Harvard – The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership – A Debrief

Image‘Where do we begin?’. The week started with a question and ended with many, which was very appropriate considering we were there to learn how to tackle leadership development in the face of adaptive challenges.

We were a class of 62 from 20 different counties and 5 different continents. We were in a leadership laboratory where we were our very own guinea pigs! If an outsider stepped into our world last week, they might have seen a group engaged in heated debates (as might be expected) or they might have seen something less conventional e.g. a group engaged in a shared singing experience with everyone singing different tunes at the same time and importantly with not a consonant within ear-shot. There was not a dull day in the entire experience.

I will take many things away from the week. I will share just three of the themes here and I hope to elaborate on these and others in the coming weeks and months.

The first is one of leadership terminology. During the course of the week we became accustomed to talking about leadership as an activity rather than a position. Individuals can be in roles of authority and may or may not engage in acts of leadership from that position. Individuals equally may exercise leadership without any formal authority at all.

An approach to leadership challenges: we each arrived on the programme with a leadership challenge which we faced. We worked in teams over three days to tackle each leadership challenge. Day by day we were equipped with new thinking which dramatically increased our effectiveness in real time. The approach involved putting the problem at the centre, identifying factions/ interest groups relating to the issue at hand, what motivates them and what potential losses they would face should the challenge be resolved. This approach is something which I can see as beneficial to my coaching practice immediately.

The third big concept which I took away was  necessity to manage the heat in the system: I had read the book Leadership on the Line in advance of the programme (written by 2 of the faculty Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz) and I had become familiar with the notion of there being a ‘productive zone of disequilibrium’ in order to make change happen. Reading the theory however was very different to experiencing it first-hand. We encountered the challenges of  both too much and too little heat in the different groups and whilst both yielded the same result (a lack of progress), both felt very different and different strategies were required to move the group forward  in each case.

This programme used many different pedagogies in order to maximise the learning experience. It has been finely tuned over 14 years to deliver as they term it ‘above and below the neck learning’. We were warned to make a quiet re-entry into our work environments. I have some concrete ideas of how to take the experience forward but I have many other thoughts and areas to explore over the longer term. Watch this space!

Image 1: The library.

Image 2: Eadine touching the foot of John Harvard (which apparently brings good luck!).

Leadership and Lifelong Learning

I have just finished reading John Kotter’s book ‘Leading Change’. After finishing the book, I went back to the start to see when it was written and was amazed to see the year 1996 mentioned. Many business books are written and remain relevant for a year… this one is as relevant now as it was in 1996.

The chapter that captured my attention most was the final one entitled ‘Leadership and Lifelong Learning’. It is clear that as complexity increases, the need for learning increases. Furthermore, in order to deal with adaptive challenges we can no longer rely on off-the-shelf solutions to problems but rather need to learn to make connections and come up with creative solutions to the new challenges we face.

I have always been stimulated by change and the learning associated with it. In my corporate life I constantly sought challenging assignments at home and abroad. I remember a manager asking me once ‘Eadine, what is going to happen when you have to keep the same role for more than a couple of years?’ Well, I guess for the first time that has now happened as I am running my own business and interestingly it is in the ‘learning’ space. On the surface level I am doing the same thing as 3 or 4 years ago, but the variety and challenges I am presented with reflect the marketplace and the opportunity for learning and personal growth for both myself and client’s is immense.

Kotter suggests some mental habits that support lifelong learning:

  • Risk-taking
  • Humble self-reflection
  • Solicitation of opinions
  • Careful listening
  • Openness to new ideas.

I have a wonderful opportunity in May to attend a Leadership programme in Harvard. I have no doubt that this experience will be uncomfortable and include all of the above elements but I am confident that it will be a worth-while experience. If you wish to hear about this experience in due course, feel free to sign up to my blog.

