Create an Environment of Trust

A few years ago, as an IT Manager, I was sitting at my computer when an email came in from one of my team members. As it flashed up on the screen, the subject caught my eye: “I stuffed up. I mean, really stuffed up. I am so sorry”

When I opened the email, it transpired that the team member had been doing some work on a production computer system and had hit a wrong button, causing the system to become unavailable to our users. IT outages are never welcome, and explanations are always in demand. This was not a good position for this team member to be in; no one likes a non-working IT system.

The team member was well aware of the potential ramifications, but instead of hiding his mistake, he had sent an email his peers and to myself (as his manager, and the person who would have to justify and explain the outage to our management and clients). He explained exactly what he had done, and how he planned to recover from it. He also went on to suggest the possible punishments for which he felt he might be worthy.

When I looked at the email, I wasn’t excited about what this meant. Explaining system outages is never nice, and system outages caused by human error often result in people wanting blood. I stopped and read the email a few times over the next couple of minutes, while I thought of how to respond constructively. I tried to think of the positives that I could use to create something useful from this situation. There was only one positive that I could think of: a member of my team had felt completely safe in confessing to his manager and his peers that he had made a genuine mistake that had resulted in a significant impact to clients. There was a huge risk for him in making this confession; everyone knows someone who has been severely reprimanded or even lost their job as the result of an unauthorised IT change and nobody wants to be that person. Even with that knowledge, he had confessed.

With this in mind, I opted to reply all to his email with: “Thank you so much for your honesty. What do you need from me in order for us to resolve this quickly?” As I replied, replies from team members also started to come in. Some of them had a laugh at his expense; all of them offered him help, support and advice.

Once service was restored, I sat down with him to establish exactly what happened. Between us, we came up with an explanation that was truthful but would not result in too much damage for him or the team. I am not in any way suggesting that we covered the real story up; we were honest. I am also not suggesting that we took this lightly; we all knew that this wasn’t something that could be repeated in a hurry.

It felt amazing to be a part of a team where people felt safe in telling the truth. Had this team member not been honest, we may have wasted time investigating the issue when we could have been resolving it. It also felt amazing to be a part of a team who supported someone who took a risk in telling us the truth, because it most likely meant that other team members would feel safe in doing the same.

Wherever we employ humans, we will always run the risk of human error. However, how we deal with human error as leaders will determine how our teams deal with their errors.

What are some ways in which you encourage openness and honesty in your teams?






Leadership roles can be tough. There is a lot of literature available, but I often feel as though learning from someone else’s practical experience would be more useful to me than the theory that I have read in many leadership books, especially in the early days of my leadership journey.

Throughout the years, I have had some great experiences in leadership roles, and I have had some less than great experiences. I have tried my best to learn from all experiences. This blog is about sharing those lessons. Some of it will be about leadership, some of it will be about personal growth. I hope that all of it, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it, will provide you with something to reflect on and from which your own learning can benefit.

I would also love the opportunity to learn from your experiences, so please feel free to leave your thoughts as comments; I would love to read them.

Extraordinary Leadership

When we think of great leadership, we tend to think of qualities such as compassion, flexibility, understanding, honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, respect, integrity, trust in others, strength, and so the list goes on. But is great leadership really about possessing all of these qualities? Can one person be all of the above? What makes an extraordinary leader?

If leadership is defined as the creation of change, then a leader is someone who is working to move on from the status quo; someone who is working to “create a new future”. How would an extraordinary leader create a new future?

The book The Three Laws of Performance : Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan talks about how situations occur differently to different people. That is, how a situation occurs to one team member may be different to how it occurs to another team member, which may be different again to how that same situation occurs to a senior leader in an organisation. The first law that Zaffron and Logan refer to states that “How people perform correlates to how the situation occurs to them”. So, changing how the situation occurs to people will change their performance and changing their performance would then have an impact on the future that the leader is trying to achieve.

Assume that an organisation is going down the path of losing a key client. Teams aren’t delivering what the client expects them to deliver, and processes that the organisation is contractually obliged to follow aren’t being followed. To a team in the organisation, this may be occurring as though the senior leadership team is not prepared to support their teams by fixing broken processes. To a senior leader in the organisation, this may be occurring as though the team is recalcitrant because they were failing to follow processes that, to them, are in place and working well. The senior leadership team may want to change the future so that they don’t lose client. Based on the way the situation is occurring to them, they may order the team to start following process and threaten repercussions if they don’t. After all, from their perspective, the team is being recalcitrant.

