The-Selfish-SpectrumI have faced a couple of situations in the last week or so that led me to take decisions that were almost entirely in my own self interest. This left me wondering about the concept of selfishness, the extent to which those decisions were selfish and indeed how that concept plays out in our daily lives.

I understand that there are psychologists who argue that every decision we make is ultimately selfish in that it meets with some inner need. So for example, someone who spends their days ‘selflessly’ helping others would actually be doing so because that is how they find their inner satisfaction.

I also wonder if I’m getting more selfish as I get older and I start to understand what I really need. Both of the situations I mentioned above related to what, in my view, were distinctly unsubtle application of organisational politics. Now I like to think that I am as good as any, and perhaps even better than most, at organisational politics yet on both of these occasions I explicitly chose not to play the game. Both of these were volunteer roles and yet there are other volunteer roles in which I continue to willingly play some fairly delicate political games. So what is the difference?

Certainly in one case I was becoming increasingly disillusioned as a very small cog on the periphery of a very large organisation  and maybe that is not a role that I like to play. I am happy to admit to myself that the follower roles that I prefer is one where I still have significant influence and I will happily play a number two, or even three or four, role when I am at least listened to and at best taken seriously. Indeed as I write, I start to realise that was possibly behind my order opting-out. Specifically, that my advice and expertise was being ignored and overruled and the explicit delegations made to me were being unilaterally removed for no apparent reason.

So is it about control? I don’t think I’m too ashamed to say that to some extent it probably is. After a life of bending and twisting, as well as helping others to bend and twist, to help deliver the greater good there is a part of me that keeps saying that “it is about time I got what I need and stuff the rest of them”.

So yes I guess this is selfish and no I am not guilty about it. I will argue that in our lives there needs to be space for ‘me time’ as well as ‘us time’ and perhaps I have just created some of the former.

What about you? To what extent do you think you act selfishly?

Systemic Coaching

Systemic CoachingAt the September EMCC meeting I was part of a small group discussing ‘systemic coaching’. The three of us discussing the topic were really trying to find out what it was all about and this note is my own brief summary of John Whittington’s book “Systemic coaching and constellations” which prompted the enquiry.

The basic proposition is that when coaching an individual the coach needs to explicitly recognise that their client sits within a broader system of relationships and that by coaching the clients we are essentially coaching the system. He goes beyond that to suggest that the coach themselves now becomes part of that system and needs to be hyper-vigilant about their own behaviour and responses.

Extending the idea, he suggests that any individual’s position in the system might be described on the basis of the three criteria – Time, Place and Exchange. Time indicating the actual, or perhaps perceptual, time for which the individual has been part of the system. Place indicating not just the hierarchical position in the system but also the location in the shadow organisation (although he does not talk about shadow organisations specifically – I have interpreted Whittington’s comment on the basis of my understanding of Ed Schein’s concepts). Finally, Exchange relates to what the various players in the system give to and/or take from each other.

His idea of ‘constellations’ is to actively and physically map out these relationships within a system and to have the client explore the implications of changes in those relationships and how those changes might be stimulated. He suggests using physical objects (which of course he can sell you) to represent the players or spatially mapping them on the floor of a room using pieces of paper with individual’s names on them.

The rest of the book goes on to describe a series of case studies and possible approaches to issues or incongruities appearing within the system map.

It is probably worth a read, although for me what I think he was doing with systematising some existing ideas in my current practice. For instance he is fairly explicit in comparing his approach to that of perceptual positions typically associated with NLP. Likewise when he suggests exploring where each individual’s focus of attention is directed, I am reminded of issues to do with personal, team or organisational objectives – not least the implications of that orientation in terms of organisational politics.

It would be interesting to know what other coaches, perhaps particularly those who recognise or use this explicit methodology, have to say.

Followership – what makes a good follower?

Followership  LeadershipThere are millions of pages read about how to be a good leader – just type both into Google and you are likely to get around 288,000,000 hits for Leadership and ‘only’ 472,000 for Followership. Moreover, from a cursory look at the topic, it seems that much of what is written is designed to inform Leaders about how they can garner better/more followers!

