I find it fascinating that so often when I’m talking with senior leaders they talk about wanting to win the hearts and minds of their people and engage the talent they know they have in the workforce. But very frequently the ways in which organisations work seem almost designed to work against this.
Telling people what to do does not cause them to become more proactive, more self-reliant and nor does it give them an understanding of what they’ve got within them. This is where I find myself quite often talking about the value of a different kind of approach. If you wanted to give it a label I would call it ‘The Coach Approach’. Why the coach approach? Because coaching has fundamentally an assumption which is that people have skills and talents that need to be drawn out. The way you draw them out is not by trying to shove things down people’s throats. You get the best from people when they are able to access it themselves. This is a process of internal exploration and then action.
Here’s an example – I have just come back from working with a whole bunch of people who are very talented leaders in all sorts of different specialisms. The reason I was speaking at their conference is that they wanted to be better able to have the sorts of conversations which they know make a difference to clients and also illuminate what it is that clients really want. This is how they wanted to add value as they knew there was something that they weren’t doing.
In the course of our time together I was looking at one of the critical skills that indeed comprise the coach approach which is knowing how to ask good questions. The art of good questioning involves timing because you can ask the same question at different moments and get wildly different responses. It also involves understanding what you don’t know and are therefore engaged in an act of genuine enquiry. You are provoking thought. Whenever you ask a question what you do is you send a person on an internal search in terms of the neuroscience of it all.
There is an interesting aspect even in the word ‘question’. Look at what else is contained in that one word. Very often I will say to people the really important question is ‘what is the quest in your question’? Where are you directing attention? What is the journey you are sending people on when you ask them a question. When you do so that is exactly what you do, you send them on an internal search.
This is just one of a whole bunch of coaching skills which seem to me to be far too important to be left exclusively in the hands of people who are called Professional Coaches. This is why I have spent a lot of time making these skills available in a learnable format to people who frankly have very little interest in being coaches but who really do want to know how to adopt a coach approach – which means stop telling, start listening. Start a different kind of working relationship with people. That relationship will be characterised – not by a loss of authority on the contrary you can have your own clear position but the way you engage with people will enable them to do more than they have done before. It is almost like designing an alliance where the two of you, three of you or even a team begin to have a way of engaging in what is naturally there as latent talent. It seems to me that this is a skill pretty much anyone would benefit from knowing how to utilise.
I have taught this to people all over the world and they come from very different backgrounds but have one thing in common – they want to draw on the talent they know is there.
This is why I would say that coaching skills is something that pretty much anybody would benefit from learning about and becoming proficient in. They are skills and skills require practice.
You can read a book but you can’t get it from a book. That’s why we have a coaching programme and funnily enough, most of the people who come on the coaching programme are interested in applying it across the board in their life as a whole.
I was recently on a Panel and was asked what did I consider one of the most important professional skills that any manager could have? Without hesitation I said ‘knowing how to make relationships work.’ Why? Because ultimately, being a manager is about managing people. The same applies to leaders. The most effective leaders know how to engage people and that means knowing how to have a relationship with them.
So there is a real question here for anybody who wants to progress professionally, namely, do you know how to make relationships work with peers, subordinates and with those above you? They’re all relationships but often people are better at doing one of these than the others.
Even if they are good at all of them, I have yet to meet someone who couldn’t be better. And how about taking these skills home too? Why leave them at the office? Your family might appreciate them!
Being able to start and maintain good relationships is obviously one of the keys to professional success. If you can’t do that that then you just get peoples’ backs up and it’s very hard for them to take you seriously. It also makes it hard for them to collaborate with you. But it is also really important for your personal happiness. Why? Because when we relate well we feel real, we feel valued and we feel understood. We also act differently – we are more ourselves.
When this is not happening all sorts of things begin to unravel. In the case of professionals if you don’t relate well you can pay dearly for it through lost credibility and lost promotion. I’ve worked with many people who had great technical expertise but were seen as a liability when it came to customer relations. Kept in the back room their careers were suffering and they would have stayed there if not for the coaching we did.
In our personal lives being able to relate authentically is obviously important. And it’s not just about being with someone. You can be living with someone but that doesn’t mean you’re relating well to them. I’ve certainly worked with people who describe feeling pretty lonely as they look across at ‘the stranger at the breakfast table’.
For me, one of the pleasures of working with people has been developing the tools to start and maintain great relationships because there are real things you can do.
Pretty much any relationship can be enhanced. I have worked with couples where things are actually pretty good and they want them to be great. Now that is of a different order. Can you make a good relationship great? Yes you can!
What about future relationships? Can you prepare now to make them work? Of course!
Knowing how to do these things is a practical skill. There are some very important how tos that go with knowing how to make relationships work.
Because of this I’ve decided to commit to doing a day in the autumn to share with people some of the tools I use which help ensure relationships work. So if you’re interested for yourself or for others in ‘How to Make Relationships Work’ I’ll look forward to seeing you then.
