the law of life.” So said John F Kennedy.  He also said, “those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” The ability to change – or what can be referred to as ‘adaptive intelligence’ – is, I believe, the most important of all leadership attributes. Leading in this connected and complex world presents new challenges for those in leadership – along with many of the other challenges that have already been well documented and written about. The pace of change has never been what it is today.  Although change has always been part of the DNA no matter what era you choose to focus on, it is the exponential rate at which it is accelerating that makes this era unique. In essence this means that leaders and organisations need to not only recognise this new reality but also intentionally develop coping mechanisms and skill-sets that will help ensure that they don’t ‘miss the future’.

Here are four things that you as a leader can do to ‘future-proof’ yourself and your organisation:
(more…)

Future-proof your Organisation: 4 things leaders need to know about tomorrow

Posted on: August 14th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

“Change is the law of life” – so said John F Kennedy and, “those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”  The ability to change – or what can be referred to as ‘adaptive intelligence’ is I believe the most important of all leadership attributes. Leading in this connected and complex world presents new challenges for those in leadership – along with many of the other challenges that have already been well documented. The pace of change has never been what it is today.  Although change has always been part of the DNA no matter what era you choose to focus on, it is the exponential rate at which it is accelerating that makes this era unique. In essence this means that leaders and organisations need to not only recognise this new reality but also intentionally develop coping mechanisms and skill-sets that will help ensure that they don’t ‘miss the future’.

Here are four things that you as a leader can do to ‘future-proof’ yourself and your organisation:

  1. Understand change is first and foremost an attitude. Thinking about the context intelligently and asking the right questions are the forerunners to taking good action. Cultivating the right attitude towards change is necessary in order to follow that through when it comes to actually making the change.
  2. Get the balance right as to where your attention is focused. Whilst you might need to begin to think like a futurist, an appreciation for the past and where you have come from is also important.  Driving involves looking not only in front of you at the terrain ahead but also occasionally looking in the rear-view mirror. Both are important for perspective and having a balanced perspective is critical in today’s context.  Of course the trick is not to become trapped by the past and especially by past success.
  3. Understand that the rules pertaining to information have changed. Information is to change what an engine is to a car. Where we get our information, how we get it and store it and how it is disseminated have all been revolutionised by advances in technology and computing. The Cloud, mobile devices and augmented reality all contribute to making this revolution either a threat or an opportunity. Whatever it is to be, one thing is for sure: things are different! So much of the leader’s engagement with this shift in reality comes down to mind-set before issues of skill-sets need to be focused on.
  4. Understand that adaptive challenges require new learning. Much of what confronts you as a leader today can be described as ‘adaptive challenges’. An adaptive challenge means ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. The reality facing those in leadership is that you increasingly are encountering situations unlike those previously encountered. In such situations new learning is required. This is why it is so important that both individuals and organisations work intentionally at being learners. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because your organisation runs a host of learning and development programmes that learning is assured! In many instances such activities are long overdue a revision as to their real impact and effectiveness. However, learning is simply not optional if you are to thrive into the future. We all learn differently and leaders need to take responsibility for not only your own learning but also that of your organisation. Many leaders I know make guest appearances at the opening of such programmes, say a few predictable words and that is about the sum total of their participation and investment in the learning process. Abe Lincoln’s words sound a warning.  In 1862 he said, “The certainties of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.  As our situation is new so we must think anew and act anew.”

JFK was right: change is the law of life. It is a law that needs to be understood if leaders are to be sure of not ‘falling on the wrong side of it’ for if you do – the future will not be kind to you!

The Best Way to Develop Leaders Yet!

Posted on: August 8th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

“I have done all the tests,” he said to me, “and the Enneagram is by far the best I have ever done. It really has made a difference in my life. Would you please come and do it for my team”.  So came the request that sees me once again presenting an Enneagram workshop- something I have done countless times in many countries. Every time that I get to present the Enneagram leaves me amazed yet again at how powerfully it resonates with those experiencing it for the first time and the impact it makes.

Today there is a growing understanding of the importance of leading ‘out of who you are’  – an understanding that leadership has more to do with ‘character’ than merely being a ‘skill-set’. There is a growing appreciation for the role that emotional intelligence plays in the leadership mix and it is in such circumstances that the Enneagram offers the ‘best’ solution.  As you start to understand leadership in this light, so the work leaders need to do in order to be ‘fit’ changes. If the world has changed, leadership needs to change. The world has changed! This is one reason why leadership development and leadership education have to shift.  What has gone before is inadequate for the demands placed on leadership into the future. This is the reason that one of the finest business schools globally has invited us to share with them how best to incorporate the Enneagram into their executive leadership education curriculum. It is work we anticipate with relish as the uptake on incorporating the Enneagram will be profound.

The Enneagram is based on ancient wisdom that enables us to understand our personal compulsions that drive our behaviour. In effect the Enneagram invites deep personal exploration, a look ‘beneath the waves’ and therein sits the tremendous transformative power of this tool or framework. If we are to change there has to be an appreciation for what underpins the surface behaviour and this is where the Enneagram offers insights like no other self-awareness tool.  So many of the more familiar and popular tools used in this regard fail when taken across cultural and geographic borders. They hold up well in the West but fail dismally in the East. The Enneagram transcends such borders – something I know from personal experience having worked with the Enneagram with over 30 cultures spanning Asia, Africa, the Americas, Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

(more…)

The Best Way to Develop Leaders Yet!

Posted on: August 7th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

“I have done all the tests,” he said to me, “and the Enneagram is by far the best I have ever done. It really has made a difference in my life. Would you please come and do it for my team”.  So came the request that sees me once again presenting an Enneagram workshop- something I have done countless times in many countries. Every time that I get to present the Enneagram leaves me amazed yet again at how powerfully it resonates with those experiencing it for the first time and the impact it makes.

Today there is a growing understanding of the importance of leading ‘out of who you are’  – an understanding that leadership has more to do with ‘character’ than merely being a ‘skill-set’. There is a growing appreciation for the role that emotional intelligence plays in the leadership mix and it is in such circumstances that the Enneagram offers the ‘best’ solution.  As you start to understand leadership in this light so the work leaders need to do in order to be ‘fit’ changes. If the world has changed, leadership needs to change. The world has changed! This is one reason why leadership development and leadership education have to shift.  What has gone before is inadequate for the demands placed on leadership into the future. This is the reason that one of the finest business schools globally has invited us to share with them how best to incorporate the Enneagram into their executive leadership education curriculum. It is work we anticipate with relish as the uptake on incorporating the Enneagram will be profound.

The Enneagram is based on ancient wisdom that enables us to understand the personal compulsions that drive our behaviour. In effect the Enneagram invites deep personal exploration- a look ‘beneath the waves’ and therein sits the tremendous transformative power of this tool or framework. If we are to change, there has to be an appreciation for what underpins the surface behaviour and this is where the Enneagram offers insights like no other self-awareness tool.  So many of the more familiar and popular tools used in this regard fail when taken across cultural and geographic borders. They hold up well in the West but fail dismally in the East. The Enneagram transcends such borders – something I know from personal experience having worked with the Enneagram with over 30 cultures spanning Asia, Africa, the Americas, Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

I guess this is sounding a bit like some sort of promotion for engaging with the Enneagram. Well, maybe it is! If as a leader, you are serious about leading better and knowing how to invite the best out of those you lead, then the Enneagram offers a powerful framework to do such work. It is a little like learning a new language in that it takes hard work and dedicated practice but, the more you use it, the better you’ll become at applying it! I have used the Enneagram not only in a leadership / personal development context but it also sits comfortably at the intersection of any personal relationship making it ideal for parenting, coaching, mentoring, sales and team building to name but a few areas.

In TomorrowToday we have often said that perhaps the only two frameworks one needs in order to understand people are Generational Theory and the Enneagram. Becoming fluent in these two ‘languages’ will go a long way to ensuring effective inter-personal relationships. In a world such as ours where connectivity and complexity dominate, finding such frameworks is vital for all leaders and organisations.  Avoiding this demanding work will come at a cost and engaging in the development of emotional intelligence is simply not optional for 21st Century leadership.

As the Enneagram’s popularity spreads I do have one major concern. It is that in our haste to apply it as a quick fix within the impatient corporate environment, we erode the very integrity of what the Enneagram is. In the need to find short cuts and entry points into this ancient wisdom, we detract from the real value that the Enneagram offers. More and more is being written and said about the Enneagram, some of it good, some of it not so good – so we need to exercise a degree of caution as we look to translate the Enneagram into our work environments. However, the Enneagram is by far the most powerful tool I have come across when it comes to the work of leadership development and as such I commend it to you for further consideration.

Would I be happy to answer your questions or explore this further should you be curious? You bet!  There is overwhelming testimony as to the power of the Enneagram and I would invite you, in the context of your leadership journey, to seriously consider an engagement with the Enneagram.

Let me know how TomorrowToday can help you in this regard.

Seeing Beneath the Surface: Innovation and Leadership

Posted on: August 4th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

These days there is a lot said and written about the need to innovate. Companies are encouraged to innovate and the topic is now a natural part of most MBA’s and leadership education programmes – something that is slightly ironic as many of these programmes themselves are in desperate need of a makeover! Innovation is important and certainly we in TomorrowToday, are part of the chorus strongly advocating the need for innovation.

Let me digress for a moment.

The first woman mathematician was reputedly Hypatia of Alexandria (A.D. 370 – 415). Taught by her father,Theon, Hypatia had twin problems to deal with in the exercise of her knowledge and abilities. Firstly, she found herself in a context where the all-powerful church considered mathematics and science to be heresy. Secondly, Hypatia was a woman! This was a time when it was unusual for women to receive an education. In spite of these obstacles, Hypatia became a highly respected teacher, scientist, astronomer and writer. One of her inventions, the hydroscope, made it possible to view objects beneath the surface of the water.

Because of her curious intellect and her devotion to education and new learning, Hypatia became a lightening rod in the political tensions that existed between the Christians and non-Christians in Alexandria. Much of what she believed and represented went against the Roman Empire’s Christian doctrines. Hypatia’s Neoplatonic views which were based on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle (no favourites of the Church themselves!) prompted a mob of zealous Christian monks to murder her in the March of A.D. 415. Some believe that Hypatia’s death marked the end of the Greek mathematical tradition in Alexandria.

“So what has all this got to do with innovation?” you might well ask.

(more…)

Seeing Beneath the Surface: Innovation and Leadership

Posted on: July 31st, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

These days there is a lot said and written about the need to innovate. Companies are encouraged to innovate and the topic is now a natural part of most MBA’s and leadership education programmes. Something that is slightly ironic as many of these programmes themselves are in desperate need of a makeover! Innovation is important and certainly we in TomorrowToday, are part of the chorus strongly advocating the need for innovation.

Let me digress for a moment.

The first woman mathematician was reputedly Hypatia of Alexandria (A.D. 370 – 415). Taught by her father Theon, Hypatia had twin problems to deal with in the exercise of her knowledge and abilities. Firstly, she found herself in a context where the all-powerful church considered mathematics and science to be heresy. Secondly, Hypatia was a woman! This was a time when it was unusual for women to receive an education. In spite of these obstacles, Hypatia became a highly respected teacher, scientist, astronomer and writer. One of her inventions, the hydroscope, made it possible to view objects beneath the surface of the water.

Because of her curious intellect and her devotion to education and new learning, Hypatia became a lightening rod in the political tensions that existed between the Christians and non-Christians in Alexandria. Much of what she believed and represented went against the Roman Empire’s Christian doctrines. Hypatia’s Neoplatonic views, which were based on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle (no favourites of the Church themselves!), prompted a mob of zealous Christian monks to murder her in the March of A.D. 415. Some believe that Hypatia’s death marked the end of the Greek mathematical tradition in Alexandria.

“So what has all this got to do with innovation?” you might well ask.

Well there is an important lesson to be learnt from Hypatia’s fate. Essentially it is that innovation often poses a serious risk to the establishment. With the vantage point of the 21 Century, one can review the Church’s stance towards science and mathematics and see it for what it was – bigoted prejudice without foundation. The thinking and discoveries of such disciplines threatened the Church’s all-powerful grip on ‘the truth’ and was something that posed a serious threat to their power. From where we stand today it is easy to see the Church’s folly and narrow-mindedness but here is the challenge: why do we think that history will not judge us in much the same way?

Thinking and invention that threaten our sensibilities today might yet prove to be tomorrow’s norm; and today’s ‘truth’, be shown up as tomorrow’s folly. Those on the cusp of innovation often are met with opposition and hostility for daring to reveal an alternative way to see and do things. Within our organisations are layers of precedent and protocol that prove stubborn in the face of innovation. We often talk a better game than we practice when it comes to innovation within the ambit of our organisations. We murder the ‘Hypatias’.

If you decide to innovate, be careful what you wish for. Serious commitment to innovation will most likely change the way things are done and that might just mean you! In today’s connected and complex world, innovation is simply not optional. If you don’t innovate, somebody, somewhere, will innovate for you. The challenge is to build companies that are nimble, quick and which act as containers for an abundant capacity of adaptive intelligence. Such organisations don’t resemble those that have got us thus far. They might have the same logo on the outside, but inside they need to look different. Leaders who understand this are better able to lead effectively in such times. They recognise the need for their own Hypatias and encourage the kind of thinking that will challenge the status quo and in doing so, will help usher in the ‘new’.

It is always dangerous to be a Hypatia. But, we are better off for such people: people brave enough to point towards a better way and new thinking that changes the way we both see and do things. So, who is your Hypatia? And, what are they saying?

Answering those two questions is a good place to start.  That is if you are a leader serious about the need to innovate.

What you can tell about the ‘smell of a place’ by sitting in the reception!

Posted on: July 20th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

An 8am meeting with the head of learning and development at Zurich Insurance in downtown Johannesburg taught me more about the company than any Google search could have revealed. I say ‘could have’ because I had forgotten to bring my hub that would have given me Internet access meaning that I could have done some research on the company before my meeting. Over-estimating inner city traffic had me arriving at Zurich Insurance a full hour before my meeting. The only option was to sit in the lobby and wait, with my iPad as a companion, but without the connection that I had anticipated.

But as it turned out, I didn’t need Google to find out all I needed to know about Zurich Insurance! Not long after settling in to an unobtrusive corner of the reception waiting area, the Receptionist, who herself had also only just arrived (impressively early as well!) brought me a welcomed cup of coffee. When taking my order she had asked whether or not I took sugar to which I said, “no”. When she brought me my coffee it was accompanied by both a warm smile and sugar “just in case you change your mind”. With coffee and plenty to read on my iPad – actually I am reading Onwards the Starbucks story post 2007 –  I was quite content to wait out my time whilst casually observing the Zurich employees arriving for the day.

What then happened, not once but twice, told me more about the organizational culture – or what Howard Schultz, ceo (yes, that is correct – it is his way of designating those three important letters) of Starbucks refers to as ‘the smell of the place’ – than any Google search could have revealed. First, a senior staff member – well to be honest I can’t be certain of his position but he certainly had the look and gait of someone important –  paused as he walked past and asked if I had been attended too. His inquiry took me a little by surprise and caught me off-guard. Thinking it might be ‘my meeting’ I jumped to my feet and introduced myself whilst enthusiastically shaking his hand. Behaviour I concede might have seemed a little odd when reviewed from his perspective! Nevertheless, his pause and inquiry was appreciated. About 15 minutes later, another stranger walked up to me with the same question. It was Groundhog Day revisited! However, this time, he had first noticed me on his arrival and then had gone upstairs to his office. Later, as he saw me still sitting in reception from his vantage point (the building has an open plan in that one can view the reception area from the 5th floor), he made his way back down to reception to inquire whether or not I had been helped.

I was impressed by his concern and his action. By this time my new receptionist friend, Zama, had taken the initiative to get my meeting on track, get me signed-in and had ensured that I wasn’t in need of another cup of coffee.

These were all small details but an attentiveness nonetheless that served to aggregate into something far bigger and more impressive than when viewed in isolation. They speak to the ‘smell of the place’ – the all-important ‘culture’. It is said that, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast every time’. I know this to be true and my guess is that at Zurich Insurance, they do too!

The gift that wasn’t: Leading by doing nothing

Posted on: July 17th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

It was the kind of gift any twelve-year-old dreams about. In fact Michael had dreamt about it for some time in anticipation of his forthcoming birthday. Michael is the son of good friends and not from our cave, just in case you were wondering.

The gift in question was a radio-controlled car, the control mechanism being a watch that the ‘driver’ wears. A pretty neat gadget in anyone’s toy box!

The toy ER would have called the time of death slightly over an hour after the gift had first been unwrapped. It was a tragic sequence of events.

Water and electronics don’t make happy bedfellows and the watch and the swimming pool were no exception. Forgetting the wonder-gadget on his wrist, Michael dived into the inviting blue water on what was a scorcher of a day.

Enough said.

Of course there were the usual recriminations but they soon faded because what had happened had happened. There was no denying it and no use crying over spilt milk. Easy for me to write; I wasn’t the one who broke the bank to get the toy.

What was interesting were the ‘options’ that presented themselves as possible solutions to the ‘tragedy’. One that was suggested was to open the gadget, dry the circuitry, reassemble it and take it back to the place of purchase as ‘faulty’ and in need of replacement.

I have no doubt that for some this course of action would have been rationalised in any number of ways and acted upon.

Some lesson that would have been for a twelve-year-old!

Another option would be to do nothing. Naturally there would be the impulsive voice wanting to deal with the misfortune by simply replacing the drowned gift. After all, it was his birthday and this was the main event.

Again, what message would that have sent to Michael?

No doubt the gap left and the trauma surrounding the event will be felt for a long time by all concerned, and especially the Birthday Boy. In fact, I doubt if he will ever forget his twelfth birthday.

And it is that ‘gap’ which provides the never-to-be-forgotten lesson. Fill the gap, as empowered parents could, and the value of the lesson is lost.

Do nothing.

This is hard for most leaders, yet it is often the most appropriate course of action even if it is one that runs the risk of being misunderstood. The temptation to intervene is strong. To exercise control, use authority, take action . . . to, well, lead.

Semco’s Ricardo Semler refers to this passive response as ‘active omission’. Not only does he have a name for it but it is a central theme in his management philosophy and style. Of course there is a unique environment in which active omission occurs and to understand this fully you will have to read his book, The Seven Day Weekend, where he provides several practical examples of just how this works. The case for this course of inaction is best understood against the backdrop of process.

No two processes are alike and leaders (well, smart ones at least) understand the importance of process. It requires toughing out the ‘gaps’, being patient when things become uncomfortable and avoiding the temptation to give answers, fix, mend or heal.

So take a lesson from a small boy’s mishap and the response of his wise parents.

Doing nothing is often the best course of action.

Others often refuse leaders the space to do nothing. One reason for this is that it becomes far too threatening as they may be faced with taking responsibility. It is easier to hide behind leaders or blame them when things don’t work out. It then always becomes someone else’s fault and we deny ourselves and others the space to grow through situations that, in normal circumstances, demand action.

This is a tough thing to understand. You’ll need to give it a great deal of thought . . . and perhaps read Semler. I wish you luck!

Barclays and ABSA get the lesson: ‘culture matters most’.

Posted on: July 16th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Under the title, ‘Ramos fights on all fronts’ (Business Times 15/7/12), ABSA Chief Executive, Maria Ramos, tells parent bank Barclays of the concerns she has about their banking culture. She has every right to be concerned.

When Barclays bought a 55% controlling stake in ABSA it was always going to be an interesting cultural fit to say the least. I remember being involved in an executive leadership programme for Barclays Africa at the time and seeing firsthand some of the complicated cultural implications of the buy-out. In fact, some of the leadership sessions were at the Sandton Hilton, the very venue where some of the high-level merger negotiations were taking place – in the room next door to our programme. What stood out for me was the dichotomy between the respective executives in their dress code. A rather superficial measure I know but a startlingly obvious one nonetheless. The Barclays executives spilled out the room day after day in their pin-striped suits and colourful ties. They stayed that way the entire week, refusing to adapt to their environment, which was ‘smart casual’ at best, as demonstrated by their ABSA counterparts. ‘An early indication of the looming culture clash to come?’ was my immediate thought as I observed this obvious segregation of appearance. In spite of the obvious ‘happy relationship’ mantra that was spouted at every turn over the months and years that followed, one disgruntled employee in the know described the situation to me as the, “Boer war revisited!”

And now this! Barclays have shamed themselves and their industry by recent revelations of manipulating inter-bank lending rates and of course there will be others that are sure to join them on the list as a further 16 banks are under investigation. The extent of this ‘reputable’  (I mean after all this is the ‘best of what is British’) bank’s dishonesty is amazing. Had this happened in Africa there would have been all the condescending judgments from those in London and elsewhere about, well, what else can you expect from Africa?

 But we are talking London here, not Africa. The truth is that ABSA’s reputation has been irrevocably damaged by their Parent in the same way that any child cringes at pictures of drunken parents that might surface on the Internet, accompanied by an alarmed parental response of, “what does it mean I’ve been tagged?”

Ramos has every right to be angry. She points out that there are plenty of hard working, honest people in banking who are passionate about what they do. And she would be right on that score as well – I have met many of them and worked with some of them. So how then does what Barclays did, happen?

 Ramos lists it as a leadership failure; it is something that happens when leaders become marooned from the organization’s values. Again, Ramos is right. This is why Koerstenbaum argues that the primary responsibility of leadership is not strategic formulation or execution but rather, organizational culture. He is right! Yet, in my dealings with executives or in leadership development programmes worldwide, this reality is seldom reflected. Conversations and intentional activities aimed in the direction of ‘culture’ are usually met with tolerance at best and cynicism at worse. How often do you still hear ‘people issues’ referred to as the ‘soft stuff’ when the underlying implication is always that it is the ‘hard stuff’ that really matters?

The recent problems around ABSA that include senior staff leaving, a drop in share price and significant retrenchments have been blamed on Barclays pressure and micro-management, but this is refuted by Ramos. However, one doesn’t have to have been within the inner-circles to know the cost that mismanaged cultural integration has caused.

Leaders seldom know how to do this work but the trouble is that it is often work that only they can do. Organizational culture is a leadership responsibility. Unfortunately, it is often deemed as work that ‘everybody else’ needs to do but they (the senior leaders) excuse themselves from doing. By granting themselves this ‘pass go and collect $200’ card, leaders fail to recognize both the importance of not only doing this work, but also of being seen as doing it! Actions count more than words and it would seem that when it comes to corporate values, we are heavy on words but light on actions.

Culture matters. In fact one little word needs to be added here and that one word is…’most': culture matters most. The often-stated cliché, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast every time’ is right on the money. It is something both parent and child in Barclays and ABSA are finding out at their cost. The exact nature of the pain being experienced by the parent and child might differ, but the lessons to be learnt will need to be the same.

“We’re about integrity, honesty and fairness” claims Ramos; pity then no-one bothered to help Bob Diamond (former CEO of Barclays) understand this. Pity that no one bothered to share with Barclays’s leadership that values need to be both practiced and lived. Right now I’m sure that ABSA must be wishing they could find a place of their own and move out of their parent’s tainted home! Of course they are not going to say that but one could hardly blame them for wanting to do so!

A Diamond is a girl’s best friend? Maybe not in this case!

The future isn’t what it used to be: Neither at work nor it seems, at home!

