Making me count

There is a growing recognition that making people feel like they count is a good thing. Quite why this is a growing realisation rather than a way of life is a question for another time.

Traditionally business strategy has been a job of compartmentalisation. Of box filling. We start with what we want to achieve as a business, we work out what we need to deliver as a department and then we tell you what your job is. If all of the jobs add up (theoretically) to what we want to achieve as a business then all must be rosy in the garden. Of course this system, like anything, has a number of benefits and a number of flaws.


  • It seems logical
  • It provides us with the security of structure
  • We can always answer ‘who is in charge of this?’ by pointing to a box
  • Individuals are clear on what they should be doing


  • Lots of things seem logical without being the best option. The structure described maximises the distance between decision making and first line customer contact. It is less successful than it is on paper.
  • Structure can stifle as well as enable. There is a balance needed. Talent hates being boxed in.
  • If everyone always operates in a box then what happens in the gaps between boxes – and what is the difference between a box and a silo
  • We know that communication cascade in most organisations is unreliable

So how could you give people voice within a system within a system and still have order? Simple. Tell them what the challenge is and support them to solve it. As teams. Feeling important (because they are). Combine these things that I have seen work brilliantly and you get a headstart. Nothing here is an original concept – it is combining the best examples of it working that I have come across.

i) Educate – Take your vision for the organisation then cocreate a vision for the department then ask teams to go away and think of the best way to deliver that vision. There will be things they might not understand yet (budget constraints, financial models) but if you want them to truly feel involved then you need to help them understand that. Objective setting for the year shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise, it should be a joint statement of ambition. Your role as a manager or leader is to fill in the gaps that people need to complete the puzzle. To give them all the information they need to agree on what they need to do. It allows them to define a contribution for themselves rather than being allocated a box. It’s difficult to impose a sense of purpose, it’s far better to support people finding it on their own.

ii) Learn from Pot Noodle – I once visited a pot noodle flavour factory (long story). As I moved from room to room each of them had a simple graphic on the wall. It said ‘why what we do in here is crucial to making our products great’. It then described their work and standards. Every person in that factory understood the end goal and their role in it. Simple and effective. Allowing people to explore this for themselves is even more powerful.

iii) Do it all together – When I was running an OD team (and had fewer white hairs in my beard and my knees didn’t hurt in the morning) we attempted to define our contribution as a team before allocating specific work. We ended up with joint accountability and sharing of work in a way that we wouldn’t have had if I simply sat down with each member of my team to plan their work. Why? Because people bounce ideas off each other and because they knew their work better than I did.

Cascade if you must, but try a little trust.

Muppets & The Rainbow Connection

The other day I was discussing profiling and psychometric tools with a small group of colleagues. There was a general cynicism around both the tools and the usage. Someone suggested that it might be more useful to ask people to define themselves as Muppets. It was a proposal I was immediately drawn towards. People started attempting it and this went fine for the first few people and then it went horribly wrong. Where did people go wrong?

  • Suggestion 1: I’d be Miss Piggy
  • Suggestion 2: I’m probably a Gonzo
  • Suggestion 3: I like to think I’m a Kermit
  • Suggestion 4: The Count who counts things, don’t know what he is called
  • Suggestion 5: The Cookie Monster

It went wrong with suggestions 4 & 5 as anybody and everybody should know that Sesame Street is completely different to The Muppets. And quite how someone can forget the name of “The Count who counts” when that character is called ‘The Count’ is a matter of grave concern.

The talk of The Muppets reminded me of an odd Muppet related tale. In 1996 a man burst into a radio station in New Zealand and took the manager hostage with the express demand that he got to hear The Rainbow Connection, a song that is delivered by Kermit the Frog in the original Muppet Movie and was named the 74th best song in a movie by the American Film Institute. It has been covered by both The Carpenters and Justin Timberlake, a unique honour. I’m not sure that means it is good enough to hold people hostage for though…

I was listening to The Rainbow Connection the other day and the lyrics of the first 4 verses stuck me as a surprisingly good summary for the tug of war between aspiration and pragmatism that I see and hear every day. Why do people talk about a revolution in the way we work? Belief. Why do people challenge that belief? They don’t believe that revolutions is real.

Both of those positions make sense to me, but I guess I’m happy to keep stargazing.