So, I am interested in how I can be the best follower I can be – given the leader I have (and I recognise that ‘my leader’ may change from moment to moment, task to task, environment to environment etc).

As an input to an enquiry at Roffey Park, where I am an Associate, I wrote a ramble on the topic. I repeat it below and welcome your thoughts, additions, criticisms, whatever – just say what comes into your mind as you read it…

You asked what I might like to contribute on the topic of followership. Truth is that I do not have any ‘theoretical’ inputs to offer and, as I said when I originally expressed an interest, this is one of those areas in which I have had a passing interest the many years without the opportunity to develop that interest into something more structured. Hence the willingness to participate in the group that you lead.

When I think about it, I find it extremely difficult to disentangle what it means to be a good leader from what it means to be a good follower. Perhaps this might be addressed by looking at, on the one hand, what a follower expects from their leader and, on the other, at what a leader expects of their followers. This might seem like a classic statement of the bleeding obvious but in my experience it has been rather rare to find a leader who expounds, either privately or publicly, what they expect of their followers; likewise, it is probably a very brave follower who advises their leader what they expect of them!

Whilst I might like to stay away from leadership, it is perhaps rather difficult in this context and so the following points are necessarily an incomplete expounding of my thoughts-incomplete in terms not only of the list of topics but also the explanation of that list.

Firstly, and perhaps above all, I expect a good leader to communicate effectively and I guess that puts an obligation on the followers to let of their leader know, in one way or another, when they are not being communicated with. I vividly remember a time when, in retrospect, I had the priorities of my job out of sync with the immediate needs of my staff. I was spending an increasing amount of time away from the office on strategically important stuff and came home one day to find a post-it stuck to my desk simply saying “Geoff you are no longer available”. This brought home to me more than any textbook or classroom exercise the importance of availability and communication when the followers needed it. Fortunately the relationship I had with my team was such that not only did they feel able to leave this message but they also knew that I would take it in the spirit intended.

I expect my leader to be open and honest with me, even if that occasionally means saying the equivalent of “I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that at the moment”. As a follower I must accept that there are occasions when my leader might be involved in delicate or confidential conversations which it would be inappropriate to disclose at the time. For me, the followership version of openness and honesty centres around not hiding the bad news from my leader as well as disclosing my feelings as well as thoughts about what is going on. I cannot expect them to lead effectively if they do not have the full picture.

This whole communications game has a feeling of being a dance, in which each party has to find out what the other party needs to know and passes such information along appropriately. Which brings me to another aspect of leadership and followership-communication style. As a follower I think there is an onus on me to find out not only what my leader needs to know but also how he wants to find it out. Does he want detailed written weekly reports or is he happy with a quick chat on the phone every Friday afternoon? My own style, generally discursive and flowery, caused some considerable tension between me and one of my bosses until I realised that his approach was very terse and factual-after which I changed my style and things became much easier.

Where there is a legitimate difference of opinions I expect my leader to represent that difference to other parties, rather than simply putting their own view forward. In return, I must commit as a follower to the principle of corporate responsibility and not undermine decisions taken by my own and other leaders.

The next thought that comes to mind relates to trust. As a follower I want to be left alone to get on with my own work knowing that my leader is there if necessary for help and advice. Reciprocity suggests that as a follower I must trust that my leader is doing his work on my behalf.

“I think there is an important area in followership to do with learning when to give up a particular battle. This could they simply because you recognise that the battle you are currently engaged in is simply not winnable, or it could be because of a recognition that giving up on the current battle releases resources to fight on more strategic fronts. The effective leader can guide the followers in this, but ultimately it is for each follower to make their own decision about where to put their resources.

I think I might also argue that an effective follower recognises that on occasions the boss might need help, even when the boss themselves might not have made such a recognition. I used to have a follower who was very good at taking things off me once they got past the initiation and into production phase-they did this because they knew where my strengths lay (not in production mode) and how theirs could complement me. Another aspect of this that might not be recognised very often is the loneliness of being a leader. I would not know whether to label it mentoring, coaching, counselling or what, but I am certain that an effective follower knows when their boss needs some form of support and is prepared and able to offer that support.