Posted on: July 12th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

In the July-August issue of The Futurist (www.wfs.org) there was an interesting article on the shift from ‘smart houses’ to ‘networked houses’. Authors Chris Carbone and Kristin Nauth describe how tomorrow’s integrated, networked and aware home systems will forever change family life. Viewed from the vantage point of the future, current homes will resemble caves.

Carbone and Nauth track 10 technology trajectories underpinning this domestic transformation:

1.    Adaptive environments. For example,having ‘smart surfaces’ within the home that adapt to various uses to which they are subjected.
2.    Cloud intelligence. The ability to tap into information, analysis and contextual advice in more integrated ways.
3.    Collaboration economy. The outworking of ‘collective intelligence’ that enables us to accomplish tasks not easily handled by virtual agents and machines in the cloud. In other words it will mean accessing advice and recommendations by tapping into the social graph.
4.    Contextual reality. We will navigate through our daily activities thanks to multiple layers of real-time and location-specific information.
5.    Cutting the cable. Untethering personal devices from wired power and data connections. Access to the Internet will be ubiquitous. How welcome would this advance be for those of us constantly looking for misplaced adaptors and power cables!
6.    Information fusion. The ability to generate useful personal information by fusing available data. This personal data will become comprehensible through visualization and other services.
7.    Interface anywhere, any way. Freedom from conventional input devices such as keyboards, remotes, mouse, screen etc…
8.    Manufacturing 3.0. Manufacturing will be reconceived – from a far-flung, global activity to more of a human scale and re-localized endeavour.
9.    Personal analytics.  This information will become a consumer tool as much as a business tool. We’ll collect, store, interpret and apply vast amounts of personal data being created by and about ourselves during our everyday activities.
10.    Socially networked stuff. Many of our possessions will interact with each other and with the broader digital infrastructure.

What is interesting about these technological advancements is that societal drivers underpin them. This of course is where our message as TomorrowToday intersects with the ideas put forward in The Futurist. The ‘coming of age’ of the Digital Natives will see an exponential increase in the use of such technologies as is evidenced already by the use and dependence on social technologies. We are talking about a generation who have grown up in a world where interaction with technology is normal or as Carbone and Nauth write, ‘where building, modifying, and hacking consumer technology is taken for granted’. This changes everything that we can anticipate about the future and if it applies to the home, think about the implications for the work place! In fact ‘work place’ will take on a completely new meaning and will in reality, come to mean pretty much anywhere!

Digital Natives will drive this revolution and we have been repeatedly warning business leaders about what to expect when (it is not an ‘if’) this revolution washes upon their shores. The other day a colleague of mine, in speaking to a room full of CEOs, challenged them as to why wouldn’t they provide this generation arriving at their doorstep with the best technology available and free them from policy that shackles them in their use of it? To do otherwise simply makes no sense at all! Yet, that is exactly what invariably happens in our current work environments! We deny some of our staff the tools they are best equipped to work with and ground them through IT policies that should rather enable them to soar!

People drive technology. It is a mind-shift more than anything. The kinds of technological advances described in The Futurist might not all take the shape and form we anticipate. There will be surprises. However, what we can be certain of is that the future isn’t what it used to be and to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Best then we get ready!

Your Real Work as a Leader: A sense of vocation

Posted on: July 11th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

“I love what I do!” I have come to realize that there are a lot of people who cannot say that- folk for whom their working life is something to get done so that they can carry on with what really matters to them.

I believe in the message that is at the heart of our company, TomorrowToday. “There is a better way of doing things.” To have the opportunity to be engaged at the very cutting edge of such thinking, across global borders and with all kinds of industries and sectors, is both an immense privilege and an awesome responsibility. It is a responsibility I accept with relish. It makes me want to learn more, see more, improve, grow and consistently bring my ‘A game’. Sometimes when the juices are flowing, I also want to talk more but have come to understand that maybe I need to talk less!

I get to visit interesting places and meet wonderful people- many of whom are the unsung heroes that sacrifice willingly and make a difference daily. I get invited in to watch, ask, participate and learn. And then, to top it all, I get to share that which I have been given through such encounters. What a privilege! If I receive any applause or compliments, the reality is, there is an army behind me more deserving of such feedback and recognition. An army of teachers, mentors and others who, through their thinking, acting, example and wisdom have been the ones that have ‘coloured my picture’.

All this got me thinking about the difference between avocation and vocation. The insightful words of poet Robert Frost bring a degree of clarity in bringing the two – avocation and vocation, together:

‘But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.’

Avocation can be understood as ‘that which one does’ whilst vocation is something to which one feels called. Vocation sits at an altogether deeper level and when tapped into, provides a source of direction and motivation. For some their vocation is all too apparent whilst for others it is the result of deep exploration and self-awareness. The tragedy is that many go through life preoccupied with a sense of avocation that serves to keep them from their vocation. How often have you heard someone say, “I really wanted to be a teacher (or artist or whatever) but I was compelled to become an accountant”? It speaks of a life lived down a path poorly chosen and is usually filled with regret and sometimes resentment.

(more…)

Your Real Work as a Leader: A sense of vocation

Posted on: July 10th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

“I love what I do!” I have come to realize that there are a lot of people who cannot say that- folk for whom their working life is something to get done so that they can carry on with what really matters to them.

I believe in the message that is at the heart of TomorrowToday: “there is a better way of doing things”. To have the opportunity to be engaged at the very cutting edge of such thinking, across global borders and with all kinds of industries and sectors, is both an immense privilege and an awesome responsibility. It is a responsibility I accept with relish. It makes me want to learn more, see more, improve, grow and consistently bring my ‘A game’. Sometimes when the juices are flowing I also want to talk more but have come to understand that maybe I need to talk less!

I get to visit interesting places and meet wonderful people- many of whom are the unsung heroes that sacrifice willingly and make a difference daily. I get invited in to watch, ask, participate and learn. And then, to top it all, I get to share that which I have been given through such encounters. What a privilege! Should I receive any applause or compliments, the reality is, there is an army behind me more deserving of such feedback and recognition. An army of teachers, mentors and others who, through their thinking, acting, example and wisdom, have been the ones that have ‘coloured my picture’.

All this got me thinking about the difference between avocation and vocation. The insightful words of poet Robert Frost bring a degree of clarity in bringing the two – avocation and vocation- together:

‘But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.’

Avocation can be understood as ‘that which one does’ whilst vocation is something to which one feels called. Vocation sits at an altogether deeper level and when tapped into, provides a source of direction and motivation. For some their vocation is all too apparent whilst for others it is the result of deep exploration and self-awareness. The tragedy is that many go through life preoccupied with a sense of avocation that serves to keep them from their vocation. How often have you heard someone say, “I really wanted to be a teacher (or artist or whatever) but I was compelled to become an accountant”? It speaks of a life lived down a path poorly chosen and is usually filled with regret and sometimes resentment.

Sometimes of course it is a whole lot easier to fall into an avocation. It is more convenient, more practical and conforms to the expectations surrounding us. It is altogether understandable and so with a sigh and shrug we get on with the routine, do what is pragmatic and fulfill our responsibilities. Often we are not really aware what our true vocation is and should it only come into focus once an alternative course has been set, it takes enormous courage to change tack and begin afresh.

Internet Solutions have a wonderful mantra: Do what you love; love what you do. That about sums it up. How do we create a workplace culture where we have people who can say that? How do we honour our people in such a way that we are constantly encouraging them to explore and find their vocation, even if that means they have to leave? We should never look to our work as the source of meaning; rather we bring meaning to that which we do. Finding meaning is our responsibility and understanding.  It means that authentic meaning and purpose can be found no matter what the task or work.

It is said, rightly so in my opinion, that culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. Part of creating a healthy culture within our work environment is to actively work to link avocation and vocation. It is never easy but it is always possible. It always starts at ‘the top’ given that culture is a leadership responsibility. It starts with an awareness and willingness to intentionally pursue this agenda. It will be nuanced by the context in which you operate and the situation in which you find yourself. It will be influenced and impacted by culture and as such has to be discovered and nurtured rather than dictated and forced. It has to be ‘invited’.

Invitational leadership suggests that it is the leader’s responsibility to create an ‘inviting environment’ – one that extracts the very best from others. If others are not producing their best, the responsibility for such rests with leadership. That can be a tough message for leaders to hear. However, when leaders understand the link between avocation and vocation, and when they accept responsibility for the culture of their organization – or what Howard Schultz of Starbucks refers to as, ‘the smell of the place’ – it all starts to make perfect sense. With such grounding, doing this important work doesn’t need the complexity that it is often given by over-zealous consultants. Nor should it fall prey to the measures and metrics that in reality tend to take us further from the desired place, rather than deliver it! Common sense, authentic conversations and courage serve us best when we determine to walk this pathway. It is rooted in an ability to understand and act on our humanity, to see others – truly see them – and to pay attention to what is happening around us.

The intentionality that leaders need in creating such an environment can be better served by understanding the ‘circle of courage’. Researchers Brendtro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern in their book, ‘Reclaiming Youth at Risk’ study the child rearing practices of Native Americans and the inherent tribal wisdom. The Circle of Courage was a framework used to articulate what they found and is helpful when thinking about a work environment and how best to bring together avocation and vocation. The Circle of Courage highlights four key areas needed for healthy tribes (or in our case) healthy work places. The four areas are:

  • Belonging: an ability to create a sense of being part of a whole.
  • Generosity: an awareness of the need to share what I know and have for the benefit of others.
  • Mastery: knowing and acquiring the necessary skill-sets to enable the collective to not only survive, but ultimately, to thrive.
  • Independence: the maturity to accept being held responsible for the consequences of my actions

In TomorrowToday we have worked extensively with the Circle of Courage and have found it to be a dynamic and practical framework in which to evaluate and transform the work environment – the ‘smell of the place’! Of course there are many other good frameworks but as a leader you need to find such a framework when intentionally working in the area of organizational culture.

Finding and staying true to one’s vocation will take courage and most likely, sacrifice. The courage and sacrifice might be that of the parent or boss as you support someone in their quest to live out of a sense of vocation. People who do so are the ones who change things. They are the ones who change the status quo and who deliver when others didn’t believe it was possible. This would be true of not only individuals but also of entire companies that are able to imbue their people with a sense of vocation. When we conduct those value assessments throughout our companies the results always show the need to respect others and show dignity. The results always call for integrity, honesty, a sense of togetherness and a sense of contributing to something that really matters. Why are we surprised by such outcomes? Why do we need surveys to tell us what we already know? Why do we not make sure we do all we can to deliver on such expectations and hope?

We need to understand the difference between avocation and vocation.

We need to do all we can in the quest to ensure our environment supports a sense of vocation – that we create an environment that invites the best  in others out.

We need to understand this work as an ongoing process rather than as an event or intervention.

We need to understand that this isn’t something we do once we have our bottom-line needs met; we do this in order to deliver on our bottom-line.

When we have an army of people who love what they do, the rest is easy. Getting there is less so! However, is it possible? Why of course it is!  And what more, I believe this to be the real work of leadership!

The Leader’s Role: To bring the future to life

Posted on: June 29th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

I am often asked what it is TomorrowToday does. Some find the name intriguing or my title amusing (Director of Storytelling). “So what exactly does TomorrowToday do?” I am asked.

My stock answer is, “we bring the future to life”. Many leaders drive forward with their gaze firmly fixed in the rear view mirror. We are taught how to navigate the future by looking at the past, the favourite means of doing this being case studies. Business schools love case studies and so we go backwards in order to go forwards. Not only does this make no sense, it is dangerous. Peter Drucker warns us that the danger of turbulence is not the turbulence but rather, the use of ‘yesterday’s logic’. This is not to say that what has gone before is of no consequence. It is important to look back and have a sense of the journey traveled but the past cannot provide answers for the present and especially for the future. It is when we look to the past to make sense of the present that we limit possibility. Somehow we need to be able to learn from the future. So, the real challenge is: just how best can we do this – how do we learn from the future?

Think like a futurist. The discipline of Futures is to create helpful frameworks that enable engagement with that which is not yet. There needs to be a curiosity with what sits behind the veil that separates the present from the future. There needs to be a willingness to lift that veil and scope what it is that we might have to deal with and having a framework in place is helpful in this challenging work. In TomorrowToday we use a framework we call, TIDES. It is an acronym for five areas that you need to scan in order to meaningfully and intelligently engage with the future. The five areas are: Technology, institutional change, demographics, the environment and shifting societal values. We have successfully used this framework in our work with business schools and clients around the world.

(more…)

Africa’s Future: A glimpse of hope

Posted on: June 29th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Colourful, vibrant and alive with possibility. This was the WITS University graduation ceremony that I recently attended. There were responses both formal and informal that could best be described as, ‘only in Africa’. There was joy, celebration, humour and a light touch of somberness. It was all just right. It was a window of hope into the future of bright young minds filled with promise. May there be many, many more.

Education is the most critical undercurrent in our future as a country and as a continent. It will determine whether or not we realise our rich potential or not. The quality of today’s education will decide tomorrow’s context. It is that simple, it is that complex. I have done enough work in education to know that it is here that one finds the best and worse of conditions, attitudes and skills. The best ignites hope and the worse brings despair. Educators above all need to respond to a sense of vocation. If that is not your motivator as an educator then it is best you leave your profession…now. In countries such as South Africa and India, countries with the gift of bloated youth populations, the future is predicated on our ability to provide this segment of who we are with a relevant and competitive education. Failure to do so is not worth contemplating!

In the sea of colour and optimism that is the graduation ceremony sits both opportunity and threat: opportunity that will see potential realised and the threat that it won’t. This is a start not the end. I hope those with the smiles and their degrees safety tucked away see it that way. I’m sure they do.

Yes, I’m grateful to be here, to be African. I’m grateful that my beautiful daughter takes her place today as she is conferred with her Masters. So proud…but of course this is simply my job description as a dad! Every dad knows that! I am grateful for the unsung heroes who’s vision and sacrifice has brought us all to this point. Thank you.

Yebo yes, we need many more such occasions in our Beloved Country!

The Leaders Role: To bring the future to life.

Posted on: June 26th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

I am often asked what it is TomorrowToday does. Some find the name intriguing or my title amusing (Director of Storytelling). “So what exactly does TomorrowToday do?” I am asked.

My stock answer is, “we bring the future to life”. Many leaders drive forward with their gaze firmly fixed in the rear view mirror. We are taught how to navigate the future by looking at the past- the favourite means of doing this being case studies. Business schools love case studies and so we go backwards in order to go forwards. Not only does this make no sense; it is dangerous.

Peter Drucker warns us that the danger of turbulence is not the turbulence but rather, the use of ‘yesterday’s logic’. This is not to say that what has gone before is of no consequence. It is important to look back and have a sense of the journey travelled but the past cannot provide answers for the present and especially for the future. It is when we look to the past to make sense of the present that we limit possibility. Somehow we need to be able to learn from the future. So, the real challenge is: just how best can we do this?  How do we learn from the future?

Think like a futurist. The discipline of Futures is to create helpful frameworks that enable engagement with that which is not yet. There needs to be a curiosity with what sits behind the veil that separates the present from the future. There needs to be a willingness to lift that veil and scope what it is that we might have to deal with.  Having a framework in place is helpful in this challenging work.

In TomorrowToday we use a framework we call TIDES. It is an acronym for five areas that you need to scan in order to meaningfully and intelligently engage with the future. The five areas are: Technology, Institutional Change, Demographics, the Environment and shifting Societal values. We have successfully used this framework in our work with business schools and clients around the world.

Ask the right questions. It is said that the mind works best in the presence of a question. Meg Wheatley wrote that, “all intelligent action starts with good questions”. Asking the ‘right’ questions provides the gateway to your future. It sounds obvious yet I am amazed at how seldom I encounter questions at an executive level that inspire such engagement. Most of the questions I hear relate to business efficiencies and whilst these are important, they are not the type of ‘gateway’ question that leads to the future. Finding the right questions to ask is easier said than done but a good one to help create the question agenda would be:  ‘What is the question we should be asking, but aren’t?’

Know where to look for answers. Having decided on the best questions to be asking, we then need to know where to look for the answers. Search software makes data collecting easier and more efficient than ever. Whilst in London recently, I was at a presentation by Oracle in which their latest search software was being described.  It was designed to locate unstructured information from random data points in response to specific search inquiries. This takes data mining to a whole new level and business intelligence needs to be applied to questions that lead us to our unexplored future.

Be willing to make mistakes. At a software launch I attended recently, the byline was, ‘right first time’. Whilst this makes sense in the context of applying new software solutions, it doesn’t help if applied to navigating the future. Mistakes will be made.  The trick is to learn from them, not repeat them and to limit the damage they may cause.

There was a subway poster that caught my eye that stated, ‘Not all who wander are lost’. That is sound advice to those willing to explore. Explorers wander and if ‘lost’ merely know where not to go next time.

It is a mindset more than anything. Recognizing the importance and the need to be ‘future-focused’ starts with having the right mindset. There needs to be a curiosity about ‘what could be’ coupled with a willingness to question ‘what is’. There is the well knowing saying that states: ‘Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken’. This is Industrial Age wisdom and whilst there may be occasions when it is sound advice, more often than not, it isn’t good advice. How often have you heard it used in defense of the status quo – given as a reason not to change things? If we are to thrive in the future we need to cultivate the right mindsets in appropriate areas throughout our organizations. We need to embrace disruption and learn how to live with change and uncertainty. This is a vital part of a successful organization’s DNA and developing it can be exhilarating work.

This morning I had breakfast with a friend who has been in the CEO hot seat of a large South African company for the past four months. “What have you learnt in this time?'”was my question. “The first thing,” he replied, “is that it is all about team.”  After explaining what he meant by that, he then added, “actually the first three things have been team, team and team!”

It always comes back to people. Any business is made up of three aspects: strategy, operations and people. All three need to be integrated and aligned but perhaps the most difficult to get right for most leaders is that of people. Farming out responsibility for this aspect of your business to ‘HR’ and then stepping back and focusing elsewhere is a major mistake many in leadership make. If you wish to successfully navigate the future, then you have to be mindful of the people and intentional in your actions. You have to know their fears, their dreams and their aspirations. Leaders and companies that successfully bridge the present to the future develop an acute awareness of their people. Ultimately you might be able to find the pathway and set the GPS coordinates but it is the people who will have to walk that road as you make your way into the future.

Savvy leaders understand the need to ‘bring the future to life’ for those they lead. They find ways to consistently help their organizations look forwards rather than backwards. In TomorrowToday we thrive in helping construct and navigate that pathway. It is who we are; it is what we do best. We wouldn’t have it any other way!

Background Music: Essential for authentic leadership?

Posted on: June 19th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

A mentor of mine recommended a book for me to read by James Kugel titled, In the Valley of the Shadow. Seven years ago, Kugel, a retired Harvard professor of Hebrew literature, was diagnosed with an aggressive, likely fatal form of cancer. Given two years to live he has since made a full recovery from the cancer, something that led him to pen this book which is an exploration of his state of mind during this time. Kugel seeks to uncover what he calls the “starting point of religious consciousness”, an ancient “sense of self” and a way of fitting into the world that is quite at odds with the usual one.

In short it is a remarkable book, especially for someone my age as my son helpfully pointed out without a trace of intended helpfulness! However it was something early in Kugel’s writing that has arrested my attention.  On being told about his condition, the main change that he experienced was that the “background music suddenly stopped”. The music of daily life that’s constantly playing, the music of infinite time and possibilities was now suddenly gone. The background music was replaced by nothing- just silence. With this silence came an overwhelming sense of smallness, something Kugel describes as, “one little person sitting in the late summer sun, with only a few things left to do”.

Kugel’s vivid metaphor of the background music got me thinking about the background music leaders need to hear if they are to lead in such a way that others choose to follow.  Recently I had yet another occasion to take a group of leaders horse whispering – something that we in TomorrowToday use to help unlock the deeper insights of leading in the new world of work. It is a magical experience that more often than not results in a profound impact being made on those fortunate enough to experience it.  Conscious of Kugel’s notion of background music, I encouraged the participants to give special attention to their own ‘background music’ during the course of the experience. I encouraged them to listen to themselves and ask questions as to their own responses and behaviour as they worked with their horses.

 Somehow the debrief that followed the experience tracked a different course to previous such conversations. It was almost as if the intentional tuning into the background music elicited a deeper level of insight and reflection as to what had been learnt through the horse whispering experience.

I was intrigued. Could it be that one of the missing elements of leadership was leading oblivious to or, to put it another way, in a state of deafness to, the background music? Could it be that when this happens, leadership jars and become disconnected to effective practice? Could it be that authentic leadership is dependent on being in tune with one’s own background music? Just how important is the background music and what exactly is it?

At this stage I have more questions than answers but I suspect I might be onto something important in the quest to understand leadership and how best to develop leaders. I have long held that leading without an articulated leadership philosophy is flawed at best and dangerous at worse. I believe that theory needs to inform practice and that one without the other is severely limited. But now I have a more engaging way of exploring and possibly articulating such thoughts – that of ‘background music’.

What is your background music? I suspect it differs from person to person. How best do you become aware of your background music and how then do you take time to listen to it and live from it?  What difference will doing so make in the course of how you live and lead every day? How does one detect subtle changes to one’s background music?

As I said, more questions than answers. However they are inviting questions and ones that warrant further exploration and interrogation. I would love to hear your thoughts.

An Open Letter to TomorrowToday: A reminder from Starbucks for all of us!

Posted on: June 12th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

I am reading Howard Schultz’s Onwards.  Schultz is the founder of Starbucks and Onwards is the story of Starbucks post 2007. I loved Starbucks right from the time I first had a ‘Starbucks experience’ and that was deepened with the reading of a couple of books on the Starbucks story, including Schultz’s account. I love who they are, what they stand for and of course their white chocolate mocha (no cream), 2% milk, grande! Yes please!

“So what?” you may well be asking at this point (whilst quite possibly rushing off to brew  a quick cuppa). Stay with me here…and making that coffee might not be a bad idea, as I would like to invite you to not only read this but to spend a few minutes thinking about it and perhaps exploring your response – whatever that might be.

Writing an ‘open letter’ to TomorrowToday has been on my mind for some time but I have been waiting for the ‘story’ (message) to ‘find me’ before doing so.  I have come to learn and trust this process of allowing the story to find you rather than to go off searching in hidden places and trying to find something that isn’t ready to be found! We are all busy and have lots to read and I don’t want to add more noise to an already noisy world! However, given the nature and reality of TomorrowToday, I do think that there is the need for such a communication from time to time. So please indulge me if you will.

The following is what served as the ‘trigger’ for this communication. Schultz writes:

When we love something, emotion often drives our actions. This is the gift and the challenge entrepreneurs face every day. The companies we dream of and build from scratch are part of us and intensely personal. They are our families. Our lives.

But the entrepreneurial journey is not for everyone. Yes, the highs are high and the rewards can be thrilling. But the lows can break your heart. Entrepreneurs must love what they do to such a degree that doing it is worth sacrifice and, at times, pain. But doing anything else, we think, would be unimaginable.”

When I read this I immediately thought of Tomorrowtoday. Our business environment has never been the easiest to be at home in – for some it has been a greater adjustment than for others but it is certainly entrepreneurial and embodies much of what Schultz describes of Starbucks.

Work should be personal. For all of us. It needs to have meaning and the meaning does not emanate from what we do – but rather meaning is something that we bring with us to that which we do.  It is a subtle but important distinction. It places the responsibility for meaning not on the ‘what’ but on the attitude with which we approach the ‘what’.