The Rainbow Connection

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions
But only illusions
And rainbows have nothing to hide

So we’ve been told
And some choose to believe it
I know they’re wrong, wait and see
Some day we’ll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me

Who said that every wish
Would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star
Somebody thought of that
And someone believed it
And look what it’s done so far

What’s so amazing
That keeps us stargazing
And what do we think we might see
Someday we’ll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me

It’s schmaltz, but then it is performed by a puppet so that seems fair enough. Sometimes willful suspension of disbelief is the best option.

Also, if you were wondering why Muppets were part of the conversation it was because about a month into my new role I went into the office with a strained throat. I shared the cause of that with people.

The reason for the strain? Bellowing this out in the shower…

Jimmy Stewart & Leadership Moments

If you were unlucky enough to have my company on Friday night after work you would have been assailed/assaulted by my views on why ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is one of the greatest films ever. More specifically you would have had to put up with me talking about the George Bailey and how perfectly he is played by Jimmy Stewart.

I woke up on Saturday morning and ambled downstairs and was lucky enough to find BBC2 was showing a selection of interviews with Jimmy Stewart. A career that included a number of exceptional films including Rope, Rear Window and Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

In a couple of interviews from 1973 Stewart talked about acting in a way that that I think applies to good leadership.

He described the art of acting as ‘the opportunity to create moments’ that had real resonance. Moments that stick with people for years and have a profound positive impact. He talked about the fact that people didn’t necessarily recall the titles of his films or the plots, but would often tell him that they had seen a film years ago and one scene had remained with them. His duty and role was simply to ‘prepare yourself as best as you can to make these moments happen’. They didn’t always happen, but when they did they mattered.

‘To think that I had been part of creating a moment that this man had liked and had remembered for 20 years, that was very special to me’

Stewart described a director asking for the same scene to be reshot 30 times. The actors eventually asked the director what was wrong. The director replied ‘You are perfect, but I’m just waiting for something to happen.’. It’s the same with leadership, it isn’t about the process – it is about the impact. The deep impact that you can have on another person, the kind of thing that resonates through the years. They don’t happen all the time and you need to respect and understand that. Good leaders just make these moments happen more often.

When asked why characters he played were so timeless Stewart gave a lovely summary of what we might now term ‘authentic leadership’.

‘I’m a pretty good example of human frailty, I don’t really have all the answers, I have very few of the answers, but for some reason I make it. We get across that river’

A final thought:

When Stewart started his career employees really were treated as assets. He was traded by his studio to another for 7 stunt horses.

Here is Stewart creating a moment in It’s A Wonderful Life – and if you ever wanted to know why my old company was registered as Oddbody Consulting it is tucked away in this clip…

Trainer vs Delegate: A true story

Trainer vs Delegate: A true story

Location: Classified

Date: Recent

Organisation: Classified

Training session objective: Inspiring people to be more productive and positive

Trainer name: Classified, though not in my direct network

And so we begin…

Trainer: “What you need to appreciate is the reason why you are tired. It’s the list of things that you know you need to do that you haven’t done yet. It is that bouncing about in the back of your mind that is causing the stress and tiredness. When you get home don’t sit in front of the TV, get up and do some of those jobs around the house that you have been meaning to do for ages. Clear out the garage or clean the cooker. You’ll feel less tired when you have done that as your mental list of things that you need to complete will be shorter. You will sleep better and you will feel better.Go home every night and think ‘what am I going to do that isn’t slumping on the sofa?’ Does that make sense for everyone?”

Delegate: “I work here full time and I have three children. When I finish work I go straight home and do the housework and feed my children and my husband. It’s at least half past eight when I finish. I’m tired because I am tired, not because I have a list of things I need to do. I always have a list of things to do, but it is what I’ve already done that makes me tired. I want to slump in front of the TV, I’m entitled to slump in front of the TV – and yet you are telling me that I have to go and clear out my garage. That doesn’t make any sense. I need rest and to be trusted that I know when I’ve got enough energy to clean my own garage. People like you don’t understand what I have going on at all and since my life is quite a normal one, so I’m guessing you don’t know what it is like for most people in this room”.


If what comes out of your mouth hasn’t been stress tested against reality, then it shouldn’t come out of your mouth. 