A good follower knows and respects the leader’s short, medium and long-term priorities and does not pester them with issues outside that envelope unless the follower can demonstrate the strategic importance of their issue.”

Free monthly events for coaches

 Are you a current or aspiring coach?
 If so, you might want to attend the (free) EMCC event in Leeds on Tuesday 3 September, 1730 for 1800 with a 2000 finish at the Leeds Club ( ) on Albion Street.

Every month, on the first Tuesday, we hold a 2 hour session for you to come along and hear more about some topic of relevance to developing your coaching practice.

3 September 2013 details:
Hello everyone . . . trust the summer sunshine has refreshed us all and we’ll be an enthusiastic, engaging and inspiring group when we meet on Tuesday.

We will start with an update from Bernadette Mullen on her work using Mindfulness in coaching and then some learning huddles…

So far we’re looking at a possible three ‘learning huddles’ – ROI; Systemic Coaching; and Ridler Report – and if I listened to an interesting Radio 4 programme recently about a ‘Slow Coach’ method that got me thinking . . .

I suggest that on the night – we’ll list a few topics and depending on interest and number of attendees we’ll flex the huddles to suit.

Looking forward to seeing as many of you as possible.

If you are coming please drop us a note if at all possible. It seems that we get to know when people can’t make it rather than confirmation of who will be attended . . . it’s nice to have a little idea of number before hand – appreciate plans can change at last moment – so just turning up is great too.

See you soon . . .

Straggly lavender

change leadershipThey greeted us as we first drove in. Two stands of straggly lavender, woody from the ground for the first 45 cm and crowned by a barely adequate display of silver grey leaves and fragrant flowers. What had gone wrong? This, here in the south-west of France, is ideal climate for lavender yet these specimens have been allowed (there is a clue) to deteriorate almost beyond repair. With careful and prolonged attention they could be regenerated back to their youthful flush – all they needed was to carefully prune a third of the wood almost to the ground for each of the next three years and to nurture and cultivate them. I was reminded of one of the metaphors I use in my work as a change agent.

I often suggest that change is quite a lot like gardening, indeed the first name I ever had for the work I do was the Freemind Gardening Institute. As a gardener, you acquire a patch of ground (an organisation?) often not knowing the ground conditions and how variable they are (culture?); as you explore you discover a range, sometimes wide and sometimes narrow, of plants (employees?) which may or may not be suited to the conditions in which they are placed (recruitment and retention?) and which may or may not have been looked after properly in the past (training, development, appraisal?). You find that even though this is quite a large garden, there are no instructions for cultivation (business processes?). Or perhaps you wonder why that rambling, weedy-looking almost uncontrolled rambling meadow-like patch in the corner (research and development?) is important, indeed actually vital to the future of the whole garden. And here are you, the new gardener (change agent) who can see things that the previous managers and leaders could not; who can ask questions about the structure and planting that would not have occurred to the previous occupants because they just liked things as they were or had neither the skills nor the energy to change. Your new man can challenge the very assumptions that underpin how you go about your organisational work (“I know that you think you can’t grow rhododendrons in your soil, but did you know that there are now varieties that thrive in neutral and even alkaline soils?”) and by challenging those assumptions can open up new possibilities.

Your gardener knows that sometimes it is necessary to remove dead wood, or even the whole plant, in order to create the space and conditions for new growth. He knows that there are many ways to create a riot of colour, some of which are quicker than others, yet potentially more expensive in the long-term. He knows that sometimes you just have to try things out to see if, or how, they will work (you run pilot programs) and that not all of them will work. He knows that the first flush of spring and the glorious summer (quick wins) will deteriorate into a brown, wet, dark, dreary autumn and winter unless the overall plan includes (new initiatives) autumn colour, winter and early spring bulbs and flowers to carry the enthusiasm through until the next green shoots appear. He knows what to fertilise, with what and when. And he can advise on whether to strip the existing garden to the ground and start again (administration/closure and corporate re-birth).

