Monday, 14 December 2009

"The True Spirit of Christmas"

With Christmas just around the corner, and all my children away from home, my thoughts this week went back to the Nativity plays that we used to go to when they were at primary school.

I remember in particular one year when my youngest son played one of the Three Wise Men. He was only 6 and was supposed to hand over his gift of frankincense, a beautiful box made from a cereal packet that my wife had spent all night decorating.

He loved that box so much that when his turn came to hand it over to the baby Jesus, he wouldn't part with it. We, along with the whole audience, held our breath as he stood there unmoved. One of the teachers went up to him, spoke quietly in his ear, but he just shook his head defiantly. The teacher spoke to him again and this time he looked up to her as if to say, "Will that be alright then?", and then reached into his pocket and gave baby Jesus a bag of marbles.

I often remember his little gift when I watch the frenzy of gift-buying at Christmas. Every year, I wonder how much more meaningful it would be if, instead of giving shop-bought and Internet-bought gifts running into hundreds of pounds, we simply gave our friends and loved ones something uniquely of ourselves.

Paulo Coelho re-tells an Austrian legend about the Buckhard family, a man, woman, and boy, who used to amuse people at Christmas by reciting poetry, singing troubadour ballads, and juggling.

When the boy grew up, he told his parents that he wanted to take his first step to do what he had always dreamed of and become a priest.

Although they were poor, and hated to see him go, the family respected his wish and allowed him to enter the monastery at Melk.

That Christmas, a special miracle happened at Melk when Our Lady and the baby Jesus descended to earth to visit the monastery.

All the priests lined up to pay homage to the Madonna and her son. One priest brought a beautiful painting, another presented a hand-written Bible, and another recited the names of all the saints.

At the end of the line, young Buckhard waited his turn, with no gift to bring.

Finally, when his turn came, the young man stood before the Virgin and child. Feeling ashamed before the reproachful looks of the other priests, he reached into his pocket, took out some oranges and began to toss them into the air and catch them with his hands, just as he and his family used to do when they travelled to all the fairs in the region.

At that instant, the baby Jesus, lying in his mother's lap, clapped his hands with joy. And it was to young Buckhard that the Virgin held out her arms to let him hold the smiling child for a few moments.

This Christmas, whether you are struggling in the recession with no job and no money, or sipping champagne as you count your end-of-year bonus, I hope the most appreciated gift you give to others is the gift of yourself.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

"Turn Your Customers into Loyal Fans"

The other day I had a really nice email from a customer who wanted to thank me for the products they had bought.

As I started reading the email, I thought, "hey, that's kind of nice" but then, when they ended their email with the words, "I just love your stuff!", I thought, "Wow, that's amazing!"

That was when I knew that this person was a bit more than a customer and even a bit more than a regular. They were a Fan!

On our Customer Care courses at ManageTrainLearn, we train people to distinguish between 4 levels of customer service.

At the lowest level, there is customer satisfaction, which means making sure that the product or service you deliver to the customer does everything it's supposed to. This level is not much above the legal requirement of normal day-to-day trade and requires little extra effort on your part.

At the next level up, there is customer care, which suggests doing something a bit extra for your customer, such as making sure they get what they want, can get the best out of it, and hopefully will come back to you again in the future. You can do this by paying attention to good customer care policies and procedures such as guarantees, returns, and complaint resolutions.

At the third level up, there is customer delight. This is where we enter new territory. For delight means a mixture of joy and surprise. This happens when the experience that your customer has simply overwhelms them. It's not likely they will react this way to your policies. It is more likely they will react this way to the way they are treated by you and your team.

At the top level of our customer pyramid comes customer loyalty, the domain of the Fan. When customers love what you do so much that it goes beyond caring, policies, and one-off experiences, you know you've got a friend for life.

So, how do you turn your customers into fans? By doing the following 3 things:

1. Love What You Do. When you love what you do, your customers don't just get a great product or service, they pick up on a powerful energy as well. They see the "you" behind the product and service and that's what they buy into.

2. Put Your Heart and Soul Into It. What your fans want from you is the real authentic you. Even when a new product or change in service doesn't come up to scratch, and maybe even disappoints, your customer fans won't leave you. They'll stick around knowing that the next time, things will be back on track.

3. Give Them Value. A customer doesn't become a fan of yours if you simply see them as a source of revenue and profit. When what you deliver exceeds what they pay at the till, and even goes way beyond, then you'll have a paid-up member of your fan club.

What's great about having fans rather than customers is that you don't need to sell or market to them. They're even likely to be ahead of you eagerly awaiting your next product or service before you've even created it. And for one simple reason.

Because they "just love what you do".

Sunday, 29 November 2009

"The Point Is To Labour"

This last year has seen the spotlight on organisational values as never before. Particularly, but not exclusively, here in the UK.

First, we discovered that our big banks were no longer true to the values of thrift, prudence, and good housekeeping.

Then we found out that some of our top bankers cared more about the value of feathering their own nest than looking after their customers' cash.

And finally we saw how some of our politicians paid more attention to the value of personal profit than public service.

The resulting debate over values only serves to underline Alvin Toffler's quote that "every organisation has a values system and it is at least as important as, if not more important than, its accounting system and authority system."

Leadership expert John Maxwell says that values are an organisation's glue, compass, and identity. They are the glue because they knit everyone together. They are the compass because they give the guide to where people need to go. And they are the identity because they are what the organisation stands for.

When Unilever talk about the value of co-operation, and Mars talk about the value of efficiency, and IBM talk about the value of innovation, they're really saying "this is what matters to us, to our customers, and to those who work here." They are, quite simply, non-negotiable.