An Intrigue of Books on Leadership & Business

An Intrigue of Books on Leadership & Business

I was asked twice in 48 hours for which books I’d recommend people read about leadership. That’s an interesting question for me because I think leadership is both simpler and more complex than it is often portrayed. It’s simpler because there are only so many ways you can repackage the general traits required to lead well in a situation – and more complex because leadership is about the impact on the other person too. You never get to decide if you led well, the people around you get to determine that.

So to meet that request I’ve listed some of the books that I have come across during my career that appreciate leadership is simple, and also listed the books that helped me understand that people are complex. I’ve tried to choose an arc of books that represent a number of years and they are in no way all ‘business books’. I’ve written about some of them before so I’ve tried to link to those pieces as I go.

The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter

I found a copy of this book in my grandfather’s things after he passed away. It was probably the first business book I ever read and it simply hasn’t aged. Think of this book as the original Dilbert. Examining the concept of hierarchology the book concludes that ‘In every hierarchy an individual will be promoted until they reach a level of incompetence’. If you would like to know how to keep enjoying your work by avoiding promotion (and final placement syndrome) then read this book. If you read the book and you’ve met me you’ll recognise I employ a number of the strategies. Hint: I haven’t claimed my expenses yet.

Execution by Larry Bossidy

I almost put in ‘Straight from the Gut’ by Jack Welch, but I genuinely believe that Execution by Bossidy is more practical and less testosterone fulled than the classic Welch book. It is the only book I’ve read with a genuinely accessible and sensible section on how to set stretch goals and business targets and is worth a read just for that.

Lead with Luv by Ken Blanchard

A wonderful summary of the culture and ways of working of SouthWest Airlines featuring their often cloned ‘triple bottom line’ of customer/shareholder/colleague. Rather than choosing one prime group to serve they commit to the idea that if they look after their people and customers they are looking after the commercials. It is a short and accessible read and outlines a brilliant culture that hasn’t required a slide to be built in the office.

The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb

There simply isn’t a better book on real world project management available. My very first blog was on the fact that, at the start of the project, the plan to turn Jaws from a book to a film was to train a Great White Shark to do stunts. This is a book that talks about how you get from a position where people think you can train a Great White to swim through hoops to releasing one of the most successful movies of all time. It’s an incredible journey and you can’t help but learn from every page about planning, people and inventiveness.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’ve written before about role models and Atticus Finch makes my list, along with with my absolute moral compass that is George Bailey. Leadership is sometimes about listening, sometimes about reflecting and sometimes about being steadfast. There are few figures that achieve that combination as romantically yet plausibly as Atticus Finch and remember that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Freakonomics by Levitt/Dubner

Freaknomics was at the vanguard of a host of books on behavioral economics that could have made my list. Homo Economicus is the construct used in more traditional economics to say ‘what would a rational man do?’. Modern behavioural economics ignores this and asks ‘what do people actually do and why?’. Leadership is about understanding what people actually do and why. Freakonomics will teach you about the world as it is – never a bad thing. The books go slightly downhill after the first one – Dan Ariely produces more consistent content as does Tim Harford, but Freakonomics is a good place to start.

First, Break all the Rules by Marcus Buckingham

In a previous life I was an expert (whatever that means) in employee engagement. This book was based on a great data set and even now, as it ages, still has a couple of principles at its heart that organisations would benefit from embracing more fully. These are i) a focus on output rather than process and ii) a focus on enabling rather than control. Buckingham’s work got slightly more ‘one note’ after this, but I’m still of a view that this is a relevant and worthwhile book on how to think about what matters in supporting and stretching team and organisational performance.

The Prince by Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian has come to be regarded as a ‘bad thing’. The Prince was actually a pretty practical ‘how to’ guide to lead in difficult times and navigate the world’s inevitable politics. These days it would appear in HBR as the ‘Top 10 things you need to know about running a City State’ piece. The ability to think in a clinical and crticial fashion to solve problems is as important now as it was then. Well, in all honesty it is slightly less so now – unless you are running a vulnerable city state under threat from an ambitious papacy – but you get the general point. The observiations hold largely true, like this on ambition…

“The wish to acquire more is admittedly a very natural and common thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than condemned. But when they lack the ability to do so and yet want to acquire more at all costs, they deserve condemnation for their mistakes.”