So, any organisational change is a process that is both subtle and brutal when necessary, that follows a path almost inevitably strewn with failed experiments en route to a final destination that may be somewhat different to that first envisaged, that needs constant and dedicated attention not only to the business processes but to the people who design and run those processes and (I would say this wouldn’t I?) needs an external eye/brain/hand because even the best gardeners are constantly reading about their craft and visiting other gardeners to see what they can learn.lavender

The choice is yours – if you really want those lush green lavender patches flowering every year then you can spend three years renewing the existing plants or a few quid on new plants. Of course, the clever gardener can have both by using his old plants as a source of cuttings that will quickly grow into lush new lavender patches.

(P.S. I would love to come and have a look at your garden, or your organisation. Either give me a ring or e-mail me.)

Asking difficult questions for a living…

asking difficult questions“So Geoff, what do you do for a living?” is one of those questions I get asked so often. It  begs either a full answer or, more often, a one-liner designed to either satisfy the craving of some contact who is not really interested or provoke someone who really wants to know into asking more. Hopefully the one-liner might be good enough to provoke the former type of enquirer as well!

So here is my answer

I ask difficult questions

I have to admit that I rather hope that when I make this response you in turn will ask me something along the lines of “Can you explain a in little more detail what you mean by that and how it will make a difference?” So here goes.

I want to start from proposition that we are all deluded about the world in which we operate. Each of us carries around in our head a map of the world, not a geographic map (although that will be part of it) but a ‘map’ of how the world works. But Alfred Korzybski is alleged to have said that “A map is not the territory”. So my map of the world, built up from my own experiences, learning, values, beliefs etc is uniquely mine and contains all those beliefs, biases and assumptions that have helped me function effectively in the world so far. But I’m sure you have already spotted the problem with my map – your experiences, learnings, values, beliefs etc are different to mine and so your map of the world is uniquely yours. They are both right and they are both wrong

The only basis upon which I can act is my own map of the world and because that map is both inaccurate and incomplete my choices are necessarily limited. They are limited by those implicit assumptions that allow me to function efficiently. I pull up at a red traffic light and assume that before very long it will turn to green so I’m happy to sit and wait; but after 5 min, 6 min, 10 min it has not changed green, do I hold my assumption that it will in due course change or do I revise my assumption to one that says the light is broken and drive through it? Perhaps a somewhat prosaic example but let’s have a look at how this might work in your organisation. As someone who works in organisations and helps others facilitate change, I so often come across a refrain along the lines of “Oh, we don’t do it that way round here” or “It can’t be done” or “Well, I will have to ask permission from xxxxx before I can do that”. Each of these responses illustrates one or more assumptions about how the organisation works. There are rules and processes and procedures and cultural norms and imperatives of all of which conspire to inhibit the possibility of change. At the simplest level, I could simply ask “What would happen if you just did it?”, although I usually need to delve deeper into the answer to that question asking, for example, “When was the last time somebody got sacked for failing to follow the procedure or taking their own initiative?” (Usually the answer is never – actually some people in my ex-employer often quote a specific individual, but he was actually sacked for covering up and lying about his mistake not for the mistake itself, a very big difference).

One of my favourite sayings, and I will claim it for myself unless and until someone can show me an original source, is “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission” and, by the way, you are more likely to get it.

This surfacing and challenging of the assumptions is, of course, at the heart of any coaching process and it is perhaps no surprise that as part of my work on organisational change I end up coaching individuals, helping them find new ways of seeing the world (new maps) and hence new approaches to the personal or organisational challenges that they face.Simply responding the the question “What do you do for a living?” with “I am a coach” seems both insufficient and not really distinctive.

So please, next time you meet me and I respond “I ask difficult questions”, please ask me a difficult question in return.

Bankers out of control, NHS on the brink of failure?

This systemic failuremorning, I listened with increasing dismay to various politicians, officials and apparatchiks talking about unusually high numbers of deaths in some NHS trusts. This comes on the back of yesterday’s disclosure about the demise of the Liverpool Pathway and reminded me of all the troubles laid at the hands of bankers in recent years.