Image Source: http://artnews.org/artist.php?i=5491

Learning Agility

A few months back I wrote an article about the value ‘stretch assignments’ in developing our leadership capabilities. An article in the recent CIPD magazine (People Management) entitled Deepening the talent pool through learning agility struck a chord with me along the same vein. It speaks of learning agility (our ability to learn and adapt to new situations) as being a key predictor of future success. Of particular interest is the graphic in the article (chart 2) which  shows the step up required through each of the transitions. What makes us successful at one level may actually impede our success at the next level. The skill is to be able to learn from past experiences and adapt our approach to new situations as opposed to finding a so called ‘winning formula’ and sticking with it.

This article is well worth reading!

Young Social Innovators in the news – Missing Persons project

Young Social Innovators is an initiative I am passionate about, not just because of the value of the projects transition year students work on, but also because  of the opportunity provided to the students to develop themselves. Yesterday one of the projects from Davis College was in the news as it is launching a 2012 calendar to raise awareness of missing person’s. Many of us will remember the time when Trevor Deely disappeared in December 11 years ago. His father Michael Deely is supporting this campaign and appears in the clip.

TV3 clip of the ‘Forget Me Not’ campaign

Having attended the national showcase earlier this year, I was struck by the momentum behind YSI. I watched many presentations delivered by transition year students and was impressed not just by what they had achieved but by the availability of such a platform for them to develop as individuals. I believe it supports their development in three key ways:

(1) Communications and confidence building: having presented their projects at local and national level, this initiative provides a fantastic opportunity for students to gain confidence presenting in a supportive environment. The first presentation I ever gave was to a client in the corporate world and I am thrilled to see that the educational system provides more opportunities to practice now at an earlier age.

(2) Leadership and team-building: many of the questions posed by the judges at the show-case related to how the students worked as a team and how they overcame challenges. The challenges of team-working will be faced by all into the future and being able to deal with such challenges at an early age is superb.

(3) Emotional Intelligence: one definition of emotional intelligence is:

“a set of emotional and social skills that influence the way we perceive and express ourselves, develop and maintain social relationships, cope with challenges, and use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way.”

YSI allows the students to develop their emotional intelligence in many ways. One area of particular importance is empathy as each of the students has the opportunity to walk in the shoes of those they are supporting through their projects and feel what they are feeling. At the end of the day leadership is about relationships as we can’t lead without followers. By developing emotional intelligence, these students are better preparing themselves for future leadership roles.

On a concrete level, many past-participants of YSI have spoken of how YSI helped them secure their first job. YSI provided them a platform at interview to speak about what they were capable of beyond academic grades. I wish all the current participants the best of luck!

Having trouble staying focused?

Have you ever read a book or listened to a discussion and found your mind wandering? Has anyone ever mentioned ‘listening skills’ as a challenge for you? Have you so much going on you are not sure what to focus on first and flit to from one thing to the next?

This morning I was reading an article that should have engaged me, however I found myself skipping paragraphs and my thoughts moved onto my next meeting whilst still looking blankly at the page in front of me. It got me thinking about the different elements that drive our ability or our desire to engage with the material or people in front of us. 

When doing my coach training we came across the concepts of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ in Gestalt theory. The figure is what holds your attention at any one time, whilst the ground includes one or more things that are not immediately holding your attention but are in the background. In Gestalt theory our attitude plays a large part in determining what we focus on.

At times like this morning, when I lose my focus I reflect on what has lost my attention and I look at it from the perspective of:

  • my interest in the topic
  • motivation to stay focused and
  • the choice I made or did not make in taking on the activity.

Some of you may be familiar with the work of Timothy Gallwey and his publications such as ‘The Inner Game of Work’, ‘The Inner Game of Golf’, etc. etc. He dedicates a chapter of his books to ‘Focus of Attention’ and considers the role of these very elements in achieving focus. Gallwey states that ‘focus feels very good, and the work that comes from a focused mind is generally good work’.

If focus leads to good work, then how do we become more focused?

In an ideal world we would be doing work that interests us, that we are bought into and which we are motivated by. From a corporate perspective if this can be achieved, we will go a long way to getting the best from our people.