In this situation, the way in which the situation is occurring to the team would be reinforced, providing the team with more “evidence” that the senior leadership team is not supporting them in fixing process. The best that could be expected would be that the team would continue to perform as they were previously. The organisation would still be on the path to losing the client.

What would have happened if the senior leadership team had tried to understand how the situation was occurring to those involved, and then worked to show the team that they were willing to address the process issues? Would this have changed the way in which the situation was occurring to the team? It most likely would have, and, with the situation occurring differently to the team, everyone would have been better placed to work together on effecting the change – ie maintaining the client.

Understanding that situations occur differently to individuals requires awareness. If a leader has no awareness of how a situation is occurring to the people around them, and no awareness of the impact that their behaviours are having on those people’s interpretation of the situation, how can they confidently and competently move towards changing the default future? The above example suggests that they can’t.

What about all of the other qualities that we normally attribute to great leadership; the qualities that were mentioned at the beginning of this post? Although each of these qualities is important, they would not have been enough without awareness. Having a level of awareness that is sufficient enough to call upon these qualities as required would be more effective. Additionally, a leader who is aware enough of their own limitations would also know when they have to call upon these qualities from other resources. For example, the leader may not need to have a strength in compassion; knowing that compassion is required in a situation and knowing where to call upon in order to be in a position to apply compassion may be enough.

Extraordinary leadership, I believe, is about extraordinary awareness.

What are your thoughts on extraordinary leadership? Have you ever had an extraordinary leader? It would be wonderful to read your thoughts in the comments below.

Giving Feedback

Feedback is the breakfast of champions

Ken Blanchard

Many years ago, I worked for an organisation where the CEO was rumoured to have the quote “Feedback is the food of champions” on his office wall. I never went into his office, so I am unable to confirm whether the rumour was true. However, this quote became one of my favourites, because I honestly believe that the feedback that we provide to others can have amazing results if delivered appropriately.

Most of us like to hear when we are doing well. However, feedback is more than that. Feedback is about identifying the opportunities for improvement and things that aren’t going so well, in addition to the good, great and awesome stuff. And, in my assessment, not only do we owe it to the people working for, with and around us to give them both negative and positive feedback, but we also owe it to them to give it to them promptly and respectfully.

I think that the majority of us find positive feedback the easiest feedback to give; it is not hard to tell someone that they are awesome, or that that their efforts have made a difference to us. Sometimes, it might even be too easy to provide positive feedback to someone. For this reason, I like to ask myself whether the feedback that I am going to give is genuine. If I don’t think that I am being genuine then I don’t say it. I want people to know that I mean it when I provide feedback; I want to be genuine and authentic. This is important for my own ethics and integrity, but it is also important to me for another reason – I want people to know that they can trust me. I also don’t want to tell someone that they are great at something if it means that I will have to ask them to improve that same thing in future.

When I provide positive feedback, I try to explain what it was about the person’s actions that helped me, what outcome they helped to provide, and why I appreciated their efforts.

Giving negative feedback can be rather scary. However, I believe that providing people with opportunities for development is equally, if not more, important than providing them with positive feedback. It is these opportunities that help people to grow.

When I first became a manager, I remember avoiding providing negative feedback like the plague. I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and was worried about what they might think. I also probably tended to question my judgement – what if I was about to give them negative feedback for something that I had totally misinterpreted? My answer to this question, with the benefit of experience behind me, is to always have the conversation; don’t let it be missing. If you think there is an issue with the way in which someone is behaving or performing, talk to them about it, and do it promptly. Give them a chance to respond, so that you can try to understand it from their point of view, but have the conversation. In my opinion, there is not a lot worse than thinking that we are doing a great job, and finding out that someone is too scared to tell us that we are not. It doesn’t provide us with an opportunity for growth, and it is unfair to everyone involved.