Creating an engaging, respectful, trusting workplace culture is not the result of any one thing…although it can be destroyed by one thing. It’s a combination of intent, process and heart – and these things must be constantly fine-tuned.

A well-built brand is the culmination of intangibles that do not directly flow to the revenue or profitability of the company, but contribute to its texture. Forsaking them can take a subtle, collective toll.  In TomorrowToday we haven’t always got this right and at times have been successful in spite of ourselves. I would like to think that at our present time we are closer to ‘doing this right’ than on many previous occasions along our TT journey. For that ‘we’ have you to thank. I also believe that we have more work to do and that we cannot be complacent. But, if we get this area ever better, the rest will follow. Naïve? Maybe, but I really do believe this. It is a little along the lines of ‘if we build it, they will come’ (from Field of Dreams). Or, to put it in a little more of a business context: Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.

We have made significant strides in our TT culture from not too long ago. We need to keep going. If we can harness the current opportunities we have and be smart about how we do this, there is really no limit to what we can achieve together. TT is now owned by more people than ever before – it is a significant shift in our business model.  We have better IP than at any time in our past; better channels to market in an ever increasing market, and greater credibility and influence than at any time in our history. We survived the greatest economic downturn in history and have emerged with a story to tell. We have survived major loss in personnel and emerged with a story to tell.

This is ours to own, grow, take responsibility for and enjoy. I guess the converse would also hold true…it is ours to mess up! We bring different voices and gifts and I would ask that you know what these are (for you) and that you use yours well.

So please keep working hard but be sure to have fun in doing so. Say what needs to be said but do so in the right way. Dream big but know what it is you need to get done today.

Let me close this by quoting something that has gripped my thinking ever since I first heard it. It comes from perhaps one of the finest orators ever – Abe Lincoln. Did you know that his Gettysburg speech was only 242 words and lasted 2 minutes? Yet, it changed a nation and impacted on the notion of democracy everywhere. In the December of 1862, Lincoln, in addressing the US Congress said: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Mahalo & Belum.

(Mahalo is Hawaiian for ‘thank you. Belum is an Indonesian word that carries with it the idea of ‘not yet’…keep going. If you were to check into a hotel in Indonesia and ask if there were any messages for you – rather than a curt ‘no’, the reply would be ‘belum’. Not yet. It conveys the idea of hope and a future)

Living Up To Expectations: Understanding Generational Expectations in the Workplace

Posted on: June 9th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Not only are expectations subject to personal nuances, they can be further understood by looking at broad generational values that underpin behaviour.

Generational Theory as originally promoted by Howe and Strauss, two Yale and Harvard trained political economists, suggests that there are value bases to each generation that have been shaped during our formative years and influenced by local events with a global reach. Of course a great deal has since been written and debated when it comes to this theory and arguably TomorrowToday, having presented and taught Generational Theory is some 45 countries, has more experience in this area than any other consultancy or institution globally. The theory provides a helpful framework from which to explore and understand generational differences – and generational similarities.

When it comes to workplace expectations it is useful to understand that each of the Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y generations have distinct and at times contradicting expectations. Let me highlight just three dominant expectations for each of these generations.

Let’s start with a brief look at the Boomers (those born from around 1947 – 1969). Boomers are ‘in charge’ – a fact that needs to be acknowledged as one ramification of this reality is that it is Boomers who set the policies, determine the rules and create the management blueprint.  When you step into a work environment the chances are you will be stepping into a Boomer environment. Being prepared for this will help you adjust!

(more…)

Tomorrow’s Leaders have to be better than today ‘s leaders

Posted on: June 5th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

The occasion was the launch of a senior leadership development Programme with an International blue chip company. The CEO made the customary welcoming speech at the opening evening in which he made the attention grabbing statement: “Tomorrow’s leaders will have to be better that today’s leaders”. All at once it provided both the incentive and permission for the participants to reach beyond the current benchmark and explore a new kind of leadership for a new kind of world. It was a bold statement that opened up a world of possibility. I also wondered just if the CEO fully understood the potential ramifications of what he had said?

But he was right. Tomorrow’s leaders have to be better than today’s leaders. They will be required to lead in a world that is interconnected at multiple levels: economic, social, cultural and political. It is a world of paradox and complexity. The old mindsets and skillets simply won’t be adequate when faced with these challenges.

The challenge then is how best to prepare tomorrow’s leaders today? The other question of course is how best to prepare today’s leaders for tomorrow? I think there are some obvious first steps but after that, it becomes your journey to navigate and explore.

Step 1: Be willing to challenge your current models. Abe Lincoln in addressing the US Congress in the December of 1862 said that the ‘dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present’ and that future success would require us to ‘disenthrall’ ourselves from our past. What a wonderfully rich word that…’disenthrall’! Without doubt this is where the major challenge rests for current leaders. In his book, Futureshock, Toffler wrote about the need to not only learn and relearn but more importantly, ‘unlearn’. The point is that we need to be willing to let go the past models and formulae that we hold with affection. It is easier said then done! Without the willingness to challenge our assumptions, paradigms and models we cannot make progress to new learning and ultimately a position of relevance in a new world.

In preparing a new generation of leaders they need to know that doing such work – challenging what has gone before, is permissible. All too often it isn’t!

Step 2: Be willing to fail. No progress or innovation can happen without an inbuilt readiness to fail. In the challenge to adapt to the uncertain and unpredictable future, failure will be a familiar part of the terrain. The willingness to experience and try new things whilst guarding against stupidity in the process will be essential. This sounds obvious and is certainly something that occupies a great deal of text. Yet, in my experience, the words (or text) seldom match the behaviour. For example, in my field of leadership development or education, the lack of innovation and willingness to experiment is all too apparent. Things are done ‘by the book’ with an emphasis placed on ensuing the least discomfort or disruption to the learners (be they executives or otherwise). The result? A sterile, predictable and often meaningless learning experience. Behavioral Scientist, B. F. Skinner wrote, ‘education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten’. In much of our current leadership development we have learning rather than education and programmes rather than processes.

Step 3: Frameworks will more helpful than answers. Preparing leaders to lead tomorrow will require the development of frameworks they can draw on when faced with the dilemmas and paradoxes they will encounter. In this world strategic thinking will out weigh strategic planning. We have become very dependent on planning methodologies, drawing comfort, a sense of security and control from such plans. However, in a world and context of exponential change and uncertainty, planning is of limited value. Of course I am not suggesting that there is no place for strategic planning – what I am suggesting is that it won’t enjoy the prominence it has had to date. Dan Pink makes the point that ‘management ‘isn’t a tree, it is more like a TV’ – in other words, it is something we invented and as such, is something that won’t work forever.

Leading tomorrow will require leaders to have access to frameworks that can help them make sense of the complexity and paradox that is the 21st Century.

Step 3: The future of learning is connected. Grasping this new reality and the collaborative response this demands will require a reboot for many. It will require a mind shift and again, this is easier said than done! This will be especially so for those in education – be that at a school, tertiary or corporate level. Information is readily available and is user generated. It flows seamlessly and all this implies a fundamental shift in our understanding, dissemination and utilization of information. What we refer to as ‘social business’ will be the norm and this poses a massive adjustment in both mindset and behaviour for current leaders. Tomorrow’s leaders will have no such adjustment but their challenge will be one of filters, influence and the ‘new’ implications that will doubtlessly emerge as our way of connecting changes.

Yes, tomorrow’s leaders will have to be better than today’s leaders. I think every leadership development initiative should start from this premise and be given this mandate. If they did, I suspect that what we do under the banner of ‘leadership development’ might well change!

A Leadership Pill

Posted on: May 29th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

I recently watched the movie ‘Limitless’ which explores the concept of a pill that leads to acutely enhanced awareness and performance. Obscure facts tucked away in the recesses of one’s subconscious become accessible; patterns hidden by details become clear and decision-making confusion gives way to alarming clarity. Things happen, there is an air of invincibility and others are in awe of these seemingly ‘super-powers’.  Of course the downside is that the pill is addictive, has some bad side effects and can lead to one’s demise. However, these dire consequences pale into insignificance once the enhanced reality of the pill is experienced, ordinary life becomes untenable and so the pill is taken.

Sounds a bit like the approach some take to leadership you might well be thinking! For some the practice of leadership seems to come naturally elevating their performance onto some sort of super-human level, or so it would seem. Equally so the addictive nature of power and the downside of leadership position and prestige can and does lead to some well documented ‘side-effects’. Leadership it would seem should come with a warning on the package.

Of course there is no ‘leadership pill’. Yet that hasn’t stopped many from trying to find such a pill. In fact in Thailand I came across a ‘leadership tonic’. Packed in a somewhat ominous dark brown bottle with a bright yellow label, the ‘leadership tonic’ promised all who consumed it a raft of admirable virtues such as courage and integrity. If only it were that simple! In a slightly more sophisticated manner there have been many consultants, authors and perhaps even business schools who have been equally guilty of peddling a ‘leadership pill’. It is not hard to find some ready-made formula for leadership – a ‘if you do this’ then you can be sure ‘that’ will happen. The quick-fire formulae abound and there is no shortage to (pick your number) steps to effective leadership practice.

Whilst some of these practical indicators can be helpful they usually fall short of an authentic discussion on the deeper needs and demands of leadership. There is no pill that can be taken for leadership and we need to abandon the quick fix mentality and simple technique approach that we often fall prey to in the quest to develop leaders. Learning leadership includes the intersection between theory and practice. It demands engaging in the tough work of evaluation and reflection. This cycle of theory, practice, evaluation and reflection (as espoused by Forde) forms the stepping-stones in what I like to call the ‘leadership tumble turn’.

Much of what it will take to lead in the context of uncertainty and change – in a world connected through technology, will demand new mindsets and skill sets. Finding these at both a personal and organizational level will demand perspective and asking the right questions. It will require new learning and a willingness to fail forward in the quest to know what is required of leaders today and tomorrow. I believe that a great deal of how we approach leadership education and development will have to change and it will be interesting to see just how adaptable the ‘teachers’ will be. I know of pockets of brave initiatives to prepare people today for the demands of tomorrow’s leadership. But more needs to be done.
Yes, we live in a world of pills – pills to provide sleep or to keep you awake; to give you energy or to calm you down; to help you get pregnant or to keep you from falling pregnant – but if there was to be a leadership ‘pill’ then this is the best I can come up with: Persistent Intentional Lifelong Learning!

Best taken as a daily dose!

The Rocket Science of leadership: Dear Keegan, as you leave

Posted on: May 22nd, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

I wrote a letter and slipped it into Keegan’s luggage before he set out on his overseas adventure that would last a year (at least) having finally done with school. It was one I had long been composing in my head and would be the expression of so much that I wanted to say but knew there would be little opportunity to do so in the frantic scramble of the days leading up to his departure.

The last time I wrote such a letter to him was on the occasion of his thirteenth birthday, a habit which I replicated with Tamryn and later with Sipho. Thirteen is a significant marker that indicates a whole new territory about to be explored. I don’t know what it is about thirteen, but something confusingly profound happens when that thirteenth switch trips. Somehow your sweet, compliant, obliging child goes to bed the night before and then, WHAM, the next morning it is all so different. Anyway, I will leave it to others more clever than I to ponder this mystery.

It was by accident that I stumbled across the letter I wrote when he was thirteen when the more recent letter’s trail was still fresh in my mind. As I reread what I had written those many years ago, I was surprised to find that two dominant themes had repeated themselves. The first was encouragement for Keegan to continually grow in his understanding of who he is – which I suggested would be a dynamic, lifelong engagement of a task. In this context I reminded him that who he was would always be more important than what he achieved. The theme is echoed by Meister Eckhart who wrote that ‘people should not consider so much what they do, as what they are’.

The second theme was one that I admitted I had been spared for most of my life but that was nonetheless inescapable: that we often learn more from the pain and challenges that life serves us, than we do from experiencing the flip side. The encouragement therefore was not to avoid or shrink from the lessons that arrive in uninviting giftwrap, but rather to accept and embrace the gift of growth that is on offer.

As I thought about letters for auspicious occasions my mind turned to what I would write to you, a leader, if you were about to embark on some or other journey.

It would look something like this.

You may recall that in an earlier series of ‘Survivor’ one of the participants had the unenviable career description of ‘rocket scientist’. ‘No, really,’ must be something he is used to saying after having had repeatedly to answer the stock question we all get asked: ‘So what line of business are you in?’ I can only guess that one advantage of being a rocket scientist is that he must get to meet a lot of brain surgeons and helicopter pilots as others try to match his apparent wit and creativity. I mean, come on, how many rocket scientists have you met?

I use the word ‘unenviable’ because with the job of rocket scientist must come huge expectations, and also some scepticism and no small amount of mystique. Take, for instance, my reaction to the very first challenge the two tribes encountered in their Amazon adventure. I sat there in front of the TV thinking, ‘How can the men (the tribes were split according to gender) lose this one? After all there is a rocket scientist on board!’ Wrong again. Rocket scientist notwithstanding, the women put one over the men in no uncertain fashion and no one was more surprised than the men. It seems sisters are indeed doing it for themselves!

In some ways the description ‘leader’ in its various guises – Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director, President, Chairman of the Board, Principal or whatever – runs a similar risk of association to ‘rocket scientist’ and has to run the same potential gauntlet.

Much is expected of people who carry lofty titles. Both the failures and successes of corporate leaders are glaringly over-exposed in our ‘instant-saturated’ culture thereby only heightening the scepticism and mystique that surrounds the subject. In pursuit of the elusive holy grail of leadership, an understanding of just what it is and how it is lived, some offer complex explanations that emerge from detailed research. Others would have us believe that effective leadership is as simple as following a tried and tested recipe in much the same way as one would bake apple pie (and more often than not such approaches originate from the land of apple pie). While undoubtedly we can learn from both approaches, the reality is that the art and form of leadership is changing. This should hardly come as a surprise as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (see what I mean about that job?) to work out that the world of business, and therefore the responsibility of leadership, is changing.

Nick Segal, Director of UCT’s Graduate School of Business was quoted in the Financial Mail (July 25, 2003) as saying that what is important in the study of leadership is recognising the style and context which has an element of cultural specificity. For many leaders navigating the change can be something like attempting to paint a running rhino from a moving vehicle in the African bush. In anyone’s language, it is a tough ask.

What then, are some helpful navigational points for leaders negotiating such complex times? Perhaps the best ‘navigational points’ available are those that would have leaders look both backwards and forwards, embrace both the old and the new in their endeavour to provide authentic leadership.

In 1992 two worlds representing the past and the future, the old and the new, came together in a poignant manner at the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The Hawaiian people, desperate to reacquaint and connect with their heritage, had constructed a replica of the ancient canoes that had once transported their ancestors in what is known as the Polynesian Triangle, an area spanning some ten million square miles and embracing some of the wildest seas imaginable. Using only the stars and the currents, together with their own considerable affinity for the ocean, these intrepid seamen of old purposefully navigated their canoes over 2000 miles of uncharted open sea between the islands dotted in this vast expanse of ocean. That such voyages were both deliberate and repeated, and not the result of random luck, was something many contemporary anthropologists and historians believed impossible until they were proved wrong by the recreated voyages. The reconstructed replica canoe, christened Hokule`a after the star whose scientific name is Arcturus, was completed midst a blaze of publicity in the spring of 1975. It was to become a significant cultural symbol and icon for the Hawaiian people. An article in the Honolulu Magazine at this time referred to the Hokule`a as a ‘space ship of our ancestors’. And so, fast forward to 1992 where Hawaii astronaut Charles Lacy Veach onboard Challenger makes contact from space with those sailing the Hokule`a as they both crossed the equator. One orbiting the future, the other navigating the past.

The contrasting and paradoxical image that this picture conjures becomes a guiding metaphor for effective leadership today.

Leaders need to undertake a ‘journey of discovery’ – a personal Hokule`a, in order to discover and connect with the most vital of all leadership ingredients, that of character. More so than ever, leadership is about the who rather than the how and the what. What matters most is the ‘content of character’, as Martin Luther King coined it during the cauldron that was the Civil Rights movement in America. Many leaders have spent years constructing impregnable walls around themselves, masking shortcomings, concealing vulnerabilities and in the process have become strangers even to themselves. For such leaders it may seem that undertaking this inner journey goes against their every survival instinct on which they have relied to keep themselves alive in the shark-infested waters of the corporate world. And in some ways it does.

However, effective leadership demands an authentic understanding of who we are and the active development of what Daniel Goleman refers to as ‘emotional intelligence’. This is not attained by attending a conference or reading a book. The journey that is required takes courage and determination and means embarking on a life-long pursuit. It can take many forms and will certainly at times mean embracing risk and uncertainty. During the course of such a journey feeling lost, exposed and adrift is to be expected. Author Richard Barrett, in an interview with Fast Company put it this way: ‘This is not work for the tentative heart. The benefits of it are immeasurable. Yet it requires personal struggle. Only when you change internally will you see those benefits reflected in the outside world. You have to go through a process, and it is painful. You have to show up fearlessly.’

The ancient Polynesian adventures were guided by Wayfinders, skilled men to whom the task of navigation, and by implication the lives of their fellow sailors, was entrusted. These Wayfinders navigated by the stars and the currents and trusted their own instincts. Leaders who have not embarked on their own inner journey and who have neglected finding the means by which to undertake such a voyage, cannot serve as trustworthy Wayfinders for others. Finding the constellations and guiding instruments must initially seem difficult, but they are there and each must find his or her own to use and trust. Learning to trust them may prove hard at first, especially in a world where we have been schooled to use detailed maps that offer true north through seven habits, ten easy steps or 21 laws to ensure we find the promised land.

Whilst the Hokule`a is a journey of rediscovery, the Challenger offers a journey of unique perspective. The Challenger enables us to see and understand the world from a whole new perspective and if Hokule`a represents the way of leadership, then the Challenger points to the task of leadership.

Effective leadership creates the kind of perspective which enables individuals, companies or even nations to see themselves differently. It is seldom about ‘having the right answers’, but rather about ‘asking the right questions’. This is a shift from many traditional models of corporate leadership. For leaders to gain this kind of perspective and better understand their complex world, they need periodically to turn away from that world and hold it at a distance. It is that discipline which procures the breathing space in which perspective is developed. Without the understanding that comes from such perspective, meaningful change of any kind is impossible. Today, more than ever, leaders are required to break the stranglehold of industrial-age thinking that shackles so many corporations. An entirely new system of thinking is needed, one that realises the rich promise of the emerging relational/connection economy in which the primary focus is people and relationships rather than products and goods. In today’s world, leadership is no longer about preserving the status quo (however tempting that may be), keeping others comfortable and ensuring balance. Leaders have to be able to help others cope with an ever-changing world, and not merely survive in such an environment, but learn to thrive in it.

Just as the voyages of the Hokule`a and Challenger were mysteriously linked, so is the way of leadership linked to the task of leadership. To attempt one without the other is tempt fate and endanger others.

What, then, am I saying? Well, to record it in the Captain’s Log Book for fellow travellers who may be tempted to think it impossible, the entry under today’s date would simply read:

•    Effective leadership involves an inner voyage of discovery. It is not without risk or reward, but nor is it optional for those who truly desire to provide authentic leadership.
•    Failure to embark on such a journey distorts the necessary perspective that enables a clear understanding of the task of leadership. Without this, change is not possible.
•    Effective leaders are contemporary Wayfinders. There can be no greater responsibility.

Bon voyage and stay in touch as much as you are able!
Acknowledgement:
Stuart Coleman’s excellent biography, Eddie Would Go (MindRaising Press, Honolulu), is the story of Eddie Aikau, who sacrificed his life for his fellow adventurers on board the Hokule`a.

The Revenge of the Boomers – why Boomers need to become techno-literate!

Posted on: May 15th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

I heard a great story in a workshop in which I was involved with a group of educators. We were talking about ‘Rethinking Education’ and in particular the way in which technology is impacting on education. As you can imagine it was an emotive and challenging discussion as assumptions, worldviews and even values were all under the microscope, and for some, it felt like they were under the cosh! It was a time where one of my favourite quotes by Mark Twain was vividly coming to life: It is not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble but rather it is what you know for certain that just ain’t so. There is a lot about our understanding (perhaps on how the world works) that when it comes to the current context and reality that ‘just ain’t so’!

There were the predictable concerns around controlling the technology and the usual suspicions about the technology in the first place. Many of the educators were on the back-foot; they were on the defensive as after all, they were the ones ignorant in much of the technological ways that are ‘first nature’ for the Digital Natives that inhabit their classrooms.

It was in this context that one of the workshop participants told of an incident where one of his teachers had reclaimed some lost territory. It was a generational fight back of note! It was turning the beast on the handler.

A grade 10 pupil was using the classroom to catch-up on some much-needed sleep. Most students do this of course but the trick is to somehow look attentive yet be slumbering. I can recall an incident from my own school experience when one classmate was so fast asleep we were able, with the teacher’s full cooperation, to evacuate the classroom whilst leaving him isolated and alone in his slumber! He woke up sometime during the following lesson surrounded by strange classmates!

In this particular case the disguise element left something to be desired and it came to the teacher’s attention that this pupil was in fact fast asleep. The response? Take a picture. Out came the smart phone and one click later the picture was on the classroom smart board and was sent to the pupil’s father. Bam! Father gets a picture of his son sleeping in the classroom asking if this is the best return on the substantial tuition fees paid? There is no need to imagine what unfolded from that point onwards!

Yes, techno-savvy Boomers can be dangerous! Technology goes both ways. Technology has to be part of the 21st century classroom. If it isn’t we might as well use caves and write on the walls. The challenge is neither the technology itself nor the Digital Natives (the learners)…the challenge is getting the educators up to speed with the technology. It is getting the teachers to understand what the technology can do, how it could be incorporated and of course, the dangers present. The glaring irony for me in facing this challenge is that the answer, or part of the answer at least, is right under our noses!

Get the kids to teach the adults in this area. In business we call it ‘reverse mentoring’. Why not?

Without getting to far into the whole debate, one that is more complex – and more important than I am acknowledging here in this blog, let me raise some important thoughts associated with this story. I must confess that these additional thoughts were raised by one of South Africa’s most respected and experienced educators who happened to be reading this blog as it was written. Here was his input: One of the things that kids hate most is when educators involve parents in what happens at school. What would be the consequence to the trust relationship between teacher and pupil in this incident? The second provocative thought associated with this incident raised by my friend was this: where would it all end? What if the pupil retaliated and had the teacher started something he couldn’t finish?

Ummm…certainly worth thinking about but still, I just loved the story and the initiative taken by the alert teacher. It was not my intention to unpack some of the deeper issues that could be the consequence of the action taken.

That I will leave to you. It is your story to enjoy and yours to now reflect on and explore to a deeper level.

Class dismissed.

The Nightmare of no more silence: A leadership challenge.

Posted on: May 15th, 2012 by Keith Coats 3 Comments

It was a statement that immediately arrested my imagination. A statement that was simple yet profound and one that conveyed an idea that proved unshakable. It was a statement that demanded contemplation and had me immediately reaching for a means to record it before it got lost in the unfolding storyline.

I was watching the movie Grey Owl, the true story set in the 1930’s of a ‘Native American’ conservationist of the Ojibwe tribe who worked to raise global awareness on the endangered beaver and the decimation of the forests. A man ahead of his times and celebrated as an articulate and outspoken ‘Red Indian’ (as he was referred to back then) but who, on his death, was revealed to be of British origin, having been born Archibald Belaney on 18th September 1888. As a young man, Belaney had immigrated to Canada and taken on a First Nations identity. In that sense it is the story of a little boy who became his dream. It is a story where both deception and authenticity are inextricably entwined. In the story, Grey Owl whilst giving what was to be his final public speech, makes the memorable statement, ‘the nightmare of no more silence’.

