Thursday, 4 October 2012

Looking backwards

We frequently hear that we need to have a vision, that we should look ahead, keep our eye on the goal. But some years ago a wise person told me that we also have to look backwards.

Why look backwards?

Imagine you were sailing from Durban to Mauritius. That takes a few days on a cruise liner. As you leave Durban all you see in front of you is blue ocean. As you look forwards towards your goal of Mauritius it looks as though you are standing still. But if you look back towards Durban it is easy to see how first the harbour and then the Durban coastline gradually becomes smaller and smaller as you move away.

An occasional look backwards is important when the vision is a long distance one, when the goal takes a while to reach.

Many of us find ourselves in the middle of a change process. Perhaps our company is making changes yet again. Or maybe we are going through a transition in our own lives. Sometimes it feels as though we will never get to the end, that we will be in a permanent state of flux. It can be hard to stay motivated when the end looks far away. Looking back to see where we have come from allows a fresh perspective.

Last year I saw a performance of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys”. In this play set in 1950 Port Elizabeth, we see racism and bigotry play out in the interaction between a young boy and his mother’s employees. It reminded me of growing up in South Africa in the 70’s. It contrasted starkly with how I, my friends and my colleagues interact with people of all races nowadays.

As we left the theatre there was a family ahead of us with teenage daughters. I overheard them talking to their father. They were saying it was just a play and no one would have said those things in real life. Their father was trying to explain the realities of apartheid in that South Africa. He could look back and see a change. They only know the ‘new South Africa’.

This year I saw Bailey Snyman’s dance play “Moffie” which highlights the attitude to homosexuals in the SADF of the early 80’s. This coincided with the time most of my friends did their national service. Whilst there is still prejudice in 2012 we now have legal same sex marriages and much of society is more accepting of sexual preference.

And then a couple of weeks ago we went to a screening of “Searching for Sugar Man”, the film about Rodriguez (well worth seeing). As a teenager I remember listening over and over to my sister’s Cold Fact album and singing along to “I wonder”. The film flashes back to Cape Town in the late 70’s, showing its natural beauty, but also the obvious signs of apartheid like the “nie blanke” signs. There are also a few old news clips of protests and an SABC employee shows how the banned tracks on the LP were scratched to prevent them being played.

What all these films or plays had in common was that they made me look backwards. All this looking backwards created some perspective for me on where we are at in South Africa today. We still live in a most imperfect society but many things have changed for the better since the 50’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Occasionally looking backwards allows us to measure how far we have come, it encourages us that we are making progress and it inspires us to keep on moving forwards towards our goal.

In your own life have you been working towards something for quite awhile? Does it feel like you are always striving but perhaps not getting there?

Take a moment, look back, see how far you have come. Recognise your achievement. And then look ahead and move on.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Misplaced stoicism

All the wonderful athletes at the recent Olympics have many qualities that lead to their success, one of which is probably stoicism. But stoicism is not always appropriate.

“I’ve been sick for two weeks. I just can’t seem to get better.” “I’ve had a cold/flu for over a week. I’ve tried everything except staying in bed.” Sound familiar?

The last few months in South Africa we have had a few nasty cold and flu bugs doing the rounds. If you are genuinely sick, stoically going to work every day is, in most cases, stupid. There are very few of us who are absolutely indispensable – despite how we like to see ourselves. If we work for a company and get run over by a bus, the company doesn’t collapse!

When we go to work sick we make other people sick.

When we go to work sick we can’t think clearly or concentrate properly, so we only get half the work done.

When we go to work sick we make mistakes.

A day or so of bed rest (with medicine if needed) allows the body to do what it is designed to do – heal itself. And quicker than it ever can whilst we are up and running around.

Even an ill performer in a world where the maxim is “the show must go on”, can rest most of the day and then go to the theatre at night. And those of us who work for ourselves need to do the maths on a couple of half days off versus a few weeks of working at half pace.

So if you have succumbed to one of the nasty bugs please don’t be a martyr. Take a couple of days to stay home and get good bed rest. Then go back to work and give it your all.