So how do we provide less-than-positive feedback? There is no easy way to do this. Some people like “the feedback sandwich” – some positive feedback, the negative and then another positive. I tend to tailor my approach to suit the situation. I like the feedback sandwich in performance appraisals, but I don’t like it so much if I have a specific issue to deal with. I do, however,  have a few rules that I try to stick to:

  • Remove emotion and ego from the discussion. The discussion is about the outcome that you are trying to achieve and the behaviour that you would like to see improved;
  • Follow up on negative behaviour promptly; don’t hold off on having the conversation;
  • Be very clear about what the issue is, how you would like to see it improved, and what outcome you are after. Provide examples of the behaviour that you are seeing;
  • Try to explain how the behaviour currently impacts you/the organisation/other people/etc, and how the preferred behaviour would improve this. Provide examples of what you would like to see.
  • Ask the person for their thoughts on the issue, and what they need from you in order to achieve the change.
  • Always be respectful. Providing negative feedback is not about accusing, berating or belittling the individual; it is about working with the individual with a view of getting the best outcome for the individual and the organisation.
  • Give the individual the right of reply, and address any of their concerns or questions.

It is important when providing negative feedback that the individual is given something to work with – the aim of providing them with feedback is to set them up for a win. As an example, a colleague once told me that I was “too gentle” with my staff. But what does this mean? What was the impact of me being “too gentle”? Why was it an issue for this colleague? Was it just that he generally had a tougher approach than I did and wanted me to be tough too (in which case, I would probably choose the approach that got the best results for me), or was it that deliverables weren’t being met because of my approach (in which case changing it in some way was probably best)? Without understanding the impact, I didn’t know what to change; I didn’t know what success would be. When given without additional information and examples, the feedback was really nothing more than a throwaway statement. Whilst I may have sought to understand what my colleague was saying so that I could use his feedback constructively, it is fair to assume that most people would just ignore the attempt at feedback and move on if the issue and requirements were not clear. Although this is understandable, it isn’t really what we are aiming for. We want the person to take the feedback on board, and we want them to use that feedback to deliver the best outcome.

I mentioned that respect is important. In my opinion, it is essential. The objective is to achieve the best outcome for the individual and the organisation. Creating an environment where the individual feels disrespected or belittled, is not conducive to that (in my opinion).

How do you provide feedback to others? Is there something that you would like to change about this? Do you have a tried and true method that works for you?

What is Leadership?

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly easy question to answer, but is it really? If I wanted to set myself the goal of being a “good leader” or a “great leader” or even an “extraordinary leader”, what standard would I be measuring myself against? What base would I be building on to go from being a leader to being a good, great or extraordinary leader? What base is someone else using if they assess me as a bad leader?

Recently, a colleague and I were discussing leadership and, in particular, what leadership meant to us. I have some fairly strong opinions about leadership, so when my colleague asked “What do you think a leader is?” my immediate thought was “Oh, that’s easy!” Except, when I went to answer the question, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t so easy. All I had were clichés, leadership quotes that no longer seemed relevant, and a list of personal qualities that I felt were essential for a good leader. I could not produce a description of what a leader actually is.

I had just uncovered a huge gap.  Here I was, placing pressure on myself to become an extraordinary leader, but I didn’t even have a consistent, solid definition of what a leader (good, bad or otherwise) was meant to be. After some further reading, I formed the assessment that this gap is not unique to me, and that there are a lot of people out in the world striving to be good leaders, but with no real definition of what leadership is. As a process driven person, I couldn’t help thinking – isn’t that like knitting a jumper without knowing what knitting is? And if you don’t know what knitting is, how do you measure success? Is a jumper full of holes still success? Could a jumper full of holes be considered success to some people but not to others?

My exploration of leadership had led to me deciding that my current thoughts, knowledge and perceptions surrounding leadership were no longer enough for me. My aim has always been to pursue and achieve leadership greatness, and I was starting to understand that this wouldn’t happen without some further exploration and effort on my part. It was also highly possibly that this exploration was going to result in me wanting to change my approach to leadership.

So, where to start? Good question…

My colleague suggested that one view is that leaders create change and managers maintain the status quo. So, someone delivering a service, exactly as it has always been delivered, with no efforts to change anything, would be a manager. Someone looking to change an aspect of how that service is delivered, or an outcome of that service delivery, would be a leader.

To be honest, I wasn’t so sure of this explanation, probably because I generally see myself as someone who is not a fan of change. In my mind, I was never going to walk into an organisation and create huge change, so why should that discount me as a leader? My colleague then explained that even me trying to prepare for a client meeting with a view of changing the (expected) outcome of that meeting to something new was an example of leadership. Ok so maybe he was on to something, but I was still hesitant.