When inevitably we lose focus from time to time, it may be worth trying to understand what is driving this. Am I simply not bought into the task? Am I dis-interested? Are my motivations for engaging in this exercise unclear or insufficient? Are there any consequences to not being focused/ delivering on this task or not engaging fully in this conversation? 

Once the driver is understood, we may be in a position to take ownership of the issue and address it. This might involve for example a greater understanding of the consequences of not focusing, a change in attitude or indeed a decision to consciously remove focus from the task at hand as there really is something else that is more deserving of our attention.

Whether you are interested in golf, tennis, skiing, music or work Timothy Gallwey has a book on the subject and they are well worth reading.

Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ihtatho/627226315/

First 100 Days – Ensuring a smooth transition

In preparation for an MBA workshop on career transitions, I found myself reflecting on my own experience of new starts.  Given the nature of my early work (consultancy and project management), I had many new starts. In fact I counted 14 in the space of a 15 year corporate career. These starts were sometimes projects with new clients, a new role with a different organisation or on a number of occasions they were assignments in different countries. The one common factor was the need to hit the ground running!

I remember a significant shift in my approach as time went on.  Part of that reflected the seniority of the roles, but part of it reflected an increased awareness of factors that would influence my success.

In my experience some of the key factors were as follows:

The cultural gap: I don’t think we can ever under-estimate the culturaldifferences within organisations and consequently the challenge of ‘fitting’ within the culture. When working internationally I always expected cultural challenges (and I loved it!) however some of my biggest cultural challenges were in Ireland where I did not expect it.

I have worked with a number of clients both in advance of making a career decision and also after making the decision to help them understand the cultural gap and how best to deal with it. If the individual can anticipate potential ‘cultural flash-points’ they can be operate in a more culturally sensitive fashion. I draw a distinction between being ‘culturally sensitive’ and ‘fitting into’ into the culture though as huge benefits can often be gained by coming from a different perspective and being yourself.

Availability of resources: many people may be familiar with the scenario where the excitement of a new role turns to frustration as it becomes obvious that resources are not being made available to enable success. Sometimes this can be anticipated beforehand and it may affect your decision to take the job. Clearly, the more information you can gain in advance the better your ability to make an informed decision.

In my own case, I experienced this once. I could not however have anticipated it, as the challenge arose 6 months into the role. A few months on, the project was canned and I moved onto my next assignment. Personally, I learnt vast amounts from the experience so it was not wasted effort from my point of view, however it did make me more conscious of this scenario when taking on new roles.

Importance of relationships: in the flurry to come up the curve in a new industry/ organisation/ function, we can sometimes lose perspective of our stakeholders. In my last couple of roles I very consciously sat down and made a list of all the relevant stakeholders in advance. I tried to take a broad perspective on this exercise including customers, suppliers, regulators etc as appropriate. Once compiled, I then worked out the best way of building these relationships.

If you have the luxury of a decent break between roles, this is an ideal time to start building some of these relationships in advance (assuming you can also fit in a rest for yourself).

Your Support Team: Goldsmith and Carter outline what they describe as the ‘perfect storm’ for career transitions in their recent book (Best Practices in Talent Management, 2010) . This is the coupling of significant learning demands in complex roles, along with a lack of development support. In my experience, it is possible to increase the chances of a smooth transition by taking a structured approach to the learning demands as well as assembling a support team in advance who will be there when the inevitable bumps in the road materialise.

I am really looking forward to my upcoming MBA workshop on this topic where I hope to help the participants plan their next career move.

(Image sources: www.artnet.com & www.specht.com.au)

The Questions We Don’t Ask

I have always been amazed at children’s wonder at the world. Questions I have heard asked include:

  • why do birds not make tracks in the sky when they fly?
  • how will our (dead) goldfish get to heaven – I can still see him!
  • why can’t I pick up water with my fingers?

 

Without realising, children often challenge and question beliefs and attitudes and try to understand obstacles that are impeding them. These are all things coaches help clients with to enable them to move forward with their coaching agenda (albeit in a different context).

What I never anticipated however was that children would be teaching me how to raise my game with their reflective and enquiring minds!