The nightmare of no more silence: An evocative and powerful thought. We live in a world where silence is assaulted in every possible way. It is a world in which urbanization is on the march, one in which noisy cities banish silence to isolated places. It is a world that is increasingly uncomfortable with the unfamiliar experience that silence affords and with that, a neglect of the gifts that silence invites.

I want to suggest that it is a thought that has both significance and relevance for you as a leader.

Increasingly the concept of ‘reflection’ is making itself felt within leadership literature by those who write and speak on leadership practice. There is a growing realization that beyond evaluation sits the discipline of reflection and without it, the leader’s ability to regulate his or her behavior, is limited. We have a ‘learning leadership cycle’ that includes four ‘stations’ – theory, practice, evaluation and reflection (Forde) – it is a cycle that provides a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to develop savvy leaders. It is an ‘open-ended’ cycle in that as it spirals to increasingly greater depth new learning unfolds. It is a dynamic inter-play between the theory which informs practice, which leads to the need to evaluate and then invites reflection. This then in turn leads to a reshaping of the theory – and so the cycle is re-launched. I refer to it as the ‘leadership tumble-turn’. The leadership cycle offers an excellent framework from which to plot any leadership development or education initiatives.

Of these ‘stations’, reflection is the most in need of our attention in the process of leadership development and education. Of this I have no doubt. In the vast majority of leadership development programmes in which I have been involved, programmes designed and hosted by leading business schools across the globe, reflection is the most neglected part of the process. It would seem that there is a real unease about building serious reflection into the learning process for fear that it appears as ‘doing nothing’ or merely provides opportunity for busy executives to catch-up on email and stay connected to their noisy world. Given opportunity to ‘reflect’ I have seldom seen participants in such programmes understand what is required of them or grab hold the opportunity wholeheartedly. Silence and inactivity have been worked out the leadership equation and they go against the grain of what we understand as effective leadership. This is wrong and we are the poorer for holding such beliefs.

Reflection (silence) is the bridge that connects our little world to the greater world. It is the bridge from our activity to self-awareness that leads to emotional intelligence. Silence means distinguishing oneself from immediacy, it offers the pause that leads to a more intelligent engagement as a leader. Silence is a discipline that every leader needs to cultivate into a leadership habit.

I once had opportunity to befriend a monk from Bhutan by the name of Gembo. In was in the context of teaching in the Asia Pacific Leadership Program in Hawaii, where Gembo was a participant. I had been talking about reflection and the need for self-awareness after which I discovered, much to my embarrassment, that Gembo had once embarked on a ten-year silent retreat. In fact he only completed six years as the King of Bhutan had requested that he interrupt his retreat in order to play a key role in Bhutan’s transition to a constitutional monarchy. Six years living in silence… and here I was talking about silence and the discipline of reflection! Gembo left an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to meet him. I am sure that there were many factors that contributed to such an impression but I know that the reflective habit he had so intentionally cultivated was a mayor ingredient in that mix.

When teaching on strategic leadership I employ a teaching methodology (pioneered by a colleague) known as the ‘Silence Class’. Essentially, after a brief introduction, it involves a prolonged period in which I say and do nothing (this can be up to four hours). During this time I remain in the classroom and stay alert and attentive to the unfolding events but refuse all efforts to get me to speak or activity engage with the participants. It is used to create a classroom experience that Ron Heifetz of Harvard refers to as an, ‘adaptive challenge’. An adaptive challenge can be defined as, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. I have written an article on the Silence Class and believe that the class would be a rich research subject. I have had the opportunity to do the class around the world on over 30 occasions, involving approximately 730 people, representing some 45 cultures. All this has given me a unique and revealing insight to leaders’ ability to engage with silence. Social science research confirms that certain Eastern cultures generally have a greater tolerance for silence than do most Westerners, but in my experience, the overall ability to be silent is extremely low. We have been taught to talk, to engage, to be active, to be doing something…anything, and all of this provides a degree of comfort, reassurance and leaves us feeling productive together with a sense that this is what is what ‘good leaders do’.

In many cases such an approach doesn’t work and may even do harm. Reflection becomes an essential leadership attribute in a world of exponential change and disruption. Leaders need to create opportunity for silence for reflection and in doing so, need to lead the way. Perhaps we need to find another word for ‘silence’ – if that is what it takes, then I’m all for it.

Grey Owl spoke about how every creature has its rightful place and in it’s rightful place it becomes beautiful. He illustrated this by talking about how clumsy beavers look on land but not so in water. Practicing silence, if unfamiliar, will at first seem clumsy and unnatural. But as with most things, the more you practice the art of silence, the greater will be the ease with which it happens. I once suggested to the CEO of an engineering firm who was battling with his executive team that he bookend his Exco meetings with a time of silence. The skepticism that greeted my suggestion was all too apparent but he was desperate enough to try what sounded like a “lunatic idea”. A couple of months later I happened to bump into him in an airport and before I could even ask him as to how the silence had worked out he offered an amazing story. He said that when he first introduced the concept of starting the meeting with a time of silence there had been some quizzical stares but it had gone unchallenged. The first couple of attempts were really too short to accomplish much and most of the team he said had shuffled paper around in some discomfort whilst the silence lasted. However gradually the period of silence grew and with it the comfort level amongst the team. “An amazing thing happened” he said, “somehow the quality of our meetings improved dramatically and I’m not exactly sure how but I suspect that the silence at the beginning and end was the major reason for this improvement. In fact we now have some 5 minutes of total silence to open and close our time together and I think if I were to try and dispense with it, there would be a lynching. It has become that important”.

For the discipline of silence to become both an individual and collective leadership habit, a solid business case will most likely be needed. This is hard to deliver and like the CEO, one might need to be willing to launch out in faith that there will be good to be had rather than rely on measureable evidence to the fact. It simply doesn’t work like that and I suspect you understand exactly what I mean when I talk about the need to simply try it without waiting for the proof. In that sense it is a little like exercise and getting fit. Hard work initially before the benefits are to be seen and felt by which time it has become part of your life!

I believe that silence is part of leadership, as it is part of great music and art. It forms an essential part of life and leaders need to rediscover silence for both themselves and those they lead. A story is told as much by silence as by speech, it is a virtue that reveals as much as it may cover. We need it now more so than ever given the noisy clutter that makes for 21st century living and it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that silence forms part of the organization.

Here then might be some questions on which to reflect before perhaps exploring the subject further:

  • What is your comfort level with silence? Why is this?
  • What would it take for you to experience silence for a period of time?
  • Who could teach / mentor you in such a discipline?
  • In what ways could you introduce this into your team / organizational culture?
  • Why could silence be important in your practice of leadership?

Elbert Hubbard, an American writer, artist and philosopher who died in 1915 once said, ‘he who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words’.

I suspect you hit the nail on the head Elbert!

Barefoot Leadership: The neglected activity of leaders

Posted on: April 26th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Play is important.

For any child, play is serious stuff and central to their daily activities. We have lots of expressions that would underscore the importance of play (all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy is one I recall). But as adults we don’t really believe it. At least not if we are to be judged by our responses to, ‘Dad, can you come and play?’ Somehow that question always seems to arrive at the most inopportune moment and somehow we repeatedly hear ourselves respond, ‘Not right now’, or ‘I’m busy but I’ll come in a little while’, only never to get around to it. Our schedule always assumes priority over the little people’s agenda and timing. Well, they will learn not to ask when they can see I am busy, we reason.

A recently overheard conversation between a friend and his three-year-old daughter: ‘Dad, you won’t work at my party, will you?’ Or the conditioned response closer to home of, ‘Dad, I know you will probably say no, but . . .’ When I hear that precursor it wrenches at my heart because there is no hiding or denying the poor track record that has prompted such an approach.

The next stage is even worse. It is when they don’t ask at all. And when you wake up to what you have missed, it is too late and it is the little people who have grown up and are now themselves too busy. And there is no going back.

It seems that along the way we are taught that adults don’t really play, well, certainly not leaders at any rate. Leadership is serious stuff – there’s no denying that. But leaders, more than most, need to play. And I am not just talking about adult play here because we give that important names like vacation, rest, retreat, sport, entertaining clients and so on.

I’m talking about down-to-earth, knee-dirty type play. Engaging with a little person and accepting their invitation to enter their world where you could become anyone and anything. Why, just the other day I became Spiderman. I have always wanted to be Spiderman and for a few special moments I was . . . until that is the game’s plot required a tree and so the intrepid (and well cast) Spiderman was, like it or not,  turned into a weeping Willow. . .

From time to time leaders need to engage in the magical world of make-believe, to indulge in a game of cards or monopoly, to pick up the bat and ball and be the first to holler, ‘Let’s go play!’

(more…)

Write drunk, edit sober. Good advice for leaders?

Posted on: April 24th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

“Write drunk, edit sober” is something Ernest Hemingway allegedly once said. I think it is good advice, except maybe for alcoholics! The kind of writing that tends to inspire me is writing that has passion, flow and somehow captures grand ideas in a way that imprints them on both head and heart. It is writing that inspires and creates a shift in thoughts, attitudes and behavior. We know we have been part of some special dance when we encounter such writing and we are sorry when it ends. We read the final word wanting more and somehow feel as though a good friend has left us. I am often amazed at the ability of individuals to craft words into something magical and am also slightly envious of such a gift. Good writing is hard work and usually the easier it reads, the harder the work that has gone into the piece!

Good leadership is a little like good writing. It takes hard work. It can appear both effortless and magical all at the same time.  But the wise know it is not. Good leadership is cultivated and is intentional. The formula, if there is such a thing, differs depending on context as time, place and the situation all shape the leadership need. There can be no simple ‘A, B, C’ to leadership, although many, including myself, try to impose form and shape to something that defies both. Leadership is both art and science; it involves both head and heart. Authentic leadership relies on coherency between one’s inner and outer worlds, it is dependent on the synergy between values and actions.

I am concerned with what passes as ‘leadership development’ in many companies and the efforts of many business schools. Often the guardians of such programmes have given in to the demands to measure, the need for instant returns and the unwillingness to embrace discomfort in the learning process. The result is lots of activity and investment but a hollow feeling that it is all some sort of cunning board game in what it takes to get ahead. Lots of information and knowledge but with little application and meaningful change. Decisive moments in the leadership journey are held hostage by well defined end objectives and so the battle can be lost before it has really begun. I’m just surprised that the charade has lasted as long as it has done.

If we are serious about effective leadership in a changing world, we will need to rethink many of our current models. Both the theory and practice of leadership in this changing world need to adapt. We will need to ask hard questions and look in unlikely places for the answers. We will need to look beyond the scope of our current vision and be willing to try new things and accept failure as an essential part of the learning process. We will need to accept that the wisdom that has got us here cannot be the wisdom that gets us to where we need to be. Often all this is far easier said than done. It will require a willingness to not only learn but to also  ‘unlearn’ and ‘relearn’. I suspect that for many in leadership those latter two prove more troublesome.

Write drunk, edit sober. Maybe Hemingway knew something we don’t. He certainly knew a thing or two about writing. Both extremes are needed – the uninhibited passion as well as the objective attention to detail. Leadership is both gut and deliberate; both head and heart. That is just why it is so difficult.

Write drunk, edit sober…I’ll let you ponder further just what this might mean for leadership. Besides the obvious humour that such pondering invites…there also might be some valuable insights that are yet to be captured!

Barefoot Leadership: The neglected activity of leaders

Posted on: April 24th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Play is important.

For any child, play is serious stuff and central to their daily activities. We have lots of expressions that would underscore the importance of play (all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy is one I recall). But as adults we don’t really believe it. At least not if we are to be judged by our responses to, ‘Dad, can you come and play?’ Somehow that question always seems to arrive at the most inopportune moment and somehow we repeatedly hear ourselves respond, ‘Not right now’, or ‘I’m busy but I’ll come in a little while’, only never to get around to it. Our schedule always assumes priority over the little people’s agenda and timing. Well, they will learn not to ask when they can see I am busy, we reason.

A recently overheard conversation between a friend and his three-year-old daughter: ‘Dad, you won’t work at my party, will you?’ Or the conditioned response closer to home of, ‘Dad, I know you will probably say no, but . . .’ When I hear that precursor it wrenches at my heart because there is no hiding or denying the poor track record that has prompted such an approach.

The next stage is even worse. It is when they don’t ask at all. And when you wake up to what you have missed, it is too late and it is the little people who have grown up and are now themselves too busy. And there is no going back.

It seems that along the way we are taught that adults don’t really play, well, certainly not leaders at any rate. Leadership is serious stuff – there’s no denying that. But leaders, more than most, need to play. And I am not just talking about adult play here because we give that important names like vacation, rest, retreat, sport, entertaining clients and so on.

I’m talking about down-to-earth, knee-dirty type play. Engaging with a little person and accepting their invitation to enter their world where you could become anyone and anything. Why, just the other day I became Spiderman. I have always wanted to be Spiderman and for a few special moments I was . . . until that is the game’s plot required a tree and so the intrepid (and well cast) Spiderman was, like it or not,  turned into a weeping Willow. . .

From time to time leaders need to engage in the magical world of make-believe, to indulge in a game of cards or monopoly, to pick up the bat and ball and be the first to holler, ‘Let’s go play!’

Finding games to play with the little people at home is easy – just let them lead and I bet you will be the first to make the ‘time-out’ call. In the serious world of corporate life the play is there – it is just that it has been neglected for so long that it might require time and care to restore it to its rightful place.

But don’t worry. There will be others who, if asked, will know what to do, and here’s a tip: let them decide the play.

I know of a international software company who used ‘play’ to help create their very serious stratgy. It was a playfully serious company to begin with but the strategy formulation was centred around a storytelling theme and at one stage, involved fancy dress and play acting. It worked. I am involved with another company, this time one that plays in the insurance field, who created deliberate space for play in the the midst of their serious work. They are now thinking of including surfing as part of bringing to life the metaphor they hope will guide them into their future. I know of a call centre that has created access to various computer games for their staff to play. Play is important. When did we stop believing that as adults?

I was once shown around a very well organised preschool crèche. It catered for a sector of the community that did not have much cash to spare but who were nonetheless fiercely proud of appearances and making the most of what they had. This was reflected in the dress code of the kids who arrived each morning. Each child wore shoes, for to go barefoot was considered a sign of poverty, something that their parents wanted to avoid at all costs. Because of this prevailing social mindset, taking one’s shoes off during the morning (and for some the entire day) was considered poor form. If the parents were to arrive and see their kids without shoes they would voice their displeasure to the principal. But here was the problem and dilemma for the principal and her staff. Playing while wearing shoes was problematic. The jungle gym, the sandpit and various other play activities were best done without shoes. In fact, she explained, going barefoot in such instances was important in the kids’ development as they learnt to feel different textures with their feet. Yet for the sake of appearances they were denied this opportunity and it seemed that no amount of explanation was going to persuade the parents otherwise.

It occurred to me that many leaders are subjected to the same restrictions as those kids. They are leading with their shoes on when the situation calls for ‘barefoot leadership’.

I wonder what those ‘shoes’ are for you? I also wonder what it would be like for you to try going barefoot for a while?

And yes, you can take that as a dare! Go on then…I dare you!

BRICS: The Building Blocks for the Future – and five things smart leaders understand!

Posted on: April 24th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

It was Jim O’Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who some 10 years ago, coined the acronym, ‘BRIC’ – a grouping of emerging economies namely, Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Then, in a more recent move in 2012, South Africa was officially added to the club and so ‘BRIC’ became ‘BRICS’.

A recent trip to India now means that I can cross off each of these nations as destinations. In fact I have been fortunate enough to visit both Russia and China on several occasions. While I was in India the annual BRICS summit was taking place very close to where I was staying and was the subject of a great deal of media attention. It helped to act as a catalyst to focus my thoughts on both BRICS and that of my own journey.

There is no doubt that these (and other emerging economic powerhouses) are forever changing the global landscape as a new world order emerges. There is some debate as to whether or not South Africa deserves to be included in this grouping as on the face of it there other nations who could better justify inclusion.  South Korea, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey could all make strong cases for inclusion but try putting together an acronym for all eight – now there’s a challenge!

South Africa is somewhat dwarfed by the other four club members.  They have also each considerably out-performed South Africa when it comes to the rate of economic growth: For instance, China’s dollar value of GDP is creating the economic equivalent of a new South Africa every four months! O’Neill argues that South Africa justifies inclusion when considered as, ‘Africa’s representative’.  Debatable perhaps but it is a point taken.

The Goldman Sachs index referred to a the ‘Growth Environment Score’ – is a straight-forward look at the national variables necessary for sustained growth and productivity. The index was recently given a face-lift to incorporate a further five variables in addition to the thirteen that made-up the original index. The eighteen variables can be split into six different categories: macroeconomic stability (government deficit, external debt and inflation), macroeconomic conditions (investment rate, degree of openness to trade), political conditions (corruption, rule of law and political stability), technology (mobile phones, personal computers, internets users and secure internet servers), microeconomic environment (cost of starting a business, urban population, patent applications and research and development expenditure) and finally, human life (life expectancy and schooling). In the 2011 index statistics South Africa scores 5.08 out of 10 with South Korea scoring an impressive 7.7 – which places this nation fourth out of a total of 183 countries that Goldman Sachs rate. What is interesting is that South Africa scores higher than both India and Russia in the 2011 figures.

(more…)

BRICS: The Building Blocks for Future – and five things smart leaders understand!

Posted on: April 17th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

 

It was Jim O’Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who some 10 years ago, coined the acronym, ‘BRIC’ – a grouping of emerging economies namely, Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Then, in a more recent move, South Africa was added to the club and so ‘BRIC’ became, ‘BRICS’.

A recent trip to India now means that I can cross off each of these nations as destinations. In fact I have been fortunate enough to visit both Russia and China on several occasions. While I was in India the annual BRICS summit was taking place very close to where I was staying and was the subject of a great deal of media attention. It helped to act as a catalyst to focus my thoughts on both BRICS and that of my own journey.

There is no doubt that these (and other emerging economic powerhouses) are forever changing the global landscape as a new world order emerges. There is some debate as to whether or not South Africa deserves to be included in this grouping as on the face of it there other nations who could better justify inclusion.  South Korea, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey could all make strong cases for inclusion but try putting together an acronym for all eight – now there’s a challenge!

South Africa is somewhat dwarfed by the other four club members.  They have also each considerably out-performed South Africa when it comes to the rate of economic growth: For instance, China’s dollar value of GDP is creating the economic equivalent of a new South Africa every four months! O’Neill argues that South Africa justifies inclusion when considered as, ‘Africa’s representative’.  Debatable perhaps but it is a point taken.

The Goldman Sachs index referred to a the ‘Growth Environment Score’ – is a straight-forward look at the national variables necessary for sustained growth and productivity. The index was recently given a face-lift to incorporate a further five variables in addition to the thirteen that made-up the original index. The eighteen variables can be split into six different categories: macroeconomic stability (government deficit, external debt and inflation), macroeconomic conditions (investment rate, degree of openness to trade), political conditions (corruption, rule of law and political stability), technology (mobile phones, personal computers, internets users and secure internet servers), microeconomic environment (cost of starting a business, urban population, patent applications and research and development expenditure) and finally, human life (life expectancy and schooling). In the 2011 index statistics South Africa scores 5.08 out of 10 with South Korea scoring an impressive 7.7 – which places this nation fourth out of a total of 183 countries that Goldman Sachs rate. What is interesting is that South Africa scores higher than both India and Russia in the 2011 figures.

But back to my most recent BRICS destination – India. It is a staggering experience, a cacophony of sounds, smells and colours. David Blair, MD of Fitch Design Consultancy was quoted as saying, “Indians’ love of colour is well known and we have found that when we have brought concepts to India we have had to brighten up the whole experience to appeal to local tastes”. India is a nation of paradox and one in which nothing is what it seems; a country brimming with friendly, smiling people – all seemingly armed with a tangible energy and a humble confidence in who they are and what the future holds. It can all be quite intoxicating to the uninitiated.

The projections are that India is set to surpass China when it comes to economic clout by the year 2050. The Indian population (currently 1.3 billion) will pass that of China by 2035. The significant difference being that India has a ‘young population’ – a factor that will power its long-term economic prospects.

Earlier this year, when I was last in China, I heard the Chairman of the New Zealand Chamber of Commerce say, “If you are not in China, you are already too late”. It was a stark warning that resonated with all present and I suspect that that will be true of India in the not too distant future.

The biggest challenge in absorbing this global shift, this new and emerging world, is in how it challenges our conventional wisdom – both conceptual and practical. To think that we can simply transplant what has ‘worked here’ to ‘work there’ is a massive mistake. It is often indicative of lazy thinking and a hallmark of arrogance, a belief that ‘we know what works best’. Experiencing India is liable to quickly shake one out of such mediocrity and laziness. It is one thing reading the figures and projections; it is an entirely different thing to get a ‘hands-on’ experience of places such as India or China. It is when experiencing such places that the realization of the real work of global leadership hits home: that of cultural awareness and adaptive intelligence. Many of the lessons that have served so well in the past, in a different and familiar context, come up woefully short in the face of such over-whelming difference. We quickly realize that ‘our way’ is not ‘the way’ and that our ability to learn, translate, remain open and stay curious will be the new survival kit for thriving in a context such as India or China. Leaders will be required to go back to ‘boot camp’ if they are to succeed in this new emerging world order.

Places like India and China, indeed South Africa, are complex, fragmented and paradoxical. Yet, this is what our global future looks like and so we need to be asking how best to go about preparing our people and organizations for such diversity and the challenges that form part of this reality.

I have isolated five leadership lessons– one for each of the BRICS nations that I have visited, yet all equally applicable when considering the challenge of leading in emerging economies.

Realize that the more you think you know, how little you really know. Repeated visits to China and Russia combined with a life spent in South Africa could all be construed as a ready platform for expertise. However, my reality is that the more I have travelled, experienced, read, asked and observed – the more I realize just how little I really know about ‘other places’.  Leaders will need to avoid the trap of being seen by others (or themselves) as ‘instant experts’. In this global context there is no such thing! Curiosity needs to fuel the leader’s learning journey and there needs to be a willingness to recognize and understand that wisdom comes in many forms and guises.

Getting lost is part of the journey. Getting ‘lost’ translates as the willingness to ‘fail’ when it comes to organizations. Getting lost in a strange place (the Russian metro) is scary yet this is often where the most valuable lessons and insight are to be found. Individuals and organizations need to decide how best to embrace such an attitude and mindset but, if you are to thrive in this new world, getting lost is not optional.  In India I was privy to some insightful lessons that had been learnt through personal and corporate failure. Leaders need to finds ways to elevate such lessons in order to leverage learning and development; the problem is that all too often leaders have tended to bury such lessons – not shine a spotlight on them!