Last week I had the pleasure of accepting an invitation to become Dean of Innovation and Learning for the Purposeful Planning Institute. The PPI consists of legal, financial, wealth and lifestyle advisors to high net worth individuals and ultra-high net worth family offices. They are a great bunch of people who, as their Institute’s name suggests, seek to go beyond simple financial planning and look deeper into the purpose it is meant to serve for both this generation and those yet to come. To do this they need to find out what really matters to their clients so that financial and legal decisions are driven by and serve the client’s fundamental beliefs and values. Being able to do this is a real skill and that’s where I come in.
I have been working with them over a number of years and indeed I will be speaking at their conference as I do each year in Denver in August.
They did a very striking thing recently. They surveyed members about the most pressing kind of innovation needed in the field. What came back was that approximately 60% of respondents said that the greatest need for innovation was in the area of client conversations.
So, not fancy new products, just how to engage in good conversations that ensure people are clear about how to create a future for themselves and others that is in keeping with their goals, values, beliefs and aspirations. To achieve this you need to be able to shift from presentation to elicitation.
That’s why this year my session is entitled “How powerful are your questions?” While some questions are more useful than others in drawing people out there is no magic set of all-purpose ‘powerful questions’ which you can just fire off in any situation.
In addition to having the right question there’s the small matter of rapport and timing. Ever noticed how someone can be technically very competent but not good at putting others at ease? Well it’s the same with elicitation: if you don’t have the rapport it doesn’t matter how good your questions are. Similarly timing really can be everything. It may be the right question but is it the right time to ask it? Instead of defaulting to a few favourite questions which just become a habit, it’s better to have an understanding of what’s going on when you ask a question. Then you can engage appropriately.
So in a nutshell, whenever we ask a question we send the brain on an internal search. The question is how useful was that search? One thing we can do to improve our questioning skills is ask ourselves, what are we’re really going for?
Advisors then would do well to ask themselves a question before they ask their clients anything, namely, ‘What is the quest in my question?’ Or to put it another way, what kind of search am I seeking to trigger?
Although this is a perfectly learnable skill, very few people exercise such intellectual discipline. It’s incredibly helpful because if you know what you’re going for, you’re far more likely to notice if you don’t get it and you’re much less likely to be distracted by an out of left field answer. Outstanding communicators invariably know what they’re going for and don’t get distracted.
As ever innovation begins with how we think. Just how rare this is as a mindset was brought home to me by a student in an Innovative Skills program I was running recently who exclaimed: “You want me to think before opening my mouth? Wow! That’s pretty innovative!”
Last week I spent a couple of days in half hourly conversations with all sorts of different businesses who are interested in what we are doing and in particular the ways in which they could innovate more effectively using the tools that we are currently making available.
This was exceedingly interesting, many contacts were made and offers proposed. However, in some of these conversations I found myself pointing out how innovation is really all around us, how people are almost oblivious to it and why it’s useful to begin recognising it.
Some examples? Around 2007 more people in the total world population started living in cities than in rural areas. That is a huge shift and the consequences are pretty difficult to overestimate.
To give you an example of just how profound these can be, if you look at the US there are a couple of staggering statistics; 90% of US GDP and 86% of all US jobs are generated on just 3% of the landmass of the continental US. And that 3% is in cities.*
Now those cities often don’t get to keep the wealth they have generated and hence can have poor infrastructure. But that doesn’t alter the fact that cities are hugely important innovation and wealth generators. Indeed the very process of urbanisation is itself a demonstration of innovation. And we’re only just beginning: in the next 25 years it is estimated that 300 million Chinese will move from the countryside to cities like Shanghai. This represents the largest migration in human history.
This is why I sometimes say that innovation is hidden in plain sight and people go about their business without realising that it’s happening all around them.
Here are a couple more less dramatic but equally pervasive examples, this time from the world of fashion. How about high heels? The heel as we know it is something of a recent invention – and it started as something for men.
Louis XIV was a short man and he wanted to be taller so he wore heels. Thus the court and all the men began to wear heels. This, by the way, is why we talk about people being well-heeled: it means they have cultural standing and financial means. Eventually heels become the province of women and they are reinvented again and again.
And then there is the little black dress. Historically this is a very recent creation and yet it is absolutely ubiquitous. Pretty much every woman has a little black dress. Thank you, Coco Chanel.
If you really want to know where the little black dress came from you need to know where she came from. She grew up in a Catholic orphanage in the 1890s surrounded by nuns in black habits.
Right up until the early 1920s the only people who wore black used to be servants, nuns or those in mourning. So the idea of a dress that is the complete opposite of the Victorian bustle with its voluminous crinolines, a dress that is simple and black is not just innovative, it’s revolutionary.
Fast forward to the 1920s and the little black dress is born. It really takes off when Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, wears one. The flappers are gone but the little black dress lives on. Now it’s a part of every woman’s wardrobe.