Thoughts and pictures have power

A lot has been said and written about the London Olympics so I wasn’t going to say anything but there are just two wonderful stories from medal winners which I want to quickly share with you. They are fabulous examples of how we influence our own lives with our thoughts and drawings or scribbles.
“I want to say that I beat him. I want to go out there and beat the best. To be the best means racing the greatest that’s ever been.” said Chad le Clos prior to the Olympics. (I love his positive language and his focus.) About Phelps he said, "Ever since 2004 when he won six gold medals, he has been an inspiration and role model.” "I have all his major races on my computer, I think I have watched the 100m butterfly Beijing final, when he beat Cavic by 0.01 seconds, a million times. I have it in seven different languages."

Now years ago I was told if you want to be successful pick a person in your field that you admire, and feel what it is like to be them.

Here is what Chad said after he won the gold and beat Phelps, “I felt like him, swimming that last 50 I felt like I was Phelps,” “I always wanted to swim in an Olympic Games and I wanted to be like him.” It seems it worked for him!

And here is a story about the enormous power of putting your dreams and inspirations onto paper:  

Monday, 6 August 2012

Take the pressure off yourself

“You don’t look yourself,” was the greeting from a friend on meeting me for our final committee meeting of the year. “I am tired,” I replied. “The last couple of weeks I have just been chasing my tail and barely meeting deadlines.” As I said it, it struck me that this was most unusual for me. What had gone wrong?

Into my head came a picture of Stephen Covey’s four quadrants.

Ideally we should spend most of our time doing activities that fall into Quadrant 2 – important but not yet urgent.
I had instead slipped into being in Quadrant 1 – important and urgent.
I haven’t done that for many years. I make a point of planning and prioritising, of saying No when necessary and of remaining in the moment rather than worrying about what may be coming. However somehow that went pear shaped at the beginning of December. By the time I realised what I had done I was feeling drained and dissatisfied.
I am now back in Quadrant 2 and feeling so much better.

If two weeks of that made me so tired, what do months and months of it do to us? And what’s more it is an unproductive space, so all that stress and strain is achieving even less.

Perhaps this is a good time for each of us to evaluate where we are working from and if that isn’t a productive, enjoyable space to make a plan to change it now?

(Originally written in December 2011)


Sunday, 29 July 2012

Getting on with people

“Achieving success at work & in life, one conversation at a time”. This is the sub title of a book called “Fierce Conversations” that I am reading. Robust conversations are very important but I’d like to paraphrase Susan Scott and say “Achieving success at work & in life, one relationship at a time”.

I know many people who are highly successful at work or in business, essentially because they get on with pretty much everyone. When I see children at school who are at ease with their peers and with their teachers I think “they have a bright future ahead of them.” And when I meet very smart people who can’t relate to others I am sad that they may well struggle to succeed and their potential could be wasted.

One of the quadrants of the Leader Management Framework is People Connection. Without this connection a leader manager may well produce some results, but the staff will never work as effectively as they would have if the people connection was there.

There are many aspects to connecting with people. Some important ones are building trust, communicating effectively and valuing people. At a more basic level we need to understand people and that starts with understanding ourselves.

I have been working with a couple, whose already poor relationship has been severely strained by changed circumstances. They have been married for about thirty years and yet they have no understanding of each other’s different personality, different needs and different communication styles. Until they improve their understanding and acceptance of each other they can’t move forward.

Some of us are lucky and have somehow done that unconsciously. What can the rest of us do? Observe and learn, with a little help from books, talks or workshops.

Start by understanding your own behaviour, reactions and needs better. Become an observer of yourself. Notice what you do and how you feel, and ask yourself why.

And then do the same with those around you. Notice how people respond to you and to other people, and think about why. Adjust your behaviour towards them (whilst remaining authentic) and see if you get different responses.
Try to recognise their needs, and if appropriate meet that need. What response do you get?

There are many excellent, easy to read books which can increase your understanding. There is a list on my website (“Personality Plus”, in particular, is a very funny read).