It might look, taste or feel the same…but it isn’t! We tend to frame and interpret things from our own particular reference points. Travel in strange places quickly undermines such assumptions and often does so with consequences that are the stories with which we entertain and regale family, friends and colleagues on our return. As a leader you need to be aware of the lenses’ through which you interpret ‘reality’ and make judgements. You need to be willing to suspend the ‘truth’ of such views if you are to honestly engage in the challenging world of paradox and difference. In fact it can be a very sobering experience to realise that the reliability of such lenses, something that may have remained unquestioned and fixed for so long, are in fact, questionable. This becomes the uncomfortable terrain of personal growth and is often like wearing a scratchy garment that causes one to itch without relief.  However, as the reframing takes place we will arrive at a place of insight and clarity in spite of how we may feel during the early stages of the journey. T.S Eliot said it best in his poem The Four Quarters when he wrote, ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. They are words I have grown to appreciate for the wisdom that is embedded within them.

Getting out is the only way to truly get in. I remember seeing a sign in a supermarket where the entrance was under repair, it read: ‘The only way out is In’. It was a memorable sign and also good leadership advice. Many travel to the places we have mentioned only to ‘experience’ them from five-star hotels and coaches, insulated from the reality and life that happens all around them. That is no way to experience difference. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is critical to finding a way ‘in’ to the context and culture in which you find yourself. This need not only apply to when one is travelling, as I know too many leaders who seldom venture from the comfort and confines of their oak-panelled offices to get a dose of reality within their own kingdom!

Learn the language…or at least how to say “hello” and “thank you”. Greetings differ and what is appropriate in one place isn’t so in another. Some cultures smile a lot, others don’t. Some place hands together (India) and others use a similar gesture but one that is entirely different (China). Of course I am talking about surface things here but cultural sensitivities will go a long way to forging authentic relationships. I know of deals that have been won or lost based purely on such cultural awareness’s.  Intel have employed a cultural anthropologist (Genevieve Bell) to assist them navigate these new realities within their context. It is a smart move and one that I suspect will be replicated by others who find themselves operating in this global context.  It is no coincidence that one of the finest leadership programmes I know of – the Asia Pacific Leadership Program (East West Center, Hawaii) is headed-up by a cultural anthropologist by the name of Prof Nick Barker. It is from this discipline (cultural anthropology) that we will be able to withdraw helpful frameworks and knowledge about how better to engage and learn in the midst of difference and diversity. As I have repeatedly heard Nick say, “we are not different from each other but rather we are different for each other”. It will be a vital source of learning for those serious about this new world that is emerging, one in which the old rules and etiquette are of limited use. Of course cultural anthropology isn’t the only resource available and companies will need to embrace a wider frame of reference than that which is currently employed, if they are to make inroads in this new context. It should be evident in business schools but sadly there is often little imagination to be found in leadership curriculum in such places.

The future is not what it used to be. My mother who is in her eighties still talks about the ‘far east’. The reality is, the ‘far east’ has become the ‘near east’. Leaders need to embrace the changes that are taking place. You need to read, ask, learn but better yet, you need to go. Go and experience the places that I’ve spoken about and as you do so, here is some advice: go as a pilgrim and not a tourist. The difference is that tourists take pictures but pilgrims collect stories. Go and collect some of your own stories and then learn to live and translate these for those around you so that you become a learning organization – one that is ready to embrace the change, the chaos and the opportunity that is our future.

Light-hearted Leadership Lessons from Wembley & the Red Men

Posted on: April 16th, 2012 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

It started as an overheard conversation in Delhi, India and ended up as an unforgettable day in London, England. Specifically, Wembley stadium.

The over-heard conversation was between delegates on a leadership programme in which I was involved. They were chatting about how one of their number had tickets for the soon to be played FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Everton, but the ticket-holder in question was unable to use them. Clearly there could be no doubt as to my course of action. At the next available opportunity I approached the unsuspecting target like a scud missile and confirmed the accuracy of the information. Indeed, it was true: he was the owner of the prized tickets and instantly also my new best friend. What followed was the magnanimous offer to relieve him of his dilemma and take the three tickets from him. He agreed and the deal was done. A couple of calls home and travel plans had been made and thoughts of companions now commanded urgent attention.

Gary came to mind first. Ardent Liverpudlian and Everton diehard, someone not ashamed to wear the vintage pink (I know, I know…what were they thinking!) Everton strip and the person with whom I had a standing bet for every derby game. The bet? The loser has to place an advert in the paper acknowledging the Victor’s team as superior. Needless to say, Gary has become personal friends with the local paper’s classified advertising editor.

Then there was my dear wife Vicky. Two problems here: firstly this was shaping up to be a boys weekend and secondly, Vicky is a Newcastle fan. As such, Wembley represents a strange and foreign place and I considered it unfair to subject her to such unfamiliar treatment. It would be like taking a hungry kid into a McDonalds and having him read the menu, look at the pictures and watch others munching on their Big Macs – but then callously denying him food of his own. It just wouldn’t be right, would it? I might add that this humane and considerate stance has been met with an unexpectedly hostile non-appreciation, the likes of which I simply cannot fathom, try as I might. I have been told that time will heal but I’m just not sure I have enough time left for that to happen!

Then there was my colleague and Manchester United fan, Graeme. Based in London his local knowledge could prove useful and did mean that I could overlook his misguided football allegiance. Besides it might be fun to have him get us safely to the destination then out him as a Manchester United follower in the company of 87 000 Scousers. Being the refined gentlemen they are, I have no doubt that they would take to heart the need to gently re-educate him in the finer ways of football scholarship. It would be entertainment towards a noble end. How can you argue with that?

The three tickets then were accounted for and the matter settled. Or so I thought. Gary at the 11th hour could no longer make it. Whilst offering a semi-plausible domestic excuse I fully understand his limited threshold for punishment. After all, it is a long way to go to get a beating. The unexpected availability of the third ticket surfaced a number of potential suitors – both old and new. The Newcastle fan in the mix erroneously, and somewhat presumptuously, believed this to be the sign for her inclusion. A sister-in-law, and personal disciple in the ways of Liverpool, believed this would be just reward for her devoted following of the Red Men. And of course she had a point. However, as any sane family man would quickly realize, her inclusion at the expense of one’s own spouse would mean years of irrevocable family discord and potential grievous bodily harm. It was simple too great a risk to take and the only fair call was to leave them both behind.

Then there was a Liverpool friend who was aggrieved at being overlooked in the initial poll but was offered a match-day scarf and programme in appeasement. I am optimistic that our friendship will be fully restored with the passing of time. The final choice was to invite Amy (13) – the oldest daughter of Graeme and devoted but uninitiated Liverpool supporter. Rescuing Amy from the familial clutches of Manchurian allegiance and turning her head and heart towards Liverpool  I regard as one of my finest achievements. Her inclusion would undoubtably seal a life-long commitment to Liverpool. It was the responsible thing to do. A choice which had an eye on the future generation and the continued following for the great club. I can almost see the great Bill Shankly nod his head in approval at the choice made. His nod was all I needed.

And so the tricky selection issue was sorted although I recognize that it might take several more months before the dust of the selection process finally settles. It was a selection process to rival that of King Kenny’s team selection for the big day. In this regard he and I share much in common and I can now fully empathize with his stress around selection. We’ll chat about this should we meet anytime soon.

What a day it was! The fans poured into the magnificent Wembley, humour accompanying every step as the banter back and forth went unabated. There was also the underlying emotion marking the event: the loss of red and blue stalwart, Gary Ablett; the personal tragedy of Liverpool keeper Brad Jones (who’s five year old son had recently died of leukaemia) coupled with Jone’s own bizarre elevation to the first team; the 23rd  anniversary (on the Sunday) of the Hillsborough disaster (a FA Cup semi-final in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives); and of course the rich history and tapestry these two great clubs brought with them. Separated by a point in the league and the form table turned on it’s head, opinion was divided as to who carried the tag of favourite into the game. Rumours of King Kenny’s job on the line with the bizarrely timed sacking of his Director of Football days before and David Moyes (the Everton manager) declaring that the ‘whole nation wanted Everton to win’. The stage was well and truly set.

The first goal to be scored was at what was the ‘Kop end’ for the day – and exactly where we were fortuitously (if you believe in such a thing) seated. it was a defending calamity that led to the goal and somewhat indicative of what had been a cruel season for my team. Polite discussion between Liverpool defenders as to who’s job it was to hoof an unclaimed and bouncing ball to safety, resulted in gifting the Everton striker with a simple goal. The rest of the first half is best forgotten as Liverpool struggled to come to terms with having given away such a soft goal and Everton for their part, seemed content to sit things out and strangle the game.

‘Surely I couldn’t have come all this way for it to end like this?’ was my desolate half-time thought whilst scoffing a roast beef bun the size of Surrey itself and enjoying the sponsors liquid.

The taunting of the blue half of Wembley went on unabated and was almost unbearable. I was at once glad not to have Gary next to me and having to endure his gloating (not to mention his singing!). But the critical thing to remember here was that it was only half-time. Our anthem after all does remind us to ‘keep your head up high’ as we walk through the storm. It cajoles us to walk on through the wind and the rain with ‘hope in your heart’. It was a time to remind ourselves and the Red Men on the pitch of this – and did we just! A stirring rendition of the anthem greeting the warriors who made their way out for the second half and we didn’t have long to wait until things were level.

A horrendous defensive error saw that man Suarez swoop for the equalizer and suddenly it was game on. In truth there was always only going to be only one winner from that point on and both set of fans knew it. The fact that it took until the 87th minute for that winner to come mattered not. It was as inevitable as the golden sky at the end of the storm. Staying behind with the red half of Wembley to salute our heroes and sing ‘Fields of Anfield Road’  were moments I’ll never let go of – it was a time and an occasion where  a man-tear was appropriate and not at all out of place. It was amazing how quickly the blue half of the stadium emptied. That too was entirely understandable.

The victory glow remains undimmed. The Liverpool kit that makes up my entire wardrobe for this brief visit, is greeted with congratulations from strangers that range from restaurant waiters to flight attendants. I feel as though I scored the winner myself! Then their are the envious looks from those silly enough to declare their misdirected support for lesser teams. I feel like a giant amongst mere mortals.

So, it was a trip beyond financial justification and one that has carried no small amount of personal risk. Was it worth it? You bet! Regardless of how we perform in the final against Chelsea, there will always be the memory of one glorious day at Wembley. A day on which we defeated our greatest adversary (although some might argue that this description belongs to Manchester United) and possibly rescued a dismal season. A day that ensures the continued agony of the blue side of Merseyside who haven’t achieved FA Cup success over the Reds since 1906. It was King Kenny’s day. It was our day – all the Red Men be they on the pitch, in the stands or living the moment from wherever they were.

This all said, there remain some pertinent leadership lessons to be made. No matter what your football allegiance, here are seven timeless leadership reminders from one epic day at Wembley on the 14th April, 2012:

1.    Leadership involves risk. Trust your gut.
2.    Pick your friends for the journey wisely and know that you can’t please everyone.
3.    It is not over until it is over.
4.    If you are going to sing, don’t sing the blues!
5.    Don’t gloat. Unless it is against Manchester United.
6.    To every great victory there is always a cost to be paid. (Don’t ask)
7.    And finally, you’ll never walk alone.

As the immortal Shankly once said, “Football is not just about life and death, it is more important than that”. Never a truer word spoken…

Anyone got tickets for the final?

Switching off the sun: Preparing for the next generation in the workplace

Posted on: April 11th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Hannah (the daughter of a colleague) was strapped in her car seat as her parents headed off for a weekend away. Hannah is a bright, engaging two-year-old and no doubt had thought plenty of thoughts from this particular vantage point, one that I might add she was well accustomed too – as are most two-year-olds.

On this particular occasion, bright early morning sunshine streamed in through her window. After a short while, Hannah’s voice was heard: ‘Mommy.’

‘Yes, Hannah.’

‘Please can I have the remote control?’

Allow for a quizzical parental pause here, familiar ground for any parent of a two-year-old.

‘Huh? A remote control? What do you want with the remote control, Sausage?’ (Parental term of endearment . . . an entire subject of its own!)

‘I need to switch off the sun, it’s getting in my eyes.’

Hannah’s request reveals a world view that believes that there is a remote control for everything under and including the sun. After all, in Hannah’s world there are remote controls for the gates, the garage doors, the car and house alarms, the TV,  VCR, DVD/MP3, the satellite dish decoders as well as remote phones, cellphones, mouses (should that be mice?), keyboards, toys and just about anything you can imagine.

(more…)

Switching off the sun: Preparing for the next generation in the workplace

Posted on: April 10th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Hannah (the daughter of a colleague) was strapped in her car seat as her parents headed off for a weekend away. Hannah is a bright, engaging two-year-old and no doubt had thought plenty of thoughts from this particular vantage point, one that I might add she was well accustomed too – as are most two-year-olds.

On this particular occasion, bright early morning sunshine streamed in through her window. After a short while, Hannah’s voice was heard: ‘Mommy.’

‘Yes, Hannah.’

‘Please can I have the remote control?’

Allow for a quizzical parental pause here, familiar ground for any parent of a two-year-old.

‘Huh? A remote control? What do you want with the remote control, Sausage?’ (Parental term of endearment . . . an entire subject of its own!)

‘I need to switch off the sun, it’s getting in my eyes.’

Hannah’s request reveals a world view that believes that there is a remote control for everything under and including the sun. After all, in Hannah’s world there are remote controls for the gates, the garage doors, the car and house alarms, the TV,  VCR, DVD/MP3, the satellite dish decoders as well as remote phones, cellphones, mouses (should that be mice?), keyboards, toys and just about anything you can imagine.

The fact of the matter is that Hannah and her next-of-kin generation (Generation X) are highly techno-literate and will expect your company to be so too. If we thought that the Xers pushed the battery in this regard, just wait until Hannah and her generation (Generation Y) hit the office! (For that matter schools – the playgrounds for Generation Y before they are due to arrive on our doorstep, had also better upgrade quickly.)

During what we have labelled the ‘Information Age’, there was competitive advantage to be had through the installation of better and smarter IT systems. After all, assuming they were used correctly, they enabled relevant information to get to the surface quicker, resulting in speedy responses and smart strategies. However this advantage all but disappeared as our competitors installed their own hardware, software and other kind of ware, all of which meant that theirs was newer, faster, and cleverer.

The playing fields have been leveled and having smart IT is necessary but no longer sufficient or even impressive. This is tough to hear if you have just spent millions upgrading your IT systems. Understanding and using technology, personally and as a company, is now an essential skill. And don’t believe for one minute that old dogs can’t learn new tricks! They can and do all the time. Just this morning I heard of an 84-year-old man who had enrolled himself in school to complete his education.

Attracting and retaining the ‘bright young things’ in business today requires you to have the ‘remotes’. It may not be your world, but it is certainly theirs.

Learning from them how to programme the video machine and how to SMS offer immediate home-based lessons and are a good place to start . . . that is, if you can find the damn remote!

(And if you don’t have creatures inhabiting your cave who can impart such skills, I would be only too happy to lend you one of mine!)

The Magic Hill: Avoiding the optical illusions of leadership

Posted on: April 4th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

They told me it was caused by the fairies who lived under the road. I don’t know about you, but I for one don’t buy that explanation at all. I mean, everybody knows that fairies don’t live under roads. Caused by the fairies, indeed!

The locals call it The Magic Hill and it is tucked away in the picture-postcard countryside of Ireland, a short drive from the town of Dundalk. And believe me, it is magic of an extraordinary kind. First of all, trying to find the magic hill without assistance from local navigators is practically impossible and has even led to some sceptics proclaiming that the location is a myth, likely conjured from having consumed too much Guinness.

But they are wrong. It does exist, I have been there myself and I have the picture to prove it.

(more…)

The Magic Hill: Avoiding the optical illusions of leadership

Posted on: April 3rd, 2012 by Keith Coats 2 Comments

They told me it was caused by the fairies who lived under the road. I don’t know about you, but I for one don’t buy that explanation at all. I mean, everybody knows that fairies don’t live under roads. Caused by the fairies, indeed!

The locals call it The Magic Hill and it is tucked away in the picture-postcard countryside of Ireland, a short drive from the town of Dundalk. And believe me, it is magic of an extraordinary kind. First of all, trying to find the magic hill without assistance from local navigators is practically impossible and has even led to some sceptics proclaiming that the location is a myth, likely conjured from having consumed too much Guinness.

But they are wrong. It does exist, I have been there myself and I have the picture to prove it.

The magic lies in the hill itself. It is an innocuous enough looking hill, seemingly no different from the many before it and not distinguished in any remarkable manner from the many that follow. It lies silently in wait for the unsuspecting traveller, revealing its magic only to those who, having reached the summit, are willing to stop and apply the handbrake on the descent. Do that and you will experience the magic.

And what magic it is! For instead of rolling downhill, as dictated by the laws of physics, you will roll uphill instead. ‘Roll uphill?’ you say. ‘Impossible!’ And had I not experienced it myself, I would be the first to agree wholeheartedly with you. But there you have it. Just when you expect to begin rolling gently downhill, you start rolling uphill. It is a very strange experience and one created by an optical illusion that would have David Copperfield green with envy. I was told that the explanation (for those who don’t have it in them to take on the ‘real’ explanation of the fairies) is to be found in the slope of the banks surrounding the road on either side which combine to create the optical illusion. Armed with that information, the fairy explanation only seems to gain plausibility in my physics-challenged mind!

As we drove away, bemused by the experience of rolling uphill (only in Ireland, I said to myself), my thoughts turned to a possible lesson in this for those entrusted with leadership.

Optical illusions are not limited to the Irish countryside. Leaders often suffer such illusions themselves, believing that they are due to roll downhill when in fact they are rolling uphill. Leaders who become cut off from reliable feedback are prone to such illusions. Very often their perception of present reality differs markedly from that of their employees in general. Hearing both sides of the story can lead one to think that they come from different planets rather than inhabit the same building or factory. How does this happen and what can be done to avoid it?

Leaders who are insecure or feel themselves under siege will often surround themselves with those who are always quick to agree with them at every turn. Such behaviour might be motivated by fear or the desire to appease the leader’s ego, but both lead to the same result: a leader who begins to operate in a vacuum, divorced from reality and accustomed to hearing only ‘fair weather’ reports. This seldom happens overnight and is more often than not the result of accumulated years of this kind of behaviour. It often happens when leaders become too comfortable, situations become too predictable and a crusty resistance to change sets in. Or it can also happen when egos have grown out of all proportion and become insatiable in their need for affirmation and servitude. The real killer is the lack of awareness of this state of affairs; after all, what leader reading this will readily acknowledge the truth of this in their particular context? But show this to those with whom they work and there might well be instant recognition and consenting, albeit fugitive, nods of the head.

This fatal situation often arises when leaders fail to grasp the principle of synergy or the precept, the minds of many are better than the mind of one. They often come from the school that promotes the ‘lonely leader’ scenario, the leader out ahead of the pack, deciding what is best for those who follow. These industrial-age images of leadership are relics of the past and cannot fit into the ever-changing present and the unfolding future. Yet, frustratingly, they refuse to die and persist in spite of the evidence surrounding them, the magic hills that deceive and entrap the unsuspecting traveller. What is needed are new mindsets, new styles, new analogies and new stories of leadership – stories that can replace the old ones before it is too late. It is a tough ask and I’m not sure it is within the capacity of the majority of leaders to undertake such daring change. It requires an entirely new game plan and, even more importantly, a new belief that this is how the game needs to be played.

However, there are things that can be done to test whether or not this malaise exists and certainly there are things that can be done to initiate an alternative. The test is simple. Create an opportunity for some open discussion and listen, really listen, to what is said. To be truthful, this process is not as simple as it sounds but it is do-able. Care needs to be taken to provide the right environment for such a discussion and outside facilitation is often helpful. There are also tools that can be used to generate healthy and authentic dialogue, two of which are known as the ‘Soft Shoe Shuffle’ and ‘Concept Café’. What is then done with the information is as important as the information itself. The process that follows an excavation of this nature needs to be intentional and open. It is in the process that follows that the real work and sweat will start.

There is no formula or 21-easy-steps to navigate what follows. Each situation, each context, will differ, but trusting those present to find what will work and know how best to implement it, are the best navigation beacons one can hope for. There are basically three phases to such a journey: first, the real desire to test for authentic voices and generate open discussion; secondly, the deliberate creation of an environment for this to take place; and thirdly, a commitment to the process and the changes that will follow. It then becomes the stargate to deep change, buy-in, ownership, innovation and resilience – characteristics that any leader dreams of having in the DNA of the company or organisation they lead.

The stuff of fairies? Maybe not, but you’ll have to be willing to stop on the magic hill to find out which way you roll.

In the search for logic: Please help.

Posted on: March 27th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

There must be a reason but I sure as heck can’t find it! For that matter nor could the staff of Mango. Yes, it is another airline saga and one that perhaps you can enlighten me on.

The other day I was flying from Cape Town to Durban, ticket booked and paid for by the client with whom I was doing work. I arrive at the check-in counter only to be told that I needed to proceed to the customer service desk to pay an additional charge on my ticket. The reason for why this was necessary was unclear but who was I to question the reasons, besides which, I thought that could best be done once at the service desk itself. Then a straight-faced check-in person told me that the amount to be paid was… R1.

Yes, you read that correctly, no zeros attached….R1.

“So” I say, looking for hidden cameras or someone looking like Leon Schuster, “I need to go and queue at customer services, pay R1, and then return to this check-in queue?”. I received a look that said, “So what part of what I have just said didn’t you understand” but the words that come out were, “yes Mr Coats, that’s correct”.

Again I looked around for those cameras or a certain Mr Schuster, as it was possible I had missed them on my first inspection. Nothing.

I made my way over to the fee-paying counter with a great deal more merriment than could be expected in the circumstances. After all I sniffed the early signs of a great story and the words were being typed in my head with each purposeful stride. By the time I arrived at my destination a silly grin creased my face fuelled by the realization that I was in the midst of an unfolding story of preposterous proportions.

The customer services man whilst charming (possibly in response to my silly grinning demeanour), was completely at a loss to explain the system behind the need to collect an additional R1 from his customer. “In fact”, he informed me, “sometimes the surcharge is as little at 25c”, the absurdity of the situation seemingly dawning on him with fresh perspective.  As much as I pushed and probed as to possible reasons for Mango needing a further R1, we both were stumped. In the end we both admitted defeat in the cause of logic. My request for a receipt raised a broad grin from my newfound comrade in logic, and was really just to prove the point and ensure that my R1 was well spent! I am considering framing the receipt.

This, whatever the reason, and I am assuming that somehow, somewhere there must be a reason, is an example of a systems failure on the part of the airline. To inconvenience a customer in this way and waste the time of their staff is simply ludicrous. Someone hasn’t thought through the process and it is a system that doesn’t work in the best interests of the customer. When this is the case, the system needs changing.

All too often we impose systems that are made for us (the company) and may even make sense, but if they don’t work in the customer’s best interests, they should not be there. It is a simple as that!  We need to ensure that our customer engagement, and the systems underpinning such engagement work to the customer’s advantage.

I invite you to help me understand why my R1 was required. I invite you to share further insights of systems that actually work against the customers for whom they are designed.  It should be fun!

Mango and common sense seem to be strangers. That’s my R1s worth!

Understanding the Social Agenda: what every leader needs to know about tomorrow

Posted on: March 20th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

The Social Agenda will define the future of your company. It is that big, it is that important and it is that unavoidable!

Let me explain what is the social agenda and why it is that important.

The social agenda is made up of two aspects, namely, ‘social media’ and ‘social business’. There is a simple but distinct way differentiating between the two. They are also terms that are often incorrectly used and referenced.