We are surrounded by innovation. Look around!
*‘A Country of Cities’, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Metropolis Books, 2013
I’m looking forward to this weekend: on Saturday it will be
an opportunity to meet up with old and new friends because it will be our third
25th Anniversary Celebration Day.
One of the things
I’ve been spending time on these past couple of years is the very idea of
innovation and how to be innovative. A lot of people want to innovate but don’t
necessarily know how to. It is true that innovation is the life blood of
commercial success, but it’s also the basis of personal well-being. (If you’re
in any doubt about that just ask someone whose relationship has gone stale).
Being able to innovate then is very important - which is why
I began to work with Professor John Bessant who’s background is innovation in
organisations. We got together because John had got to the point where he was
very clear that the next stage was not organisations but what happens inside
people that makes it possible for them to be innovative. We met when he came to
take the Practitioner with me. Many of the NLP techniques are potentially
useable to foster that overall capacity to be innovative. This is not the same
as being creative: you could be creative and not really do anything. To be
innovative you need more than an idea: you have to follow through and do.
Something has to actually happen.
John is going to be joining me this weekend and we will be
sharing some of the tools that we have in our new programme that will be
starting in the Autumn.
I also want to spend some of the time looking at the long
and winding road that is a person’s life. Having a way of making sense of where
you are on the journey, knowing how to take charge and go in a direction that
is meaningful to you is crucial. So often what I hear from people who have taken
trainings with me is that what they found most valuable was how it helped them
re-orientate in their own life. They have a new awareness of what they are
about and where they want to be going.
I am very pleased that Lawrence Kershen QC, who took his Practitioner with me in 1990,
will be joining me on Saturday. Lawrence’s journey can tell us a lot about how
to engage with our inner calling. It has immediate relevance for anyone wanting
to be true to themselves. More of that on the day.
When you start thinking about the journey that is your life,
being able to just keep going is also
a crucial part of the art of succeeding. So the other thing that I really want
to focus on are those secrets of perseverance.
Winston Churchill’s adage of “never, never, never give up” is really to the point
here. After having guided ITS through 25 years of ups and downs I think there
are some things I can usefully say about how to ensure that you do not just
survive but you actually thrive.
It is going to be a jam-packed day and, hey, here comes
One of the most important things I do is working with people
who are in leadership roles in very different organisations all over the world.
As part of that I find I am frequently asked to engage in coaching the next
generation of leaders in how to be effective as leaders.
A hallmark of leadership is you have responsibility but you also
frequently feel there are many things you need to attend to. So, it is often
the case that leadership and the experience potentially of overwhelm go
How do you address overwhelm as a leader? This becomes a
question which any effective leader has to have an answer to. One of the things
that’s fascinating to me about being overwhelmed (or fearing that you’re going
to be overwhelmed) is that no one is ever really overwhelmed by what they are
doing. In fact they are overwhelmed by the number of things they are not doing
and that they feel they should be doing. You
therefore have this very curious thing that overwhelm is not about what you’re
doing but it is about what you feel should be doing.
The secret of dealing with overwhelm is getting very clear
about what matters most. If you don’t know how to prioritise it is going to be
really difficult to avoid feeling overwhelmed. If on the other hand you
cultivate the art of prioritising then overwhelm is not something you are going
to be on the receiving end of because you will always be addressing the
questions like... what is most important here? Where do I need to focus my
attention first? What is requiring my attention now?
You are therefore constructing timelines for yourself as
well as asking, ‘what is my top 10, my top 5, my top 3 things to do? Being able
to do this is a learnable skill but without practice it’s something which is
very difficult to do in the moment. Until you actually have some means of
stepping back you are unlikely to do that because you are way too busy being
One of the things I notice about people is that the longer
they are in the world of work, the busier they get. The busier you are the
greater the danger of you not being strategic because you are just doing your
best to keep up.
How to ensure that you don’t get lost in your own busyness
or you don’t get overwhelmed by the drama of the day? Well, you know what it is
like when you come back from holiday - you frequently see things differently.
Why? Because you’ve taken a break and stepped
back. You’ve created a breathing space.
I think very often that is what good coaching does and it is
absolutely why the CEOs I work with value having a coaching space. It is
because every so often, on a regular basis, they step back from the drama of
the day and they do something really important. They take a breath, they take
stock, they look at the big picture and then determine what really matters
here. Again they are prioritising, but they are doing so based on their own
values and there is an understanding of what is important going forward. They also
look at what is in keeping with their own primary values and the goals they
seek to realise. If you don’t do this on a regular basis you will forget what
your primary values are and what you are going for because you will just be
trying to keep up.
Good coaching creates the space to be strategic not just in
your leadership but in your leadership style.
This prevents overwhelm and that means you get to be a whole different kind of
leader – one who can inspire others to
learn how to do this too.