Or you can learn in a much more informal environment. Watching movies or live shows, and reading novels, are great fun ways to study human dynamics - as most of them are all about people!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Right Timing

A client in a senior management position recently came to me for a couple of sessions after being over looked for a promotion. Her boss told her that although she was highly qualified and did very good work, she “didn’t make her presence felt” in meetings or workshops, so no one noticed her.

This client made excellent progress over her three sessions. In fact between her initial phone call to me and her first appointment, she had already experimented with speaking up in a meeting. She was so surprised that she could do it and at how well she was received!

After experiencing the fulfilment of being more involved and recognised, she said she wished she had come to see me years ago. I replied, “That may have been good but you also may not have been ready to make the small but necessary changes in yourself. We all grow when the timing is right.”

A couple of days ago a 20 year old, contemplating a choice between continuing their current studies or changing institutions, told me “staying where I am is safe, but I am feeling it is time for another big jump.” A lot of young people are more attuned than we perhaps were. They are ready to take brave leaps if we are supportive or simply get out of their way.

Have you experienced tackling a project where nothing seems to go right, no matter how hard you try? And perhaps you end up leaving it. Sometime later you pick it up and try again – and it all falls into place, almost effortlessly.

There are other times when the little clues tell you to do something but it feels scary and we argue ourselves out of it. If the plant doesn’t flower when the Spring conditions are just right, it may have to wait a full year to have another chance. Keep yourself open and alert to the opportunities and clues that come your way – people you meet, things you read, a word you hear. And when you feel that urge, be brave and go with it.

If we listen to our wisdom, whilst being open to opportunities, everything will happen, when it should – not too soon and not too late.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

First acknowledge the problem

“Resolved. No fault found.” was the response from City Power when I reported that two out of three of our electricity phases had cut out the night before. I could have screamed. Well if there is no fault why do half our lights, most of our plugs and our geyser not work?
“Billing crisis. What billing crisis?” responded Johannesburg’s Mayor and the ratepayers couldn’t believe their ears. If there is no billing problem why do so many of us receive outrageous utility bills, no statements for months, accounts for the wrong properties?
Time after time we see people denying problems exist – in the public realm, at work and at home. Ignoring a problem hardly ever makes it go away. Instead it often leads to frustration and an escalation of the problem.
Things go wrong, mistakes are made, problems happen. It is all part of life. And most of them do need to be fixed - the sooner, the better. But we cannot fix what we don’t acknowledge.
Effective problem solving is a skill which begins with recognising the problem, followed by finding the root cause, considering a variety of solutions and their consequences, making a decision and then taking action. It is a skill which serves us well at work and in life.

How effective are you at the five steps of problem solving?

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Being happy at work

A recent e-mail from a client ended, “I often asked myself, why can I not be satisfied with what I have achieved, or just see my job as a means to earn my living.” My immediate thought was, “because you wouldn’t be you, and you wouldn’t have achieved the success you have.” The client is a senior manager who has built up a very successful business unit within a large organisation.

Keeping that famous life / work balance is tricky and sometimes the balance comes from two equally unbalanced phases - working flat out - and then taking a complete sabbatical. The headmaster at King Edward V11 school recently did that. He has been head for eight years so took an entire term off to travel through the Kruger and other game parks. Sound inviting?

Although driven people sometimes do question themselves, they for the most part thrive on being driven - on the achievements and on creating something just a little better than last time – it makes them happy. And being driven is not stressful if it fits your personality - a laid back life would quickly become boring for them.

I am reading a book called “Happiness at Work. Maximising your psychological capital for success” by Jessica Pryce-Jones. For years I have ‘preached’ that we can create productive, effective businesses with happy, engaged, fulfilled people working in them. What is great about Jessica’s work is that she and her team have conducted really robust research that proves that people who are happy at work are more productive.

The happiest employees focus on their work 78% of the day compared to the unhappiest who focus on what they need to do for only 53% of the time. That means the happiest people put about 60 extra days of work effort into their year.

A very big, proven key to productivity at work is happiness!