Social Media is external in focus. When you think of your company, social media would be the external world that connects with your clients, customers, suppliers, markets and the general public. It is the ‘out there’ to your business and of course there are several technology platforms that already dominate this territory. These include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other social media tools already in use. You read a great deal about the need for a ‘social media strategy’ and when you consider the people ‘out there’ it becomes obvious as to why you need such a strategy. Mistakes are made by trying to simply re-groove current PR and marketing approaches to penetrate this new territory and the expertise from the ‘old world’ is unlikely to be the expertise you need in this ‘new world’. Of course that is not the message some would like to hear but if you are to bridge the old to the new it will require new mindsets and skill-sets. Not an entirely impossible learning journey but one where Mark Twain’s wisdom is advice well heeded: it is not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble but, rather what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

If social media is externally focused – what you have to do to connect with people externally, social business is internally focused. It represents what you have to do to connect with people internally. It is a term that for many appears to be an oxymoron. It is a term that conjures up a ‘Facebook in the company’ and with that image, nightmares around time wastage, distraction and information leaks. This is dangerously erroneous thinking, especially if it serves to thwart further conversation and dismiss the notion of ‘social business’.

Let me give you three reasons as to why you as a leader cannot afford not to implement social business within your company.

1.    It is not optional. In the same way that the automobile revolutionized transport, changing the rules and signaling the simultaneous death and birth of several jobs and vocations, social business will do the same. People need to connect and feel connected. Within companies today we have developed a host of ways to do this. With the arrival of the ‘digital native’ in the corporate world we are seeing that they connect in fundamentally different ways to those who have preferred them in this environment. Face-to-face goes from the top of the ‘how to connect’ list to the bottom; instant messaging replaces email and ‘byte’ size information, lengthy transcripts. All too often I have seen these and other differences not get pass go in discussions as to how best to get the best from both worlds. I see emotions and a ‘right vs wrong’ debate replace common sense and the willingness to explore new and more efficient ways to do things. Henry Ford said that if ask people what they want, they will tell you a, ‘faster horse’. Current leaders often approach such discussions looking for a faster horse!
2.    It is a mind shift, not a technology purchase. Embracing social business has to first and foremost be seen as a mindset. Buying technology that allows and facilitates internal connection, if not embraced by those in leadership, is doomed to failure. Leaders need to make the necessary mind shifts that will allow them to accept that when it comes to this area, they will need to see themselves as ‘learners’. For some leaders this will be tough, especially when current leaders have defined the rules and wisdom ‘that has got us here’. However, the point is that the wisdom that has got us here cannot be the wisdom to get us to where we need to be!
3.    There is a need for a business case to be made for why it is that the social agenda so vital for the future of business. Most leaders will be persuaded on the social agenda if a strong and compelling business case can be made for its adoption. A business case can be made in various areas of one’s business where the social agenda is applied: marketing. PR, training, innovation and sales are but some of the more obvious functions of business that will benefit with the application of social media / business. However, there is a more, dare I say ‘philosophical’ reasoning as to why the social agenda is non-negotiable. It relates to understanding the emerging Connection economy, in which competitive advantage is forged by how well we connect with those inside and outside of our business. A large part of what has been dubbed, ‘the war for Talent’ is nothing other than a ‘connection’ issue. The social agenda open up new fronts when it comes to connection and any leaders who fails to grasp this new reality, will become obsolete. It is that simple; it is that complex.

The social agenda has seen a power shift take place. The power now resides with the individual in the network. As it solves some problems, so it will originate others. This is always the case with a new set of rules. As a leader, the social agenda has to shape your current agendas. There is learning that needs to happen and conversations that need to begin. Ultimately though you as the leader can send out a powerful message by embracing the discomfort of learning. If others see you do it, they will follow. So, what are the questions you need to be asking and where is it that you will go to find the answers?

Your next step in this matter might just determine whether or not you survive the future!

Seeing the real magic: A reminder for all leaders!

Posted on: March 13th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

It was a party.

Not just any party, but a ‘fairy party’. The occasion was the fourth birthday of my godchild Jordan. It had been her call and fairy theme it was to be.

Now that was fine, except for the only boyfriend invited to the auspicious occasion.

Fairies and boys aren’t usually compatible. However, holding back on the fairy costume was not this young man’s style and in he strode, resplendent in his own Tinkerbell outfit to confidently take his place amongst all the other fairies. I think even they recognised something of just how courageous (and risky) this act was, for in time he may live to regret it, given the numerous video cameras present.

It was a fairy party to be proud of and apart from the castle cake that was demolished quicker than one could say ‘Genghis Khan’, there were wishes to be granted from cake-faced fairies with magic wands. It was during the magical chaos that ensued that I witnessed a special stardust moment involving the young man and Jordan.

The host fairy was sitting on a little chair when our intrepid male fairy decided that he wanted it.

‘May I have the chair, please?’ he asked, impressing all who witnessed the request with his polite and respectful tone. After all it was the main fairy he was dealing with here, something he was astute enough to recognise. Jordan obligingly got up, gave him the chair and looked around to consider who might require further wishes granted. Having walked a few paces with the chair in tow, the young man paused, turned around and said to Jordan, ‘Thank you for standing up’, then proceeded to make his way to wherever fairies and their chairs go.

It was a wonderful example of child logic translated into action. Almost as if what had impressed him was not the act of surrendering the chair, but the fact that Jordan first had to stand up in order to make it possible. There was the true act to applaud – not the surrender, but the standing.

Leaders in making their ‘requests’ – something which leaders are apt to do – often fail to recognise the ‘standing’ that was required to ensure that the request was fulfilled.

Thank you for standing is not something that should be confined to fairy parties but something leaders should get accustomed to saying more often.

The Critical Core of Leadership

Posted on: March 6th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Adolescence is a tricky period.

It has been described as that period in a young person’s life when they refuse to believe that some day they will be as dumb as their parents. As Mark Twain so eloquently put it: When I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. When I got to 21, I was astonished at how much he had learnt in seven years.

It is a time when everything changes and those changes happen not only without warning, but with debilitating speed. It is the Pearl Harbour type assault which devastates our defenses and unleashes a mayhem all of its own. Pimples erupt on innocent and unblemished skin, wreaking havoc with social standing and self-image. Body parts operate with a mind of their own. New skills, like shaving, have to be learnt and mastered. Voices go south and consistently function only with alarming inconsistency. Relatives irritate with variations on that annoying stock phrase, ‘Gosh, how you’ve grown.’

The world they have left behind seems too small, yet the world that has dawned doesn’t quite fit. It’s too old for some, too young for others. The constant feeling of being caught between; of almost - but not quite. It is a time when adolescents know more than their parents think they do, but are regularly reminded that they know less than they ought. It is a time when boundaries are rearranged and where space (‘it’s my room Dad’) clashes head-on with ownership (‘but it’s my house’).

It is also the time when ‘wants’ differs markedly from ‘needs’ and where the former is usually prohibitively expensive. It is a time when what makes perfect sense to the young person remains incomprehensible to their parents, and the converse also holds true.

It is a confusing time and most certainly a frustrating one. It is a time of experimentation and choices. It is a time of transition and contradiction. It is a time of great insecurity. Yet it remains the inescapable star gate though which all must pass on the way to adulthood, whatever that may be.

I once read that adolescence was God’s gift to parents.

At the same time as the teenager is encountering this season of confusion and endeavouring to forge his or her own identity, so the parents are encountering their own challenging territory, more usually called ‘mid-life crisis’. This, it seems, is no accident of design and for those parents willing to do so there are rich parallels to be explored between the two happenings. Both periods, adolescence and mid-life, offer learning experiences to be entered into, rather than problems that need to be solved. The shared invitation here is that of ‘growth’.

A word of caution. A problem could arise if parents think that they have done with ‘growing’ and fail to engage this period in both their life and that of their teenager, as a learner. They will then run the risk of missing out on the creativity, the energy, the stimulation that is on offer, settling instead for a detached, remote-control type approach that will fail miserably.

And herein lies the point: parents of children encountering adolescence need to master new skills and make other adjustments. It is a common mistake to look for these skills as a sort of off-the-shelf kit, neatly packaged and complete with easy-to-assemble instructions.

Parenting doesn’t work like that, and nor does leadership.

Parenting, as with leadership, is about being a person. The tags ‘parent’ and ‘leader’ merely denote roles and responsibilities. What both sets of ‘followers’ want is to see and connect with the person behind the tag. This remains the critical core of parenthood and leadership alike.

Parents who have neglected to gaze inwards and acknowledge the issues that shadow them throughout life’s seasonal changes are ill-prepared to serve as reliable guides to their adolescent explorers. It isn’t so much about doing and saying the right things as about exploration and growth. It is about choosing to be vulnerable, honest and real. It is the realisation that the internal agenda is more important than the external agenda and dealing with the latter, without paying attention to the former, is like trying to eat an ice cream cone under the unforgiving blaze of the sun on a sweltering day.

Parents and leaders who don’t get this waste time and energy on preserving authority and masking appearances. They busy themselves with the unimportant, the non-essentials, denying the cracks that are all too apparent to astute observers around them.

It is a pity – in fact, it is a tragedy – because it could all be so different.

Perspective is so important. And nowhere more so than for parents negotiating their children’s adolescence, and of course in almost all aspects of leadership.

In 1945 two popular show business figures were denounced in the US Congress for turning the youth into ‘juvenile delinquents’. The two offenders? Frank Sinatra and the Lone Ranger! Perspective is important! And sometimes it just takes time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Love Travel: Wisdom from the Journey

Posted on: February 28th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

I love travel. It is early Sunday morning (or at least I think it is) and I am sitting in the Emirates business lounge awaiting my connecting flight to Gaungzhou, China. It is a whistle-stop trip – just four nights away and two of those will be spent at 35 000’.  This will be my third routing through Dubai in a 2012 that is barley out its nappies – and a year where scheduled trips include destinations such as the UK, Switzerland, China, Thailand, Hawaii and India. Of course travelling business class does help but, for the record, let me quickly add that not all these trips will be done by turning left on entering the aircraft!

I love travel. But I think I already said that.  I don’t like being away from home yet I love travel and therein sits the paradox. Travel makes the world seem real somehow. Places that were mere names now become tangible; strange words become recognizable; the unfamiliar becomes familiar and one’s bag of experience fills exponentially whist ‘on the road’. Years ago I remember being given some wisdom that has shaped much of my travel experience. I’m not sure where it comes from or even who said it first but it is something that I have attempted to live by as my journey has taken me to some amazing global destinations. The wisdom? Tourists take pictures – pilgrims collect stories.

Over the years I have done my best to travel as a pilgrim. I have tried to avoid seeing things from behind a lens and of course the good news is that you won’t be swamped with hundreds of pictures should I get to share with you my latest adventure!  Why I love travel so is that it invites stories. Travel offers learning about others and oneself. The stories encountered and engaged serve to challenge plausibility and perspective; they challenge assumptions and entrenched prejudice; they reshape worldview and exercise curiosity that in turn invites discovery. Stories connect and so as you acquire more stories in all their shapes and forms, so one feels more connected – to others , the world we share and oneself. What is not to like about all that?

While sitting at my table I can hear conversations in languages both familiar and unfamiliar. I have just read the Sunday Times of India (so it must be Sunday!) that has pages of classified adverts for brides and grooms under the heading, ‘Matrimonials’. Here would be but one example: Hindu boy 19.8.84 / 5’10” HT. MBA from IIM B’lore wrkg 20Lpa. Seeks b’ful qlfd girl. Cast no bar (followed by contact details). Other headlines in a paper where the print is so small you need more than glasses to read, includes: ‘It’s cool to be called sexy, says NCW chief’ (NCW? The National Commission for Women!) ‘Kudankulam nuke plant ready to roll in six weeks’; ‘36% jump in HIV among city gays in 2 yrs: study’; ‘Women can’t be forced to take hubby’s name after marriage’ and one that cheered me up: ‘Mandela in hospital but out of danger’. And so I get a glimpse of the world through an unfamiliar window and I wonder about the context in which such news is familiar.

Travel invites conversation with strangers that reveal how small the world can be – or how big it really is. It reveals patterns of behaviour that surprise, amuse and bemuse. It offers tastes, smells and experiences that write new scripts to those already written and in so doing, add to the global tapestry and my understanding of it all. It seems the more I get to experience and learn, the more I realize just how little I know and truly understand! It makes me want to travel more, learn more, hear more and observe more. Maybe this is the real pathway of the Learner?

I love travel. I have had to learn to be willing to get lost (once I thought I would never again see the light of day having got lost in the Moscow subway!). I have come to understand that getting lost is part of the journey. I have learnt that sitting still is also part of the journey. What I call my ‘cappuccino diary’ (the rule being that each entry is made whilst sipping on a cappuccino) reflects pauses in busy schedules that capture word pictures of what is going on around me – places, people and activity that swirl around me unaware that they are being observed. It is a place where I try to articulate my thoughts not sure if they will make sense, or whether or not there will be any value to be had from my effort when viewed from further down my journey’s pathway.  Nonetheless, my cappuccino dairy is amongst the first items packed for any journey.

I love travel. It has added to who I am and how I both live and do that which I am so privileged to do in and through TomorrowToday. As I speak, teach, consult and attempt to practice leadership – it is travel that has been my best tutor and mentor. The places I have been and experiences I have had seem to have added weight and gravitas to what has been my message when it comes to leadership in the new world of work. This is not something I can claim for myself or take any credit for – but rather it is just something that has happened along the way. And I am grateful for the gift it has and continues to be. Somehow when I sit in places like this busy lounge, thoughts find clearer pathways into words; perspective seems easier to grasp and the world seems both more mysterious and yet  at the same time, more knowable.

Yes, I love travel. But I have said that haven’t I?

So I say to you, whoever you are and whatever your ‘on the road’ looks like: travel as a pilgrim. It will make all the difference.

Knock, knock . . . who’s there? Leadership and reciprocity: What goes around comes around

Posted on: February 23rd, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

‘He should represent South Africa at sleeping,’ was the SMS we received from Keegan’s host after he had been in the UK for a few days. Any parent of a teenager will know about the amazing capacity for sleep that the average adolescent carries. In fact, it is sure sign that your kids are about to enter the teen phase when they cease to wake with the morning sparrows and bounce around the house when most normal people are still sleeping.

When they were small my kids had this annoying habit of asking me if I was awake when clearly I was not. The shut eyes, the rhythmic, almost musical, snoring and occasional dribble should all have provided ample evidence that the current mode was ‘sleep’. But not, it seems, to my sleep disruptors!

It got worse when they brought home a wake-up ritual custom-designed to irritate parents. It involved a little fist pummeling my forehead whilst my eyelids were simultaneously yanked open, accompanied by a cheery, ‘knock-knock, who’s there?’ As unwelcome harsh light penetrated the furthest reaches of my skull, bouncing off the inside of my cranium, my nose was given a wrenching twist (‘turn the key’), and finally a squashing of my mouth, leaving me looking like an overdone kissing fish, and the words, ‘and walk right in’.

Strangely, Vicky was never subjected to this kind of abuse. I’m not sure what she did, or threatened to do, to be granted such immunity. But whatever it was, I wish I had followed a similar line of action. Having been woken up in this rough manner for several years has left its scars but my therapist, a kindly person, has assured me that in time I will cease to wake up screaming and hiding under my pillow.

Of course when the kids hibernate into the teen sleep pattern it provides a complete reversal of positions and the best opportunity yet for revenge. This, together with ‘embarrassment’ (something that doesn’t take much mastering and can be effortlessly applied), are the two greatest weapons in a parent’s armory. However, just as one begins to utilize the chance for revenge, turning the torturous knock-knock maneuver on its former perpetrators, mom comes to their defense. ‘Shame, leave them, they need their sleep’, or, ‘Just remember who will be looking after you in your old age’, are two of the incomprehensible defense tactics that come to mind. Of course there was also the ‘grow-up, you’re acting like an imbecile’ approach, which oddly enough served to motivate rather than deter. It was sound evidence that I was on the right track in serving my former captors some of their own medicine.

All of which proves that what goes around, comes around. Or in the more eloquent words of some ancient wisdom, you reap what you sow.

Leaders would do well to remember this wisdom.

Too Big to Fail: The Need for Leaders to Remember

Posted on: February 21st, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Imagine a workforce that takes initiative, accepts responsibility for their work, their learning and their company. Imagine an environment where there is energy, goodwill and a shared camaraderie. Image!

Anybody who thinks that this isn’t desirable, who thinks this impossible, let me make a recommendation: go see a movie. Not just any movie but one in particular. One I have just watched whilst flying to London on business. It was one that was someone fortuitously picked out of an impressive in-flight entertainment menu, one that somehow simply had to be viewed and is now one that I am suggesting every CEO watch. The movie in question? ‘Too Big to Fail‘ – the story of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown that came within a dollar of bringing down the entire American dream and with it, much of the global economy.

It is a gripping account of what happened as the investment banks in the US were bailed out by Government during the turmoil of that time. It is a roller-coaster ride that reveals the drama, the characters and the bargaining that went on unabated as egos, policy and principle collided as the markets bled out. Only a select few will know for certain to what extent Hollywood has coloured the picture within the lines of what actually happened, but regardless of any artistic license taken, it unfurls events in a manner that make comprehension for the layman possible. Certainly the few books I have read on the crisis reveal a complexity that makes any telling of the tale a challenge.

So why do leaders need to watch this movie? There would be many leadership lessons embedded in the economic ruins that this period represents but ‘Too Big to Fail’ highlights one in particular that should challenge every leader every day. It is the lesson of remembering: the remembering of the greater good that underpins why it is that you are in business. Losing this perspective is to open the door to greed, ego and selfishness; it is the invitation to a self-serving motive that ultimately undermines everything in ever expanding concentric circles – much like the ripples made by a stone thrown into a pond.

It is a remembering that whilst profit is important, it is not ‘all important’. Naive? Yes, perhaps. This ‘remembering’ is more accustomed to mere lip-service than having any real substance in the corridors of power and in the plush boardrooms where matters of profitability and shareholder value hold sway. Perhaps, in the system we have, it always will be somewhat naive until someone stands up and has the courage to say, “enough”.

‘Too Big to Fail’ is the story of runaway greed and leadership egos blindsided by their own distorted image. It is the story of a systems failure that if anything is to be learnt, demands that we have to think and behave differently. I’m not an economist but when you strip away the economic complexity of this story, it reveals some fundamental human attitudes and behaviours that need changing. Ultimately it is not an economic story; rather it is a story about leadership. Leaders need to be the ones to stand-up and say “enough”. It is the role and responsibility of the Leader to act in what is the best interests of the whole – the whole person, the whole company, the whole community, the whole society. If the Leader fails in this responsibility the system will eventually collapse. This is true of economic, political, social and biological systems. It places a massive responsibility on leadership to stay in touch with what really matters; to see the bigger picture; to be selfless, bold, authentic and humble. You lead out of who you are and ultimately there is no escaping this reality. In short, ‘To Big to Fail’ is a stark reminder to all leaders that, what goes around, comes around!

It can be easy for leaders to ‘lose their way’ once the trappings of power become familiar. So often the accountability structures in which leaders lead are prone to distortion and manipulation allowing for the type of personal and corporate failure we so often see happen. The cords of executive accountability need to be strengthened. It may be argued that this has been one of the outcomes from this particular crisis but there will still be the need for vigilance. Leadership development programmes and processes should pay as much attention to the development of character as they do to the functional requirements of leadership. Current leaders will need to get to grip with a world of engagement, collaboration and importantly, transparency. The social agenda that is made up of ‘social media’ (an external focus) and ‘social business’ (an internal focus) demands a mind-shift for many leaders. This is the terrain that makes up the new world of work and this new reality means that leaders need to understand that everything has now shifted.

Go and see the movie. Take a notepad with you and then and block off some time after you are done in order to reflect and think about why you are in leadership. You won’t be sorry you did.

Too Big to Fail: The Need for Leaders to Remember

Posted on: February 20th, 2012 by Keith Coats 4 Comments

Imagine a workforce that takes initiative, accepts responsibility for their work, their learning and their company. Imagine an environment where there is energy, goodwill and a shared comrade. Image!

Anybody who thinks that this isn’t desirable, who thinks this impossible, let me make a recommendation: go see a movie. Not just any movie but one in particular. One I have just watched whilst flying to London on business. It was one that was someone fortuitously picked out of an impressive in-flight entertainment menu, one that somehow simply had to be viewed and is now one that I am suggesting every CEO watch. The movie in question? ‘Too Big to Fail’ – the story of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown that came within a dollar of bringing down the entire American dream and with it, much of the global economy.

It is a gripping account of what happened as the investment banks in the US were bailed out by Government during the turmoil of that time. It is a roller-coaster ride that reveals the drama, the characters and the bargaining that went on unabated as egos, policy and principle collided as the markets bled out. Only a select few will know for certain to what extent Hollywood has coloured the picture within the lines of what actually happened, but regardless of any artistic license taken, it unfurls events in a manner that make comprehension for the layman possible. Certainly the few books I have read on the crisis reveal a complexity that makes any telling of the tale a challenge.

So why do leaders need to watch this movie? There would be many leadership lessons embedded in the economic ruins that this period represents but ‘Too Big to Fail’ highlights one in particular that should challenge every leader every day. It is the lesson of remembering: the remembering of the greater good that underpins why it is that you are in business. Losing this perspective is to open the door to greed, ego and selfishness; it is the invitation to a self-serving motive that ultimately undermines everything in ever expanding concentric circles – much like the ripples made by a stone thrown into a pond.

It is a remembering that whilst profit is important, it is not ‘all important’. Naive? Yes, perhaps. This ‘remembering’ is more accustomed to mere lip-service than having any real substance in the corridors of power and in the plush boardrooms where matters of profitability and shareholder value hold sway. Perhaps, in the system we have, it always will be somewhat naive until someone stands up and has the courage to say, “enough”.

‘Too Big to Fail’ is the story of runaway greed and leadership egos blindsided by their own distorted image. It is the story of a systems failure that if anything is to be learnt, demands that we have to think and behave differently. I’m not an economist but when you strip away the economic complexity of this story, it reveals some fundamental human attitudes and behaviours that need changing. Ultimately it is not an economic story; rather it is a story about leadership. Leaders need to be the ones to stand-up and say “enough”. It is the role and responsibility of the Leader to act in what is the best interests of the whole – the whole person, the whole company, the whole community, the whole society. If the Leader fails in this responsibility the system will eventually collapse. This is true of economic, political, social and biological systems. It places a massive responsibility on leadership to stay in touch with what really matters; to see the bigger picture; to be selfless, bold, authentic and humble. You lead out of who you are and ultimately there is no escaping this reality. In short, ‘To Big to Fail’ is a stark reminder to all leaders that, what goes around, comes around!

It can be easy for leaders to ‘lose their way’ once the trappings of power become familiar. So often the accountability structures in which leaders lead are prone to distortion and manipulation allowing for the type of personal and corporate failure we so often see happen. The cords of executive accountability need to be strengthened. It may be argued that this has been one of the outcomes from this particular crisis but there will still be the need for vigilance. Leadership development programmes and processes should pay as much attention to the development of character as they do to the functional requirements of leadership. Current leaders will need to get to grip with a world of engagement, collaboration and importantly, transparency. The social agenda that is made up of ‘social media’ (an external focus) and ‘social business’ (an internal focus) demands a mind-shift for many leaders. This is the terrain that makes up the new world of work and this new reality means that leaders need to understand that everything has now shifted.

Go and see the movie. Take a notepad with you and then and block off some time after you are done in order to reflect and think about why you are in leadership. You won’t be sorry you did.

