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.

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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: &

Emotional Intelligence in Action

This is a lovely blog from the HBR web-site: A Simple Communication Mistake.

Whilst the author writes about his ‘communication mistake’, what is interesting for me is how he then becomes aware of what he is doing as well as the anxiety he is feeling and then alters his behaviour.

I have to admit to a similar experience in teaching one of my kids to cycle in recent days. I had to manage my anxiety so I wouldn’t transfer it onto her and impact her confidence. We might not think this matters, but at one point I was holding her shoulders going around a bend and I was smiling. She could not see me as I was behind her, but she asked ‘why are you smiling?’ I was smiling with a sense of pride and she picked up on this – likewise she would have picked up on my anxiety.

Emotional Intelligence matters in every day life. Improving it can enhance working relationships and consequently improve performance. The great thing is that it can be improved and the first step is becoming aware of those emotions and checking them before we take action.

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Leadership Lessons

I read a great item on a discussion group (The Emotional Intelligence Network) this morning which asked people for the best leadership lessons they learnt. I thought I would share my top 5 with you from this list:

  • Understand your values and lead by example.
  • Surround yourself with smart people and listen to them.
  • ‘Shoe Leather’ – lead by walking around. By doing this you see, hear and learn so much.
  • Be specific in asking for deliverables so expectations are clear, but focus on the outcome not the task. Their way of delivering may be better than yours!
  • Appreciate the differences in people.

Finally, I would add that it is useful to understand what motivates (and de-motivates) each person on your immediate team. By understanding this and acting on it (where possible) we have a better chance of working well together and allowing each individual achieve their potential within the context of the team.

Image Source: Taiga Company

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!

Stretch Assignments

An article just published in the Center for Creative Leadership’s ‘Leading Effectively’ newsletter: Job Assignments That Matter Most struck a chord with me this morning. For those looking to develop leadership competencies, this article presents an interesting framework for approaching the challenge.  It may involve seeking new assignments which put you outside your comfort zone or putting your hand up to solve a difficult problem. One way or the other, the idea is to take on a challenge that stretches your leadership skills.

During my time in GE we were actively encouraged to take this approach (in GE terms this was called a ‘stretch assignment’) and this resulted in me taking on assignments that stretched not only my leadership competencies but also my language and cross-cultural skills. The assignment that I learnt the most from was a role that I volunteered for in France at the age of 26. I was asked to join a large IT programme in order to learn about the system so it might be implemented elsewhere. The French perceived me as an intruder from head-office and the ultimate insult was that I did not speak much French. After 6 weeks they tested me by asking me to do a presentation in French to about 20 people. To say I was terrified does not adequately describe how I felt then. My inter-cert French was tested. By the time I left France however I was facilitating large meetings through French and thriving on it.

My lack of French was an issue but it was the least of my problems. The biggest challenge was dealing with the political culture of a tri-party project and significant people issues. A couple of months into my assignment I (naively) sought a team leadership role with a team of about 10 people. All the team members were French, and varied in age from early 20’s to individuals in their 50’s and they came from 3 different organisations (with differing expectations) all with a stake in the programme. When I look now at the article referred to above, I realise that this assignment allowed me to develop 7 of the 8 competencies they mention. It  was an amazing experience (albeit quite stressful at times) and I am certainly proud of how I developed in that role.

In October last year I attended an MBA alumni event at which Cormac McCarthy (CEO of First Active and Ulster Bank) was interviewed. He was asked what advice he would give to those looking to develop their careers, and Cormac spoke of the concept of ‘stretch assignments’ in GE. The article I mention above may provide an interesting framework to those of you interested in taking this approach. I certainly recommend it!