It seems to me that what we have here are a series of systemic failures each of which leads to discussions first of all about who to blame and secondly about which processes and procedures needs to be written, rewritten or improved. But to me all of these discussions miss the core point – that the failures are not of systems, processes, procedures, policies or off whatever artefact you want might want to name, but of people. It is about NHS managers who decided that meeting financial and operational targets was more important than caring for patients; it is about bankers who decided that personal and corporate profit was more important than the health of the global economy. These are ethical issues, not process or policy or regulatory ones.

And that is where thinking starts to fall apart. We are going to have a new banking code, the Liverpool Pathway is to be abandoned and the new one written, there is to be an enquiry into the failures of the NHS trusts with excess deaths. But all we will end up with is another set of regulations, policies, procedures etc designed to constrain future behaviour on the evidence of past events. Regulation, for what it is worth, is always behind the event. What none of this does is address the core ethical issue. I have worked in regulated industries and also do some work in the NHS and I am pretty certain that most of the employees I have come across want to do the best they can for their customers or patients. The woman who comes out to mend a burst in the water main outside in the road, or the man who massages a patient’s legs to prevent bedsores, has probably never read the reams of regulatory and policy guidance and nor should we expect them to. Surely what we expect of them is that they have the customer or patient at heart and I know that what most of them want to do is what is best.

Let me tell you a story. Throughout the autumn of 1995 and the early spring of 1996 I was part of a team that was leading a response to one of the most extreme droughts the country has ever seen. So severe was this drought that there was a very real possibility that customers would first of all have their water usage massively restricted and then even run out. At one early point in the proceedings, a view was expressed that this was “OK because our regulatory deal allows us to cut water off every 125 years”. The realisation that this was OK in principle, but far from acceptable in practice, occurred quite quickly. Once every 1 25 years sounds okay until those odds mature during my lifetime when I certainly do not expect to pay full price for a non-existent service. This recognition, and it was very clearly expressed by the CEO when he said “We will not run out of water whatever it costs”, galvanised employees in a way that was a delight to be part of. We maintained supplies at all times.

How many other managers and leaders in the banking and NHS continue to drive regulatory targets even when they contradict the principles of good patient care? It is too easy to get captured by regulation and to start to think that meeting regulatory requirement is the be all and end all of managerial leadership. I would suggest that true leadership is about making the regulators redundant by consistently delivering what the customer needs. After all regulators have often been described as pseudo-customers, put in place because the individual customer has too weak a voice. Well, let me suggest that success is about dealing with individual customers, each with their individual needs, rather than a surrogate represented by a regulator.

Success is about doing what is right, not what is allowed for in, or at the very edges of, regulation. We do not need more rules, we need states of mind that put the customer first whilst recognising the (often financial) constraints of the system. Isn’t it strange that so many people seem to think that the way to fix a systemic failure is to tinker with the very causes of that systemic failure. As someone[i] once said, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got”.

It is time to do something different, not more of the same.

[i] In the modern world, many people attribute this quote to Anthony Robbins, renowned motivational speaker and self-improvement guru.  Go back a few years, and people will tell you that Albert Einstein said it. Go back another generation or two, and Henry Ford gets the credit; before him it was Mark Twain.  It doesn’t really matter which of these thought leaders said it.  What matters is the truth of it…and the point of it.

Driving Organisational Change – 7 Tips to Help you Succeed

“The one constant is change” – and perhaps especially so in these difficult times.  These tips will help you make the most of your investment in consultancy.

 7 Tips to help your change succeed

  1. Lead as well as manage

Hundreds of books have been written about the need for change management and I am not going to disagree because any project needs appropriate management. Yet project management is not enough – it is about processes and the biggest challenge in change is that it affects people. This is where leadership comes in – be active in showing the future and the way to get there, support individuals and groups, listen as well as speak, be there when you are needed.

  1. Value and use resistance

You will meet resistors – they have their own reasons for not wanting to change and those reasons make absolute sense to them (if not you!). Listen to them – have they perhaps spotted something that has been missed? Have they got personal challenges (lack of training, concerns about future security, etc) that you can help them with? Resistors can cause more damage than the supporters can help. Treat them carefully, respectfully and individually – a ‘convert’ will be worth their weight in gold.