Leadership: What Is Your Training Schedule?

Posted on: February 14th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Swimmers take your marks . . .

All three of our kids can swim. Two of them, Tamryn and Sipho, rather well. In fact both have won Victrix/Victor Ludorum for their aqua efforts and Sipho has gained his provincial colours.

‘So what’s the big deal,’ you ask?

Well, here’s the strange thing. All three kids were taught to swim by their mother. Again, you may ask, ‘So what?’ Well, what if I were to tell you that Vicky can hardly swim herself? Let me qualify ‘hardly swim’ so that we are clear about what we mean here. ‘Hardly’ means that Vicky dons water-wings in the bath tub. ‘Hardly’ means that she can make it across the pool using a stroke that is something between a doggy-paddle and an ostrich attempting take-off. (Actually, it is worse than that but none of us have had the courage to tell her.) ‘Hardly’ means that Vicky is at risk every time she encounters a deeper than usual puddle.

I think you get my point.

Yet the fact remains that our kids are as at home in the water as they are plundering the fridge. As a result of this amazing non-transference of skill, Vicky and I have spent a great deal of our adult life sitting alongside various pools, whether for training or galas.

It was while watching Sipho at a gala that the following thought occurred. The race lasted all of 32 seconds yet had absorbed countless hours in preparation. All that preparation for just 32 seconds! Hardly seemed justified until I saw the grin on his face which indicated a PB – a personal best time. The effort put into the training, the length after length, come rain or shine, had reaped its reward.

I think it is a lot like leadership.

Good leaders are made. Their training may or may not be deliberate but somehow they acquire the attitude, emotional intelligence and skills necessary to become effective leaders. Those are things best shaped in training, away from the glare and glamour of race day. Good leaders have had the kind of preparation that enables them to perform at their peak when it matters most. They don’t stop training and putting in the time just because they are already champions, in fact they work even harder than before, set new goals, stretch themselves even further and attempt the impossible. The training routines of true champions may or may not change, but their attitude and dedication towards training, understanding the role it plays in their success, doesn’t falter.

So often I have found that leaders, on assuming the role, position and responsibility of leadership, stop training. Somehow they assume that it is no longer necessary to carry on with the training disciplines that saw them achieve their position of responsibility. They stop learning, stop growing and soon their leadership position is something to be defended, guarded, and the rot takes hold.

Asking most leaders what their ‘training schedules’ look like is to invite quizzical responses covered with a layer of ‘but that’s a question for aspiring leaders, not for someone like me’. After all, how often does the CEO voluntarily enroll him or herself on training courses, or lead the charge in exploring developmental opportunities? For many leaders these things are not opportunities to be grasped, but rather threats to be avoided.

Champions have to work even harder, remain hungrier and stay more focused and disciplined.

It is no different for effective leaders and the really smart leaders know it. When last did you attend a course, read a book or engage in a conversation with the express purpose of developing, growing, learning?

If you have to think about it for longer than thirty seconds, you’re not in training.

Pies, Profits and Paris: Leadership and Dreams

Posted on: February 7th, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

It started out as a pie business during a school entrepreneur’s week. The girls were required to work in teams and start some sort of business, the proceeds of which were to be shared with the school. Tamryn, Ronwyn and Jill decided that they would sell pies during the lunch break. It was a simple operation really: order the pies in the morning, have them delivered to the school, sell them at break and bank the money. There were many more creative ideas but none had the legs to outpace the simple pie business that flourished beyond all expectations. Once the week had come to an end the bold entrepreneurs (with the exception of Jill, who was destined to become like Pete Best – the Beatle who quit before Paul, John, Ringo and George went on to rule the world) asked and received permission to continue their business enterprise. The school authorities, unlike most such institutions, decided not to interfere with their education and said yes.

It was during this time that the girls hatched the dream to go to Paris.

Of course any dreamer will understand the attraction of parentless Paris to two fifteen-year-olds. And so it was that the dream provided the energy that fuelled the business. Excel spreadsheets of projected income were produced and the figures displayed provided a resounding, ‘Houston, we have go for launch.’ Suddenly what had seemed like a mere pipedream was tantalizingly possible. Naturally there were the doubters, the older brother for one. A rash bet was made that would see R100 pass hands on evidence (or not) of the purchase of the airline tickets.

In the early days it was easy to scoff. However it was hard to ignore or dismiss the reaction to any reference to or image of Paris that flickered across the TV screen. The dream was rooting and slowly the bank balance was growing. The quest to accumulate the necessary funds did have its downside. Routine chores that had once been done lovingly (well, OK, let me be honest, those tasks that had required some degree of coercion) now became chargeable. A further example of this changed approach was the occasion when Duncan, an invaluable friend (and not just because of his IT skills – though we all need such friends), was working on Tamryn’s computer. ‘Duncan,’ chirps the Opportunist, ‘would you like a pie?’ ‘Sure . . . that would be nice, thanks Tamryn,’ says the unsuspecting benefactor. Tamryn scratches in her cupboard, locates a day-old pie, heats it up and presents it to Duncan with, ‘That will be R4.00. I have given you a discount because the pie is a bit old.’ Of course the fact that Duncan was working on her computer didn’t feature in the equation at all!

Eventually the day came when the tickets were purchased and an older brother is R100 poorer. What seemed impossible became reality; the Dreamers realized their dream. Parents who had dismissed the idea suddenly had good reason for concern about two sixteen-year-olds let loose in Paris. But knowing Tamryn and Ronwyn, perhaps it is the French who should have been doing the worrying!

As I watched this story unfold I have repeatedly been reminded of the many leadership applications.

For one, there is the power of dreams to shape reality. In fact, what better to shape reality than the powerful, irresistible force of a dream? So many let reality shape their reality and they are the ones who, whilst remaining practical, are somehow never able to inspire in the way that the dreamers do. Recently I met a Durban businessman who had dreamt of building his own manufacturing plant. A young architect with whom he had shared his ideas travelled back from New York in order to be the one to design the revolutionary manufacturing plant. The dream to do things differently from industry standards has seen not only a unique manufacturing plant being developed, but with it a management style and practice that deserves a book of its own. And it was a dream that shaped it all.
Smart leaders work at discovering what it is their staff dream about. Smart leaders understand the power of dreams unleashed within their business and do everything within their power to release that potential.

The thing about looking back on dreams once they have become reality is that it is often easy to forget just how ‘big’ the dream was in its original context. Take, for instance, President J F Kennedy’s dream in the early 1960s to send a man to the moon and to bring him back safely before the end of the decade. It was a dream that had ‘improbable’ and, for some, ‘impossible’ stamped all over it. Yet it galvanized and inspired an entire nation and captured the imagination of the world. Of course the chief architect of that dream didn’t live to see it fulfilled, but this is often the case with dreamers. A case in point is Martin Luther King and his immortal words, ‘I have a dream . . .’ (Note that he didn’t say, “I have a plan”). As with Kennedy, King didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled, yet his ability to articulate his dream inspired thousands to move society and to change history. There is no shortage of examples of dreamers and their dreams. Unlike Kennedy and King, Nelson Mandela did live to see his dream mature into reality. Much of what we take for granted in today’s reality was once the stuff of dreams, nowhere more so than in the realm of technology.

With the advantage of hindsight we sometimes forget the size of the dream, and just how impossible it seemed at the time, and how crazy the dreamer appeared. That ought to encourage us as we entertain ‘impossible’ dreams and also give us pause before reaching for the delete key and dismissing the dreamer’s idea. It could even be argued than unless the dream evokes an initial response of ‘you must be crazy’ from others, it is too small a dream and one not worth pursuing.

Smart leaders look for the dreamers.

They ask repeatedly ‘why not?’ and are prepared to run the gauntlet of the pragmatists, the realists, those who speak sense and know better. They create within their environments incubators in which dreams emerge and hothouses in which dreams can grow. They also understand that not all dreams make the hazardous journey to reality and don’t let those that don’t make it detract from the belief that others can.

Another lesson to emerge from the pie to Paris caper is that not all will stay the course. The pie business started with three entrepreneurs but ended with two. Like the ‘forgotten’ Beatle, there was the friend who decided to look elsewhere and as a result missed out on the profitable pie business. This is a fact of life and most of those we meet along the way have at least one story of having missed out on the fulfillment of some or other dream that exceeded the limits placed on it. Those who shape the dream need to remember this reality, as do those who ‘miss out’.

The journey the dream takes towards reality is fraught with peril. Certainly, it is a journey characterised by hard work, discipline and the need to say no to detours and distractions. The Paris dream has meant all of the above. The sacrifice of break time, day in and day out; the need to stick to the budget, and choosing between the expensive skirt or banking the profit have been sources of frustration and temptation. And then there have been the detractors who have dotted the sidelines dismissing the notion with pronouncements of doom. Of course the further one makes it along the road, the fewer the detractors!

Dreams move people and change things.

Perhaps the content of the dream is not all that important; as Joseph of old discovered following his fallout with his brothers over his techni-coloured dream coat, ‘any dream will do’. As a leader you need to ask yourself when last you allowed yourself to dream. When was it that you last found yourself energized and scripted by a dream?  The chances are that if you have to retreat into the distant recesses of your memory to recall such a time, then you and those around you are not very inspired. Dreams that become woven into the fabric of daily life have an extraordinary power. Encountering dreamers is to encounter people who leave an indelible imprint on others. You know when you have been in the presence of such folk and, perhaps best of all, they somehow remind one to capture one’s own dream.

Pies in our household have become something magical and symbolic (and at the time, somewhat costly!). They have become reminders that we need to dream and then find ways to realize those dreams, no matter what the doubters say.

So how do you find out someone’s dream?

Ask them.

So what is your dream?

Smart Leadership: Looking for Answers by Inviting the Questions

Posted on: February 1st, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

‘But why?’ can be two exasperating words, words that chisel away at parental resolve like water dripping on a tin roof. Of course the fact that they are used in a highly concentrated way at around the three-year benchmark makes it even more unfair and harder to endure. But that is the way it is and there is no escaping it.

It was during this period in Keegan’s life that I one day strapped him in the back seat of the car and set off at the bidding of Her Master’s Voice on some or other errand.

No sooner had we exited the safety of our domain when Keegan, sensing that he was with a less battle-hardened victim, threw the first ‘why?’ response to some ill-advised comment of mine. Too naïve to recognise what was going on, I responded enthusiastically, inwardly delighted at the promising father-son conversation that was unfolding. Now I have to admit that it wasn’t until the third or fourth ‘why’ that I got the feeling that something was awry, in much the same way I imagine, that a blind hobbit would feel stumbling into a maze. It was at this point of no return that I made a fatal tactical mistake. I foolishly decided to press on and attempt to exhaust the ‘why’ storehouse. A silly mistake I know, but such is the wisdom of hindsight.

The situation became hopeless. Every explanation offered, whether fat or thin, merely served to elicit another ‘why?’ From the same intelligence that forbids males from asking for directions, I blundered on, determined to stay the course by mumbling mind-numbing monotone explanations.

And then the breakthrough happened.

After yet another hoarse offering from me, an exasperated little voice from the rear seat said, ‘Daddy, just say BECAUSE, man.’

Of course!

All my explanations and volumes of words had been utterly wasted. All that had been sought from the enquiring mind in the rear seat was an answer that was usually delivered with the air of parental authority reserved for moms. ‘Because.’ – The final word, the word to stop the ‘why’ rhino dead in its tracks! The consummate explanation and sought-after answer to every ‘why’ question.

How could I have missed it?

(more…)

Smart Leadership: Looking for Answers by Inviting the Questions

Posted on: January 31st, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

‘But why?’ can be two exasperating words, words that chisel away at parental resolve like water dripping on a tin roof. Of course the fact that they are used in a highly concentrated way at around the three-year benchmark makes it even more unfair and harder to endure. But that is the way it is and there is no escaping it.

It was during this period in Keegan’s life that I one day strapped him in the back seat of the car and set off at the bidding of Her Master’s Voice on some or other errand.

No sooner had we exited the safety of our domain when Keegan, sensing that he was with a less battle-hardened victim, threw the first ‘why?’ response to some ill-advised comment of mine. Too naïve to recognise what was going on, I responded enthusiastically, inwardly delighted at the promising father-son conversation that was unfolding. Now I have to admit that it wasn’t until the third or fourth ‘why’ that I got the feeling that something was awry, in much the same way I imagine, that a blind hobbit would feel stumbling into a maze. It was at this point of no return that I made a fatal tactical mistake. I foolishly decided to press on and attempt to exhaust the ‘why’ storehouse. A silly mistake I know, but such is the wisdom of hindsight.

The situation became hopeless. Every explanation offered, whether fat or thin, merely served to elicit another ‘why?’ From the same intelligence that forbids males from asking for directions, I blundered on, determined to stay the course by mumbling mind-numbing monotone explanations.

And then the breakthrough happened.

After yet another hoarse offering from me, an exasperated little voice from the rear seat said, ‘Daddy, just say BECAUSE, man.’

Of course!

All my explanations and volumes of words had been utterly wasted. All that had been sought from the enquiring mind in the rear seat was an answer that was usually delivered with the air of parental authority reserved for moms. ‘Because.’ – The final word, the word to stop the ‘why’ rhino dead in its tracks! The consummate explanation and sought-after answer to every ‘why’ question.

How could I have missed it?

How long had mom known about this and why was such valuable information not shared with the allies? But at least now you know. The answer is a simple, but authoritative, ‘because’. Use this trump card early and get over the idealistic notion of your role in fostering intellectual enquiry. Leave that to the teachers who are paid to do it.

‘Why?’ is one of the best questions to be asking in business and specifically to leaders. Ironic, isn’t it? We drum it out of our vocabulary only for me to suggest that we relearn and redeploy it as adults. Of course it can be a risky business as not all environments support such a question, and whether or not your particular environment does will soon become apparent. I believe that environments that don’t, with the possible exception of the military, will soon no longer be around anyway, so best you look elsewhere before it is too late.

There was a time when the chain-of-command type of leadership was mainstream, and to ask ‘why?’ of the all-knowing god to whom you answered, would only destine you forever to be the Gollum-grub on ground floor. Those who dared ask questions were marginalised or regarded as disloyal or unmanageable. Troublemakers, rebels, the round pegs in square holes, the deviants who needed to be avoided or, at worst, fired. Such people tend to find each other and create colonies of their own, mavericks, outcasts, rebels – those who see and do things differently. But they are more often than not the change-agents, those who make a lasting difference. It is such people that are more needed now than ever before.

Some companies still don’t get it. They operate like well-oiled machines that, at worst, expend vast amounts of energy eliminating any dissident ‘why?’ voices or, at best, answer, ‘because . . . that’s the way we have always done it’. They often appear to be well-ordered and harmonious companies with their carefully crafted mission statements, purpose statements, core value statements or whatever statements (very few really know the difference here) prominently displayed. They offer their standard explanation, ‘But that’s our policy, sir’, or the wildly creative variable of, ‘But that’s not our policy, Madam’, to any customer foolish enough to venture the ‘why’ question. Should you succeed in getting in behind the first line of defense you simply encounter more of the same, only this time from longer titles with bigger desks and, inevitably, less coherence.

Tomorrow’s leaders will need to invite and encourage questions. They will understand that it is through questions that better ways are discovered, that people are challenged and growth happens. The ‘why?’ question will be regarded as fundamental to their armoury. And they will succeed in unleashing the chaotic forces needed for creativity and innovation to flourish.

Of course there are many other great questions that should be asked and to those who dare ask them, to them will lie the spoils of war. Do you hear yourself asking the questions, or do you hear yourself responding with ‘because’?

The test might come the next time you encounter a three-year-old!

I read the other day that asking the ‘wrong’ questions generates the ‘wrong’ answers, followed by ‘wrong’ directions, and risks a mistaken idea of how well the company is doing. Questions bordering on the absurd are more useful. Finding and then learning to ask the ‘right’ questions is fundamental to both personal and corporate growth. They become the barometer by which real progress can be measured.

The problem is, we seldom ask the right questions, and even less frequently do we want to hear the answers!

Niels Bohr, who explored the world of quantum physics, would preface any introduction of a new concept by saying to his students, ‘Every sentence that I utter should not be considered as an assurance but as a question.’ He also reportedly made it a dictum that ‘No paradox, no progress’.

Perhaps the ability to perceive, to see or think differently is more important than the ‘capture of knowledge’.

The South African, the Australian and the Blonde: The flawed maxim of leadership

Posted on: January 24th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Children seldom misquote you. In fact, they more often than not repeat exactly what you shouldn’t have said.

In response to the Sunday School (what a terrible name for any freedom loving kid! – it should have been ditched decades ago) teacher’s question of who in the class would like to stand up and repeat the Bible verse they had learnt, Keegan’s hand flashed into the air. Confidently, he took his place in front of his attentive inmates, er . . . classmates.

‘The boy stood on the burning deck,

Whence all but he had fled.

 Twit.’

Before any of the wardens could interject, he launched into another ‘verse’ for his appreciative audience:

‘I must go down to the sea again,

 to the lonely sea and sky;

 Where I left my scants and socks,

 I wonder if they are dry?’

By this time the youngest and nimblest of the wardens had reached him and was able to put a stop to any further verses that would poison impressionable young minds. This single act of intervention was most likely responsible for keeping Keegan off any Christian Taliban hit list and which meant we have not had to go into any witness protection programme.

This was not an isolated incident, a fact that strengthens my case. During a church family camp to which I happened to be invited there was a concert on the Saturday night. I was sitting next to a couple who proudly informed me that the young boy, no more than seven years old, making his way on to the stage was their son. I sat back, glowing in the reflected glory of the radiant parents who were now telling anyone within earshot that the boy about to ascend the stage was their son. As parents and groupies settled back expectantly, the master of ceremonies announced that the boy would recite several verses from the Bible. With their spontaneous PR exercise to the surrounding community accomplished, you could almost hear the purr of the proud parents who were about to collect on their efforts to instill in their offspring correct moral values through the teaching of biblical verses.

Now I think I have a reasonable grasp of what is and what is not in the Bible but when the lad started with, ‘There was a South African, an Australian and a blonde on a train . . .’ I must confess that my biblical Google ‘I feel lucky’ search drew a blank. It took some time before the proud smile slipped from his parents’ face, paralleled by the smirks that began to appear on the face of an audience that sensed something memorable was about to happen. By this time the young comedian was well into a joke that was certainly not fit for the occasion. As horror gripped the bloodline of two in the audience, the raunchy joke played itself out to an otherwise appreciative, if somewhat shocked crowd. Certainly there was an almost palpable ‘thank-goodness-he-is-not-one-of-ours’ feeling among many who had witnessed what would no doubt become a tale approaching urban legend proportions.

The earlier PR exercise, which seemed a good idea at the time, had ensured that there was no place to hide and feeble explanations blaming friends, school and Barney were mumbled to anyone who would listen. I still think it was the highlight of what was otherwise a fairly dull event.

Leaders can be sure that at times others will unwittingly (or maybe not) ape both their words and their behaviour. It is part of the responsibility that those in leadership must accept. It goes with the job. Trying the approach of ‘do as I say and not as I do’ will not work. Unfortunately there are many leaders who live out that flawed maxim, using their position and authority to forge the way rather than bringing alignment between what they say and what they do.

I was once involved in a series of teambuilding workshops spread out over several weeks with a new executive team of a large corporation. During this time a colleague of mine happened to bump into the CEO and one of the team members at the airport. To his amazement, when they boarded the same flight the CEO sat in business class while the team member made his way through to the economy class where my colleague was sitting. That is no way to build a team. Whatever the rationale – and I’m sure there would be some ‘logic’ to it – that kind of corporate behaviour spotlights the gap between the talk and the action. What amazes me, both in this specific example and in this kind of behaviour in general, is just how oblivious leaders seem to be to the contradiction at work.

Creating and guarding corporate hierarchies is something of the past. The younger generations (Generations X and Y), as and when they enter the workplace, will neither understand nor respond to such artificial divisions of status. Adjusting to this reality is a challenge to those who seek to maintain them.

Closing the gap between what you say you are and what you really are requires consistent feedback and no small amount of emotional maturity and intelligence. All too often the feedback structures we have so meticulously constructed within our corporate environments conspire against the very reason for their existence. As people learn to ‘play the game’, manipulate the system and hide behind the respective feedback and performance review facades, authentic feedback gets lost – or is simply not heard. When that happens personal and corporate growth is stalled. Perhaps the best way to check how your words match your action is simply to ask someone . . . really asks someone. Determine to avoid any knee-jerk defensive response and be ready to hear something you don’t necessarily agree with or even like. Therein sits the discovery of the hidden pearl. Treasure it, polish it and turn it into something of beauty. As you do so you can be sure that others will notice, but that is not the reason for doing it, it is merely a by-product of the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note to Leaders: You are not alone

Posted on: January 18th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

How often have you heard those in leadership positions utter the mantra, ‘It’s lonely at the top’? They usually serve it up in a sort of self-congratulatory and somewhat condescending manner that expects no one but themselves to really understand. It is almost as if the mantra is the coded password to an exclusive club that only the members themselves fully comprehend.

hat ‘the top’ should always be a lonely place is an illusion. As a parent, I think I can prove it.

Parties are no problem when the kids are knee-high. In fact I think that often the extravagant early parties are more about the parents than the kids. A kind of ‘if Samantha next door had a jumping castle, let’s go with helicopter rides’ mentality. Talk about pressure! Anyway the point is that throwing parties at this stage of the journey is really to sweat the small stuff.

It is when kids grow up that parties become a challenge. As parents you seldom get to witness them because any self-respecting teenager will see to it that the main event takes place at a time and place where you are not. However, there is good reason to ensure that you occasionally thwart such plans and report for duty when these events take place.

The main purpose in being present at your kid’s party is to remind yourself that there are others like your own. For some parents it might even help to see that it is entirely possible that there are some even worse than your own. To discover that you are not alone as you navigate the times of feeling that your offspring are the result of some mutant genetic bungling, is a very reassuring discovery for most parents. It serves instantly to dispel the myth that the issues you are facing as the parent of a teenager are unique. In fact, experience has taught me to be suspicious of any household with teenagers who appear calm, orderly and ‘normal’. Either they have done masterful jobs of deception and disguise or have somehow put a tourniquet around the inevitable.

Turbulence, challenge and discomfort are part of the parent-teenage terrain, and don’t let anyone tell you they are not. However it is in this environment that new and better ways can be forged, where growth takes place and, above all, you discover that your issues and challenges are not unique. Such a discovery opens the way to learning from others and sharing some of the joys and frustrations that mark the journey of parenthood.

(more…)

Note to Leaders: You are not alone

Posted on: January 17th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

How often have you heard those in leadership positions utter the mantra, ‘It’s lonely at the top’? They usually serve it up in a sort of self-congratulatory and somewhat condescending manner that expects no one but themselves to really understand. It is almost as if the mantra is the coded password to an exclusive club that only the members themselves fully comprehend.

That ‘the top’ should always be a lonely place is an illusion. As a parent, I think I can prove it.

Parties are no problem when the kids are knee-high. In fact I think that often the extravagant early parties are more about the parents than the kids. A kind of ‘if Samantha next door had a jumping castle, let’s go with helicopter rides’ mentality. Talk about pressure! Anyway the point is that throwing parties at this stage of the journey is really to sweat the small stuff.