I started to think of all of the leaders I had experienced – good and not so good. All of these people had all been trying to create change of some description. Some were trying to create change at an organizational level, some were trying to create change at individual levels. All, however, were trying to create change. Similarly, the people who I had previously considered as managers were all maintaining the status quo.

So, I think I like the explanation that leaders create change and managers maintain the status quo. But is it really that simple? What about all of the qualities that we throw around when we are talking about leadership, such as compassion, integrity, awareness, support, collaboration, and so forth? Do these still apply when considered in conjunction with this definition? I think that they do, and I am wondering whether perhaps they become even more important when taken in this context. For a leader to create change, there is potentially a need to understand the perceptions and points of view of the people involved, and how those perceptions could impact the required change. There may be a further requirement to work towards addressing those perceptions. I think that this is where all of the standard leadership qualities that we talk about come into play – without awareness, compassion, etc, the outcome could be very different.

When I was working to change the outcome of the client meeting that I mentioned earlier in this post, I was looking at what position the client would be coming from, what their perception was, and what assessments they had made about myself and the organisation. Understanding why they held these assessments and understanding what reality meant to them meant that I could then find a way of communicating with them that would potentially provide the change in outcome that I was after.  Alternatively, I could have just pushed forward trying to change the outcome of the meeting without understanding any of the above. I may have got to a desirable outcome, but I most likely would not have. Instead, I may have caused irreparable damage to the relationship with this client by going into the meeting with only the outcome in mind and no awareness of what this meant for the client. My assessment is that this is why the qualities that we associate with leadership, such as awareness, compassion, collaboration, ownership, accountability, responsibility, authenticity, etc, are so important. These qualities impact how we create the change. It is how we go about creating that change that defines us as leaders, and it is from here that we then start to assess people as good, bad, great or extraordinary leaders.

So that’s it – the result of my leadership exploration so far.

Where to from here? Well, for me, I think I will throw away my clichéd leadership quotes and start focusing on the changes that I am creating as a leader in my organisation. And, whilst doing that, I am going to commence an exploration of what it means to be an extraordinary leader. Now that I have my own interpretation of what leadership is, I am quite excited about working out how I can create something extraordinary.

How would you define leadership? What makes a “good” leader? What makes a “bad” leader? Please feel free to share your thoughts if you would like to.

Let the People do their Job

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.

George S. Patton 

Have you ever been in a situation where you have been trying to carry out a task, and a manager (or someone else) has started to dictate how to do it, even though the task may fall squarely within your expertise and role description? How did that make you feel? What did you do? What was the outcome?

A number of years ago, I worked in a team of technical professionals. We had a very new manager in charge of one of the accounts that we were supporting. Invariably, he would question how the team was trying to achieve its goals, insist that all technical solutions be implemented his way, escalate to (global) management if we didn’t do it his way, and over-ride all technical advice that we provided to the client. This was done in forums where the client had visibility of our organisation, so the team often felt attacked in front of the client.

The team had a defined set of standards to follow. There was “best practice” to consider, as well as ensuring that commercial protection was provided to our organisation and the client. This manager did not take any of that into consideration when instructing people to do it his way. He appeared to operate on the assumption that he knew best. As a result, he used this knowledge to order people around.

When people succumbed to taking his orders, results were produced that did not have the best long term impact on our client or our organisation. This then resulted in the same manager taking the team to task over the outcome and further telling them how to do the next step in the process.

Not listening to him and following the set standards and procedures resulted in him questioning (and sometimes berating) the team in front of the client and global leadership. The team also felt under-valued, not listened to, and disrespected. Some of these people had been subject matter experts in their field for years and were very well-respected professionals. In my assessment, this manager was neither understanding that nor using it to his advantage.

My learning from this particular situation was – don’t tell the people how to do their job. If you have employed people for their specialist skill set, let them use those skills to surprise you with the results. Trust them, develop them, and empower them to give them the outcomes that you require. Ask yourself whether the “how” is important. If it is, explain that to the team; tell them why it is important, and let them complete the task. If it isn’t, then is there any harm in trusting the experts?