  1. Do what you can, where you can, when you can

I have yet to see the path of any change effort go smoothly; some things prove more difficult than expected and others simpler. For a big change you night think of it as lighting little fires all over the organisation – some will die out and you will need to come back to them but others will flare up and those you fan and help spread more widely.

  1. Ignore losses, consolidate wins

If you focus on losses or failures, they get bigger and more overwhelming, you then pull in even more losses. So find ways to ignore these losses. Shift your attention to something positive, stop talking or thinking about them. What can you do to consolidate your successes? Write them down or put them on a wall. Keep a record of your wins. Talk about them to everyone you can. Celebrate them. Make a habit of finding and focusing on the wins of others. The more attention you put on success, the more success you get.

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate…

THE most important issue. Everyone involved in the change needs to know why it is happening, what the future is going to be like, how it will affect them and their colleagues (don’t underestimate ‘solidarity’). It’s not just about newsletters, much more effective is routine face-to-face discussions in formal and informal (canteen, coffee machine…) settings – use your apostles (see Tip #6) to spread the word and explain what’s happening. And remember that you have two ears but only one mouth – this is where you sense the resistance that is so useful for Tip #2.


  1. Recruit sources of power

The power you can exercise is in direct proportion to your ability to meet the needs of your people. Power comes in many different flavours and they are all needed to create effective change as different individuals will respond to different power bases (the fact that you are the boss may matter more to you than them!). Your, and your apostles’, Personal Power will be much more valuable than all the Formal Power you can muster – the latter might create compliance, the former commitment.

  1. Find and nurture your apostles

You can’t do it all yourself, you need a small and growing number of individuals who are totally with you and actively supporting you. These advocates need constant support – ‘feed and water’ them because your change really does depend on them. Keep them close to you, allow them time and actively encourage them to get out on the shopfloor convincing others through the sheer commitment they show. Finally, reward them for their efforts.

What do you think? Can you offer any tips of your own?


Manifesto of Possibilities – Set your people free

This is an emerging piece of work outlining my ‘manifesto’, designed to give you a feel for what I do, why and how I do it. I will be really interested on any thoughts this provokes for you – whatever they may be and whether you regard them as critical or praise.

empoweredManifesto of Possibilities – Set your people free

The answers are out there, the people need to be free. One would think that organisations are there solely for the benefit of some ethereal entity ‘the company’, but the company is there for the benefit of its many stakeholders and without the engagement of those stakeholders it can and will only survive in the short-term.

Mindless, thinking-less, managers believe that if they only set SMART stretch targets that all will be well, without really understanding the individual motivations of the people who work for them but should be working with them. Yes, money does matter in a way, but only in the societal ecosystem we have allowed to be created for ourselves; how much more inspiring is the possibility of an autonomous response to great leadership challenge. “Set your people free” applies not only in its original context but also to those within organisations. Allow them to master their science, there art, their whatever… and in the process they will develop beautiful systems capable of spectacular outputs. We only need management, especially old-style Plan/Organise/Control management, when we feel the need to control other people. Well, I ask, do you Mr Manager want to be controlled or would you rather develop your practice in pursuit of some greater good? Inspired by Bill Clinton “It’s the people stupid, not the stupid people”.

So set your people free – ask a good question, and answer is out there somewhere, let us go and find it. The search is not aided by plans and timescales but by the passionate search of somebody doing what they can, where they can, when they.

How to fail at transformational change!

I am not going to dignify the job advert below with a link – they don’t deserve it and I predict that theirs will be one of the 80% of change efforts that fail to deliver.

Job Description

As a result of  our commitment to take service delivery and customer experience to the next level, this exciting senior job is being created.  Reporting to the Head of the UK Direct business, you will lead the operations of the Direct business through a period of transformational change to create a truly ground-breaking service offering for our customers.  Throughout this transitional period, you will be charged with ensuring that the business as usual operations continue to deliver the outstanding service they do today.

Epic FAIL! The skills and mindset necessary to maintain the status quo (“business as usual operations”) are fundamentally different from those needed to deliver “transformational change”.