She also states, if you are happy at work you get promoted faster, get more support. generate better & more creative ideas, achieve your goals faster, receive superior reviews, are healthier, and many more ...

The book explores many factors that determine how happy we are at work. I maintain that all leader-managers should be managing in such a way as to make it easier for people to enjoy their day at work (and get the job done!). However the book really focuses on what each of us as individuals can do so as to increase our own happiness at work. My work with past clients didn’t use the same structure as Jessica uses but I have seen many people who were so unhappy that they came to me to explore changing jobs and yet ended up finding themselves becoming happier and deciding to stay where they were!

As an individual are you happy in your work? And if not consider changing that. Life is too short to waste it being unhappy.
If you are a leader-manager do you know how to manage so that your team are productive and creative, and happy?

Sunday, 24 June 2012


A bit of recent good news made me think how easily the outcome could have been different.
A little over a year ago, a young 16 year old enthusiastically participated in pre season rugby training hoping to make the First team. But he wasn’t selected for the squad. This squad would later become the first and second teams for the season.

He was disappointed, but after a couple of days he asked the coach if he could please continue to train with the squad for the experience alone.

When the season began he was placed in the 3rd team. After a few games a player in the Seconds was unfortunately injured. Our young player got an opportunity to take his place for the rest of the season.

This year he did make the cut for the first squad and was selected for the Firsts.

And just last week, the now 17 year old, was announced as Vice Captain for the Golden Lions Craven Week team (provincial school age rugby).

I wonder if he’d have got this far if he hadn’t pushed for the extra training a year before?

And one more quick story.

A second year dance student had her heart set on performing at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival last year. However she wasn’t cast in any of the three pieces. All those not in the cast were told they could still attend rehearsals if they wished, and a few chose to do so.

Our young dancer worked at all the dances, hoping to be an understudy. When the final touring cast, including understudies, was announced she wasn’t in it.

However she continued to attend rehearsals. A couple of weeks before the Festival one of the cast members pulled out and the young dancer was asked to take her place.

In the new Dance Season, which followed the tour, she got to perform not only the touring pieces but all the new ones as well.

How different would the year have been if she had given up after the first setback?

Most of us have experienced obstacles on the way to a goal. When that happens do you only see one blocked path? Do you give up?

Sometimes we need to be like the young people in the stories above - creative, flexible, give a bit more of ourselves without a guarantee of reward. And perhaps we can still reach that goal, all be it along a different path.

Pushing back

“Why isn’t the work we agreed on finished?” “Bess from dept A asked me to extract some data for her and Jim from Dept B needed graphs prepared”. Does this happen to you or to people you work or live with?

In 2002 I was managing a team at SARS. I found that because my staff had a reputation for being able to provide answers and deliver, they were constantly interrupted with requests. With the result that they had to work overtime to keep up with their own work, sometimes fell behind and were feeling stressed. I called a meeting and we discussed what was happening. They were all helpful people who felt guilty to say No to anyone who asked them nicely.

So we set some new rules (or boundaries). I would let the departments we supported know that we would be planning our week’s work on Monday mornings. Anything they required from us was to be communicated to me by the previous Friday (or very early on Monday morning). Anything not so requested would stand over for scheduling the following week.

My team agreed that they were answerable to our schedule before anyone else’s. If someone asked them for something during the week they learnt to say “No” in a nice way such as “I’d love to help you once I have finished all of this week’s work” or “If you give the request to Alison I am sure she will schedule it for you.”

Naturally there were emergencies and we did make adjustments to accommodate the legitimate ones, but for the most part after a few weeks everyone pretty much cooperated with us.

The result was a happier, fulfilled, engaged team delivering on time and getting through even more work than they’d ever done previously.

All of us have a need for boundaries in some aspect of our life. Without them our values, needs and priorities get subjugated by those of everyone else. We lose sight of what is important, suffer health problems, miss important events with loved ones. Some of us do too much for others. We think we are helping but we are denying them the opportunity to be strong.

Think about how you could modify what we did at SARS to help you in your own circumstances.