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian/The Age of Alexander by Plutarch

Simon Sinek refers to ‘leaders eating last’ and cites the example of the US Military. Alexander The Great did it well before then, in the Bactrian desert in 329 BC. Tutored by Aristole, King of Macedonia by the age of 20, undefeated in battle, Alexander created an empire that spanned Greece, Egypt and India. Yet he was dead by 32, leaving behind an legacy of disarray, chaos and violence that is one of the most sobering lessons in succession planning that could be imagined. If you ever want to see the incredible things that the will and charisma of an individual can achieve then read about Alexander. If you ever want to reflect on how damaging a world revolving around the will and charisma of an individual can be then read about Alexander.    

Understanding Organisations by Charles Handy

Charlies Handy is very wise and is not really keen to pose for selfies. That’s probably all you need to know.

I also considered the following and if you are looking for ‘standards’ these may be of more use….

  • Straight from the Gut – Jack Welch
  • 21st Century Leadership – Trompenaars
  • The Dilbert Principle – Scott Adams
  • The Invisbile Gorilla – Chabris
  • Lateral Thinking for Management – De Bono
  • Helping – Schein
  • Funky Business Forever – Ridderstrale & Nordstrum
  • Business Exposed – Vermeulen
  • The Checklist Manifesto – Gawande
  • Outliers – Gladwell
  • On Leadership – Leighton
  • The Carrot Principle – Elton
  • From Good to Great – Tom Peters
  • Leadership Lessons from The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari (really…) – Sharma
  • Social Intelligence – Goleman

Feedback, Gullibility and The Barnum Statements problem

Feedback, Gullibility and The Barnum Statements problem

A new colleague told me last week that the first time that we met I was a complete jerk. They obviously didn’t use the word ‘jerk’, but I sounded ‘jerkish’. It hurt . Aside from the obvious professional concerns some of the things they were describing were things I would hate to have associated with me as a human being. I went away crestfallen, regretful and with my head buzzing full of conflicting sentiments

  • It might have been a one off
  • What if everyone thinks like that?
  • What if not everyone thinks like that – but quite a few do?
  • How many is too many people thinking you are a jerk?
  • Would ‘too many’ be a percentage or a number?
  • What if it is a part of my character that I can’t change?
  • What parts are those?
  • Who do I trust enough to tell me if it is true?

I spent the entire week worrying about it. At times I was sitting down to meetings feeling uncomfortably unsure of myself.

When we talked again this week I asked them again about what I had done and how I had acted.They said that they had met me last year at an event – but when they named the event it turned out that I hadn’t even attended it. It turned out the were thinking about someone else entirely. Moving past the fact that it seems odd George Clooney was attending an HR conference (we often get confused) it shows how unreliable feedback can be.

I still feel like I’ve been a jerk because I’ve spent all week convinced that I had been. In fact I’ve got some things that I’ll do differently even though the feedback turned out to be false. In fact I now have a pretty good mental list of times that I might have acted like a jerk. Which is useful.

My experience of watching people respond to feedback through the years is that truthful feedback is less important to a successful outcome than their desire to respond to feedback. To put it another way – give a person who wants to improve suggestions of things that they can improve and they will. Give someone less committed the complete truth and they will rationalise it away.

Barnum Statements are descriptions that seem tailored for an individual, but actually are generic enough to apply to almost anyone. You could give a set of leaders the same feedback and tell them it was their 360 and they would believe it and act on it.

Try this as your feedback and see how you get on.

  • Sometimes it seems like you spend time on the wrong priorities
  • Occasionally I don’t think you appreciate your impact on others
  • It’s clear sometimes that you are more enthusiastic towards some projects than others
  • You have a tendency to be too critical of yourself
  • I think sometimes you push yourself too hard
  • You have potential to have an even better career
  • I sometimes think you aren’t as confident as you seem to come across
  • I’ve seen some really strong leadership from you and I’d like to see more
  • It seems you like a degree of change, but become less happy when you feel boxed in
  • I’m not sure we always see the real you at work
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic
  • I really find we get on better when you are at your most relaxed
  • I think you are generally a really strong contributor and you know the areas you need to work on

Some examples are from me, some from the original study by Forer. I’m guessing some of the above rang true for most people. it’s worth noting that later research indicated you are more likely to believe this if

  1. you believe the results are specifically about you
  2. if there is a balance of positive and negative examples
  3. if you believe it is from a credible source

Think 360 feedback or the last psychometrics you took and the qualified person giving you feedback.

Feedback – the least important thing is the possibly the truth..