It is when kids grow up that parties become a challenge. As parents you seldom get to witness them because any self-respecting teenager will see to it that the main event takes place at a time and place where you are not. However, there is good reason to ensure that you occasionally thwart such plans and report for duty when these events take place.

The main purpose in being present at your kid’s party is to remind yourself that there are others like your own. For some parents it might even help to see that it is entirely possible that there are some even worse than your own. To discover that you are not alone as you navigate the times of feeling that your offspring are the result of some mutant genetic bungling, is a very reassuring discovery for most parents. It serves instantly to dispel the myth that the issues you are facing as the parent of a teenager are unique. In fact, experience has taught me to be suspicious of any household with teenagers who appear calm, orderly and ‘normal’. Either they have done masterful jobs of deception and disguise or have somehow put a tourniquet around the inevitable.

Turbulence, challenge and discomfort are part of the parent-teenage terrain, and don’t let anyone tell you they are not. However it is in this environment that new and better ways can be forged, where growth takes place and, above all, you discover that your issues and challenges are not unique. Such a discovery opens the way to learning from others and sharing some of the joys and frustrations that mark the journey of parenthood.

When you feel that you are alone it is easy to act accordingly. Tragically, many leaders do this repeatedly, creating a kind of self-imposed exile. If only they would throw a party they would discover others who share the same responsibilities and tasks. They would hear the stories of other leaders who have met with both success and failure, and learnt from both. They would discover that leadership need not be lonely. It is what you make of it that matters.

I remember talking to the CEO of a very successful medium-size business. It had been in the family for several generations and had carved out a unique niche for itself in the business world. He said he had an ‘open door’ policy, which meant that anyone could come into his office at any time to discuss whatever was on their mind. There were no gaps, no holes . . . everybody was content. Or so he thought. As I drilled down to deeper levels within the company, the picture that emerged was remarkably different from that held by the CEO. People weren’t talking (well, at least not to him) and the open door was a deserted pathway. Often leaders assume that if no one is chatting to them then there are no issues to deal with – rather like those homes inhabited by adolescents where everything ‘appears normal’. Many leaders assume that the pathway to their desk is an inviting one, but often it is not, something that seems to remain hidden in their blind spot. To become effective leaders we must move away from the ‘imaginary’ organisation we design and learn to work in the real organisation instead.

When last did one of your staff talk to you – really talk to you?

Leaders need to build appropriate networks for themselves, webs of relationships. These need to exist both in and out of the work environment. They become safe places to off-load, share, be vulnerable, ask questions, listen, be accountable, and process who they are and how they lead. Without such networks and relational webs leaders place themselves at even greater risk in an already ‘high risk’ zone.

Exploring the Future: What Leaders Need to Learn

Posted on: January 10th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Sitting with two of my kids the other day I asked them, “so what can we learn from the great Explorers of the past?” – a probing question fueled by something I was reading at the time. “Like the guys who sailed around?” responded one of the Saplings … (this is what I get for the small fortune paid in educational fees – enough I’m sure to have bought a small island somewhere!). It was a despairing thought but one I suspect is not uncommon for most parents at some or other point along the way.

Upon elaborating and expanding on the narrow  understanding of the term ‘explorer’ to one that now embraced mountains, the Poles, forests, rivers, ocean depths and outer space – basically, anywhere where someone has been bold enough to venture where few have previously gone, my question yielded the following concise responses: “Press on” said the One with the narrow definition. An answer, which I might add was accompanied with a self-congratulatory look that believed his was the insightful, answer for which I was looking! “Stay indoors” offered the other Genius before going back to whatever it was she was doing!

Press on – stay indoors. Two extremes that, given the source, are deserving of deeper psych-analysis – but this isn’t the time or place for such indulgence.

(more…)

Exploring the Future: What Leaders Need to Learn

Posted on: January 10th, 2012 by Keith Coats No Comments

Sitting with two of my kids the other day I asked them, “so what can we learn from the great Explorers of the past?” – a probing question fueled by something I was reading at the time. “Like the guys who sailed around?” responded one of the Saplings … (this is what I get for the small fortune paid in educational fees – enough I’m sure to have bought a small island somewhere!). It was a despairing thought but one I suspect is not uncommon for most parents at some or other point along the way.

Upon elaborating and expanding on the narrow  understanding of the term ‘explorer’ to one that now embraced mountains, the Poles, forests, rivers, ocean depths and outer space – basically, anywhere where someone has been bold enough to venture where few have previously gone, my question yielded the following concise responses: “Press on” said the One with the narrow definition. An answer, which I might add was accompanied with a self-congratulatory look that believed his was the insightful, answer for which I was looking! “Stay indoors” offered the other Genius before going back to whatever it was she was doing!

Press on – stay indoors. Two extremes that, given the source, are deserving of deeper psych-analysis – but this isn’t the time or place for such indulgence.

It occurred to me that they are also stances that could equally describe one’s approach to facing the future and navigating the uncertainty that 2012 and beyond represents. Certainty is not a commodity that any leader has when it comes to leading into the future and perhaps there are lessons that leaders can learn from the Explorers of old when it comes to engaging in the tumultuous uncertainty that is the future. General Colin Powell was once quoted as saying,” If you can tell me with a hundred percent certainty that we are going to be bombed, it is too late for me to do anything about it”.

Smart leaders know they have to look far into the future if they are to lead well. Smart leaders are not afraid of the work this entails and whilst they are willing to act decisively, they are also willing to be wrong in doing so. Smart leaders know for a certainty that there can be no certainty when preparing for the unknown – for the future. And they plan accordingly.

In his book, Futuring: The Exploration of the Future, Edward Cornish provides seven lessons that we can take from the great explorers. They are lessons that leaders would do well to pause and think about at the onset of 2012.

1.    Prepare for what you will face in the future.
2.    Anticipate future needs.
3.    Use poor information when necessary (remember there is no ‘tried and tested’ when it come to the future!)
4.    Expect the unexpected.
5.    Think long term as well as short term.
6.    Dream productively.
7.    Learn from your predecessors.

Each of these points provides a helpful agenda for any leader serious about leading into the future, for any leader who understands leadership as an exploration.

As a leader, you face both transformational and revolutionary challenges from within and without the environment in which you lead. Turbulence is the new norm and to expect any different is to deny reality. Smart leaders work hard to understand the trends and patterns that are shaping the future, understanding that these trends and patterns are redefining and reshaping the very world in which they lead. In such a dynamic context the past offers little comfort and yields even fewer answers. Increased mobility, globalization, interlinked economies, technological breakthroughs, environmental meltdown are just some of the tangible forces conspiring to rewriting our view of tomorrow.

Smart leaders use the discipline of scenarios to mentally and emotionally prepare and get fit for the future. As fitness levels increase so does the ability to realistically adapt to the shifting demands of leadership. Leaders who engage in such work are less likely to become prisoners of the past. Undertaking such work will lead to the development of an essential quality of effective leadership – that of adaptive intelligence; without which, successfully navigating the future will be impossible. The sad thing is that I have encountered many a leader who is unwittingly held captive by the past – a past dressed up and disguised as, experience, success, tradition, routine, the known, policy, the way things are…and so I could go on but I think you get what I mean.

It is so easy to become such a leader and working at avoiding such a pitfall, well that is another story altogether. But perhaps a good place to start would be to learn the lessons on offer from those bold enough to have ventured where few had gone before. And maybe you should consider replacing that leadership title on your office door (if you still have one!) to simply state, ‘Explorer’…or if you like, keep the ‘CEO’ tag but substitute ‘Executive’ with, ‘Explorer’!

If nothing else it will serve as a springboard to some potentially great conversations!

Can I drive, Dad? …Leaders and Control.

Posted on: January 3rd, 2012 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

Control is a word that is arguably the source of the greatest conflicts, whether you are a leader or a parent.

In the early years of parenting the issue of control is often reminiscent of a ‘phony war’ – one easily ‘won’ by the oversized and dominant parent who terminates any debate with the evergreen dictum ‘because I said so’. Let’s be honest, which one of us has not been the victim of such reasoning, or even used it ourselves when in a state of siege? We place it is right up there with the best of the ‘lines-I-will-never-say-as-a-parent’, only to hear ourselves utter it before the clock chimes thrice.

This phony war serves only as a warning, a prelude if you like, of what is to come during the adolescent years. Sadly it is a war most parents know to be inevitable, yet one for which most are ill prepared. But that is another subject altogether.

We could argue that control is as important a phase of early parenting as it is in the early stages of leadership. And in most cases we would be right. However, what is certain is that unless there is a willingness to relinquish control at an appropriate stage, the results of the real war can be a bloody shambles. Most wars are just that, and in all wars there are casualties on both sides.

For most leaders the notion of relinquishing control is a frightening prospect and one that often makes little sense to them. It seems counter-intuitive to all they have learnt along the rough road to power and position. To relinquish control, or even appear willing to do so, would seem to be a sign of weakness. Another reason leaders resist handing over control is simply because they have been doing whatever it is they do for so long that they just can’t adjust to being in the passenger seat. After all, surely their role is to be behind the wheel – the driver, if you like? And of course finding plausible arguments with which to prop up this logic are as plentiful as quills on a porcupine.

This is all well and good, unless you are the parent of a seventeen-year-old.

For parents the issue of control is no more forcibly experienced than when the growing, grunting, noise-generating Whatever arrives home triumphantly waving something that some idiot has issued and which now entitles him (or her . . . in which case ignore the earlier adjectives) to legally reduce you to a gibbering wreck. Of course I am referring to their learner’s licence. Life will never be the same from this point and your control over the car keys begins to vaporise like snow in the Sahara. This triumph of the young would have been preceded by a rare phenomenon – a period of self-induced, self-motivated study in order to obtain the licence.

As I experienced the threat to my once-firm grip on my car – the fact that it was my new dream car did not make it easier – there were some interesting lessons inviting learning. For one, I was confronted by my own emotions (predominantly that of ‘unwillingness’) about relinquishing control. Once the pure and entirely understandable instinct for survival diminished in direct proportion to the increasing skill levels of the learner driver, there were often no justifiable reasons for me to not surrender the wheel, yet often I failed to do so. Meeting the perpetual question, ‘Can I drive, dad?’ with a hasty, non-discernible mumble (proof that some adolescent tendencies have a long shelf-life) which constituted a clear ‘No’. Fact is, I wanted to remain in control – determine the route, decide the speed, dictate the events, be the leader.

But the real lesson learnt from this experience was one that had a certain serendipitous quality about it. I discovered that when the learner is entrusted with the opportunity to get behind the wheel, something amazing happens. The learner somehow morphs into the ‘leader’. Suddenly, this sullen creature whose two main responses from the passenger side of life have traditionally been a grunt and a whatever begins to initiate conversation in a manner to which I am quite unaccustomed.

‘How was your day, dad?’

Huh?

‘So what do you think about . . .?’ and so on.

I came to realise that this transformation somehow (and the word ‘mysteriously’ would not be out of place here) seemed to flow from the sense of control that came from being in charge, from being behind the wheel. It was almost as if something more was expected of the one sitting in that position.

I guess this behind-the-wheel transformation should come as no surprise. We have seen it all before in the playgrounds of yesteryear when kids who became King of the Castle were filled with a newfound confidence that allowed them to call others twice their size Dirty Rascals.

The point for leaders is that others may well surprise you when given the opportunity to get behind the wheel. Smart leaders know this and they are inclined to create frequent opportunities in order to make drivers out of learners.

Of course, a white-knuckle SLOW DOWN scream is still appropriate every now and then!

There is a Hebrew proverb that says: ‘Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.’

For innovation to flourish companies need to embrace diversity; and for diversity to thrive, leaders and managers have to learn to relinquish control. I believe this is where the next major shift will occur in leadership as we currently know it. It is a fault-line ready to erupt, heaping havoc on traditional forms of leadership and structures. Giving up control will mean many things for the leader, not least of which is the possibility that they will have to turn over the company to someone who knows less. To allow self-organisation to take place, control has to be surrendered. We delude ourselves if we think that things such as innovation, process and self-organisation can be managed or controlled, yet all these elements are vital to our company DNA if they are to survive the future. In TomorrowToday.biz we have begun using the term ‘unmanagement’ more and more in reference to these elements. Unlearning much of what we have been taught about leadership will be necessary in order to adapt to the postmodern world in which we live and do business.

Giving up control provides the air for authentic values to grow within an organisation. If values are to be owned and lived by everybody, they need to be grown from the ground up.

So next time you asked for the keys to your car…pause a while and think about the challenge of leaders giving-up control!

Getting Fit For The Future: Essential Questions For Leaders As You Enter 2012

Posted on: December 27th, 2011 by Keith Coats 1 Comment

It is that time of year that invites reflection about what has been and what might be. We stand on the cusp of 2012, about to confine 2011 to the scrapbook. It is a good time to be asking questions about the past and a good time to be asking questions about the future.

What kind of year has it been for you? Your answer to that question it will give an indication as to what it is you deem important. Your evaluation of the year, whatever that might be, will point to the measures that you think are significant. Therein might be something worth further reflection and consideration.

What have you learnt this past year? Learning should be a never-ending process, irrespective of how age, experience, position or title. The fact that intentional learning is often not something leaders embrace is a concern. Perhaps a better way to phrase this important question would be to not only ask what have you learnt, but also, what have you unlearnt and relearnt?

As you look down the road at 2012, here would be some good questions to consider.

What do you need to keep doing, start doing and quit doing? Although a new year offers a fresh start, the reality is that it is also a continuation of the past. Our tomorrows are intertwined with our yesterdays and there will always be things we need to continue, to start or to quit. So, what are these ‘things’ for you?

How would you like to end 2012? Covey in Seven Habits for Highly Effective People suggests that one of the habits should be to ‘start with the end in mind’. I am wary of rigid plans that might constrict rather that free but there can be no harm in reflecting on where it is you would like to be at some point into the future. It is more demanding work than it would at first appear, but you won’t regret doing it. Do the work but be ready to embrace the adaptive challenges that life demands.

Finding the right questions in life and leadership is important. These four questions may well evoke other questions more relevant to you and where it is you find yourself. The challenge is to find the ‘right’ questions and then engage in the work and exploration that those questions invite. Cultivating this as a habit will enhance your leadership. Of that I have no doubt!

So, find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed, take a journal of sorts and allow these (and other) questions to link the past and future; to surface both a smile and tear; to allow gratitude and strengthen resolve; to find answers and allow mystery to coexist, and to help you understand yourself better. You lead out of who you are. Doing this work becomes the boot camp of leadership. It might hurt and lead to some initial aches and pains, but it will also produce leaders fit to lead.

May that part of the journey that we mark as 2012 be the best yet! Travel well.

In the Land of the Blind, The FA is King: The Luis Suarez Case

Posted on: December 23rd, 2011 by Keith Coats No Comments

Let me state my bias. In this case I have two that are relevant: Firstly, I am a Liverpool fan – something that I see as a bias, not a handicap as my Manchester United friends might claim! Secondly, I am against racism – in all its forms.

However, the guilty verdict against Luis Suarez, something that condemns him to being labelled a racist, is wrong, flawed and smacks of a political agenda rather than an even-handed strike against racism in sport.

The three man panel led by Paul Goulding QC and consisting of Dennis Smith and Brian Jones handed Suarez an eight match ban and fine of £40 000 for a comment Patrice Evra said Suarez made (at least 10 times) to him during the feisty Liverpool verses Manchester United game on the 15th October. The term used, that Evra took such exception to was, “Negrito” – a common descriptive term used in South America without racial overtone. This much has been collaborated by linguistic and cultural experts and confirmed by Gus Puyot (the current Brighton manager) – a Uruguayan himself who has gone on record as saying that he would back Suarez, “to the death” over this issue. It was a term used by Manchester United player, Hernandez, in describing one of his own teammates in an earlier interview!

There are only three aspects that the panel presiding over this case could consider: The use of the word itself, intent and the context in which it was used. The two former aspects (the use of the word and the intent) would need primary evidence for the charge to stick and punishment metered.  This process would take place against the overriding backdrop, or in the prevailing ‘climate’ of Sepp Blatter’s ill-considered comments on racism in football – something that should have no bearing on the deliberation and verdict, but I suspect did. But I’ll get to this later.

So, let’s start with the primary evidence on which such a serious charge would need to be built. Evra claims that Suarez used the word 10 times yet, he was the only one to hear it being used. None of his teammates or any of the officials present heard Suarez saying the word, this in spite of it taking place in a crowded penalty area.  Neither could any of a multitude of cameras present confirm Suarez had used the word. So, had Suarez simply denied using the term, it would have come down to Evra’s word against his word. Without any collaborating evidence and the dubious character reference that some maintain Evra represents, there would be no case. Matter closed, let’s go home.

But Suarez never denied using the term – an admission that renders redundant the lack of primary evidence. Whilst this admission removes the need for evidence, it does focus on the intent behind the word. Intent is hard to prove but the fact that Suarez never denies using the term leans heavily in favour of his intent not being one of a racial slur. Why would someone knowingly admit to using the term in this context if he believed it to be a racial slur? Camera angles that recorded this exchange show Suarez’s body language and demeanour to be anything but aggressive or threatening. This alone might not be sufficient to prove intent, but taken with Suarez’s own admission, add up to be able to remove this aspect (intent) off the table.

Which brings us to the context in which this all happened. As in all matters, context brings about meaning which is why for Suarez there was no slur and for Evra there was offence.  The complexity of this case sits in this aspect – context.

The panel have ruled that cultural ignorance is no defence in such matters. However, in doing so they have operated from an Anglo-centric worldview – a stance that has already been seen as somewhat arrogant in its interpretation of what does and does not constitute racial insult.  The FA have ‘drawn a line in the sand’ and ‘acted with honour‘ is how football scribes Lipton, Maddock and others have interpreted it – but is a line and honour that is essentially English. It is an interpretation that would not stand-up elsewhere and fails to recognise the cultural complexity that sits at the heart of this case.  The reality is that there would be many a British term or expression that once removed from the British context, would be deemed racially offensive. Drawing the ‘racial line’ in a multi-cultural context cannot be done from an isolated cultural viewpoint. We live in a world of paradox and this paradoxical complexity extends to culture and the meaning ascribed to language.

Context also has to take into consideration the location – and this happened in England  – in ‘their league’. If the FA then rules that this was offensive, have they not every right to do so? Well yes and no. The Premiership is an international cultural melting pot and this has to be considered in looking at setting what is and is not acceptable in the Premiership. Acknowledging and acting on this complexity is a responsibility. In this particular case, one which demanded cultural adaptation and sensitivity, such was overlooked because, ‘this is the Premiership…this is England’.  One might be inclined to then add, ‘…and we are here to teach you a lesson!’

Surely a wiser and more prudent course of action would have been to acknowledge the complexity at play and see to it that steps are put in place to educate, create deeper dialogue and invite the players themselves into ‘drawing the line’ to which they would hold themselves accountable? The FA have used the Suarez case to send a strong message but in doing so they have cast an unfair and unwarranted desertion on both individual and club. It wasn’t the case to do this and given the circumstances and (lack of) evidence is unfair and unjust.  This after all is very serious charge!

So what of the prevailing ‘backdrop’ referred to earlier? This has to do with the storm FIFA President, Sepp Blatter created by his earlier comments on racism in football.  It goes to the tension that exists between UEFA / FIFA and the FA and here was an opportunity for the FA to gain points in their ongoing saga with the world and regional governing bodies.  However one interprets the FA verdict, it would be naive to believe it was one delivered without political agenda.

No, the Suarez sentence is one that has no solid arguments. It is a simplistic finding that is attempting to deal with a complex and very real problem. It has found a scapegoat and I suspect neither the Scapegoat nor the Club will go quietly on this…nor should they! Too much is at stake for both them and in the battle that is eradicating racism in sport. In this instance the FA’s in their ‘zero tolerance’ policy and FIFA’s ‘Kick it Out’ campaign have not scored the victories they believe they have.

The next chapter will be John Terry making his way to court in the New Year. If found guilty, the maximum fine will be of no consequence for a player earning a reputed £150 000 a week. What will be of consequence is the proven criminal charge and then seeing what, if anything, the FA do. If Suarez gets an eight game suspension and £40 000, what then for Terry, found to be criminally guilty? The irony is that had the Evra / Suarez incident been handed over to the police and not gone through the FA procedure, it would have been dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence!

So, I am a Liverpool supporter…always have been and always will be. However, the matter of racism is bigger than club loyalty. I am a white (can I say that!?) South African and know something about racism. It should never be tolerated and needs to be opposed wherever found. But I can’t help feel that an injustice has been done and opportunity lost in the FA ‘s arrogant (as some say) and ignorant (as I believe) ‘line in the sand’. Such matters are emotive and deserve our full attention, thought and action. It won’t stop with Suarez as racism is alive and well on the terraces. He will just have to get on with it and live with a tag that is as unfair as it is discriminatory!

The saga is yet to fully play out and so we shall see.

Santa CEO: Leadership Lessons from Santa

Posted on: December 20th, 2011 by Keith Coats No Comments

The big guy in the red suit heads up a pretty impressive outfit. A year of frantic, precision driven preparation, keeping a host of little people motivated, focus and warm in extreme conditions and then all culminating in a mind-boggling devilry schedule that would do FedEx proud – and this with nothing more that a sled powered by some aging reindeer.

And the results speak for themselves. On the whole, a world of satisfied customers who I would think could be counted as amongst the most demanding of all clients. I am sure there would be a moment of restful reflection on a job well done before it is all hands to the pumps as the whole thing starts again. I think there are some valuable insights to be gained for those in leadership from how the Big Guy goes about this impressive schedule and delivery. In fact I have written an article for our next TomorrowToday Ezine on ‘10 leadership lessons we can take from Santa’. But why stop there? Here then are some further thoughts for your consideration in keeping with the season and the cheer that goes with it.

Santa is both personal able yet maintains an air of mystique. Somehow he gets this difficult balance right. We all love Santa and are drawn to him and all he represents. Yet, in spite of this there is an unmistakable air of mystery to him and who he really is. This works well for Santa in generating both respect and affection – two helpful ingredients in the exercising of leadership.

Santa understands the importance of ‘the story’. It is a story in which he plays a central role but it is also one in which plenty of room is given to the other important role players – from elves to grinches, from reindeer to snowmen. It is a rich narrative that invites it’s principle clients to enter into and experience the magic for themselves. It is the kind of story that allows the clients to feel integral to the plot itself. Therein sits the core ingredient to the success of the Christmas story. Smart leaders understand that what Santa has achieved should be something they too ought to achieve and in doing so, ensure that all stakeholders feel they too are integral to the plot itself.

It is clear that Santa loves what he does. ‘Love what you do and do what you love’ describes Santa and his dedicated associates. The passion is obvious and is important to the cheer that Santa brings. If, as a leader you cannot find this same ingredient then I would suggest you quit. Now I am sure that Santa has his off days and his fair share of irritation with both his staff and clients who might change their minds or show ingratitude, but such occasions are the exception and not the rule. This would be true for any leader but if the exception becomes the rule, then it is time to get out – for both your sake as well as for the sake of those you lead. Passion is something that starts at the top and if it not there, then it is a pretty serious situation.

Santa listens to his clients and strives to meet their needs. Smart leaders make sure this same characteristic is pervasive throughout his or her organization. ‘The client is king’ goes the traditional mantra, well Santa knows this and his entire operation is geared towards ensuring they deliver on what the client wants. They are there for the client and not the other way round. Service companies would do well to remember this basic requirement. It is something that ought to reflect in not only their service delivery but in their policies