I really like the quote at the beginning of this post, but I would probably change it slightly – I would say “…tell them what you are aiming to achieve, and let them surprise you with the results”. The team will require an understanding of the outcome that is required. They will need to understand any restrictions and caveats, and they will need to understand priorities, etc.

In most cases, people will be able to work out what steps to take and how to take those steps. And, if they can’t, then are you providing an environment in which they feel comfortable asking for help? If they do ask for help, remember again that the best approach may not be to tell them what to do next or how to do it. Perhaps a more useful approach is to coach them to an appropriate solution and to ensure that you can provide them with the additional resourcing, tools or process required to complete the task.

How do you use your people to achieve outcomes? How is that working for you? What could you improve?

It’s not Personal

Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don Miguel Ruiz

When I was new to leadership positions, one of the challenges that I found incredibly difficult to overcome was that I often took things too personally. I was keen to do my job well, and my fear of failure meant that I was terrified of “doing the wrong thing”. When outcomes weren’t as expected, or people provided negative feedback – constructive or otherwise – it was very hard not to take it personally, because it hit upon my innermost fears and insecurities. It hurt my ego.

As you can imagine, this impacted some of my decision making, because my decisions were made from a base of emotion. The result was that my decisions did not always serve me well, and outcomes were not always as expected.

So how did I change this?

I have used a number of techniques to assist me in taking things less personally. When I first decided that this was something that I would like to change about myself, I didn’t know about Emotional Intelligence or “Way of Being” or mindfulness, or any of the concepts and practices that are very popular today. All I knew was that I wanted to find a way to take things less personally.

My first approach, based purely on what I thought might work,  and not on any theory whatsoever, was to become an observer in situations where there was a high chance of me taking something personally. For example, if someone was providing negative feedback, I would visualise myself standing outside of the conversation, watching someone providing negative feedback to someone who just happened to be like me. Then, as the observer, I would try to objectively establish whether the feedback was justified, and I would use this to determine an appropriate response. This approach worked well for me.

Some time later, I started to learn about emotional intelligence and emotional quotient. This enabled me to further develop my skills and approach.

One tool that has helped me in recent years is to understand the difference between assessments and assertions. Assertions are statements that are supported by fact and can be right or wrong – for example “the sky is blue”, “Mary is a doctor”. An assessment is basically an opinion. It is based on the evidence that we have available to us but, unlike an assertion, society has no rules or standards that can be applied to make it right or wrong. For example, “Mary is a good doctor”, “Mary is an excellent doctor” or “Mary is a bad doctor”. We can try to ground an assessment by looking at the evidence that we have available to us. It still won’t make the assessment right or wrong, but it helps us to further understand the basis of the assessment. For example, I may have had a number of experiences where Mary the doctor misdiagnosed me, or gave me medication that didn’t help. Examining this evidence may help to ground my assessment that Mary is a bad doctor. Someone else may be amazed that Mary was able to diagnose their “head cold” as pneumonia, enabling them to be treated before becoming terribly ill. Examining this evidence may help them to ground their assessment that Mary is an excellent doctor. So, two very different assessments, but both with evidence that seems to ground them.

So, why does understanding assessments and assertions help to not take things personally? Well, I found that this helped me in many ways. Firstly, understanding that an assessment is basically an opinion with no right or wrong helped me to take the focus off right and wrong. If there is no right or wrong, then I don’t need to judge myself so harshly if someone else’s opinion differs to mine. Additionally, if there is no right or wrong,  then it is perfectly reasonable that my own assessments also carry validity, even if they are different to the assessments made by others. It also helped me to understand that different people may all assess a situation differently and, based on their interpretation of a situation, they may even be able to ground their different assessments against the evidence that they each have.

So, if someone is giving me negative feedback, I try to look at what evidence they used to make that assessment. If I feel the assessment is grounded, I can then accept that and make a choice to change my behaviour to support the assessments that I would like them to make. If I don’t feel that the assessment is grounded, then I can accept that and respond appropriately. Ultimately, the benefit to me is that I am taking my ego out of the equation because I understand that an opinion is an assessment and I know that there is no right or wrong to measure myself against.

Do you take things too personally? What might you be able to achieve if you take things less personally?

Note: Assessments and assertions have really helped me with much of my learning. If you feel that they would be of benefit to you, you might like to visit this link.