My favourite story about the value of values comes from Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who founded the Mission of Charity in Kolkata in 1950 and worked tirelessly for the poor, the sick and the dying until her death in 1997.

The story is that a woman from America decided to go and work for Mother Teresa in her Kolkata refuge. The woman was married to a rich businessman and an accomplished fixer in her own right. She thought that her skills could make a real difference to Mother Teresa's work and at the same time bring her some enrichment and enlightenment.

When she arrived at the refuge, she saw the nuns on their knees cleaning the floors with old cloths. A month after observing the harsh conditions, she went to Mother Teresa and said, "Mother, I have noticed how hard you all work. I have a lot of connections back in the States and I can get you everything you need to clean this place. Brooms. Mops. Cleaning machines. And it won't cost you a penny."

"Cleaning machines?" replied Mother Teresa.

"Yes," replied the woman, "they'll save you time and labour."

"Labour-saving devices?" replied Mother Teresa. "But, my dear, the point is to labour," and, with that, she smiled and walked away.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

"The Ultimate Triumph of Theory Y"

Can you remember your first training model?

I don't mean that dishy graduate from the IT training team or that handsome hunk from the consultancy.

I mean a theory of how people behave and relate in organisations.

I can.

It was Theory X and Y and it was nearly 35 years ago.

At the time, as a junior manager in a big food company, my introduction to Douglas McGregor's theory of human motivation hit me like a thunderbolt from the blue.

I can still recall the flipchart where my trainer drew a vertical line down the paper and on one side, under "Theory X", wrote that "people are lazy, will only work for money, and do no more than they have to".

And then, on the other side, to my growing fascination, wrote under "Theory Y" that "people want to learn, want to grow, and want to become something."

Looking back, I guess that day changed everything I had assumed about people and work, changed how I wanted to manage them, and turned me into a devotee of personal development.

In short, it made me a fan of Theory Y.

Imagine then my shock and horror to discover that, far from having changed everyone else back in the 1970's into Theory Y advocates, Theory X is still alive and well and thriving in a bank near you.

I know this because of accounts of the management style of Sir Fred Goodwin, until last year chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the biggest banks in the world.

These accounts relate how every day during his tenure as chairman, Sir Fred would summon his top executives to his office at 9.30 prompt and grill them mercilessly about the shortcomings of any branch and its staff.

If any branch were under-performing, he would humiliate the poor executive responsible, using his favourite phrases, "I think you're asleep at the wheel" and "that's life in the big city, chum".

Sir Fred became known as Fred the Shred for his people-destroying management style. A Theory X manager incarnate.

I'm not glad that the Royal Bank of Scotland has crashed with huge debts and been bailed out by the taxpayer. Nor am I glad that in the year since its demise, thousands of hardworking bank staff have lost their jobs. And I'm certainly not glad that Sir Fred Goodwin jumped the ship in time by negotiating a massive pension for himself right at the moment in the mid-night hours when it looked as if the bank was about to run out of money for all its customers.

However, I am glad that, nearly 50 years after McGregor produced his theory, and 30-odd years after I discovered it, Theory Y has won the day.

Monday, 9 November 2009

"The 99 Club"

As some of you will know, I've spent the best part of this year re-decorating our house, following some major structural work two years ago.

We're now on the last lap and, although nearly every part of our re-design and re-decoration looks beautiful, I am sometimes irritated by a few niggling things that don't quite work.

These include the overlapping wallpaper edges in the living room, the border that's out by about 3 degrees in the study, and the carpet that doesn't quite match the wallpaper in one of the bedrooms.

Although these are miniscule matters compared with the overall effect, they still niggle me from time to time. And they would totally destroy the overall effect if it wasn't for my refusal to join the 99 Club.

If you don't know what the 99 Club is, then let me tell you.

There once was a king who, despite his wealth, was very unhappy.

One day, the king came across a servant who was happily singing at his work. The king demanded to know why he was singing.

"Sire," said the servant, "I know I am only a servant but I and my family have all we need to be happy. We have a roof over our heads, a nice home, and three healthy children. Why shouldn't I be happy?"

This reply troubled the rich but miserable king who called in his chief advisor to tell him what to do.

After hearing about the servant, the advisor told the king, "Sire, I think the solution is for your servant to join the 99 Club. Tonight, leave 99 gold coins in a bag at the servant's door and watch what happens."

The king did as he was told.

That night, when the servant came home, he saw the bag and took it into his house.

When he opened the bag and counted the 99 coins, he let out a great shout of joy.

But almost at once he wondered what had happened to the last gold coin, for surely nobody would leave just 99 coins instead of 100.

From that moment on, the servant's life changed. Feeling compelled to complete his fortune, he overworked, became grumpy at his loss, and felt incomplete. He soon stopped singing at his work.

The next time the king and his advisor saw the servant, the advisor smiled and said, "Your Majesty, your servant has now joined the 99 Club."

I love this story because it reflects how many of us feel, and are made to feel, about the things in our lives that are not perfect and, instead of rejoicing in the 99% that are complete and wonderful, focus on the 1% that is not.

Now, every time I see my overlapping wallpaper, my dodgy border, and my mis-matched carpet, I remember the 99 Club, smile to myself, and breathe a deep sigh of contentment.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

"Compliment the Thing, not the Person"

Paying compliments is an important way to build rapport with others, whether they are colleagues, customers, or casual contacts.

But there is a right way to do it; and a wrong way.

The wrong way is to pay a compliment as an excuse to suck up, smarm, and seduce. People usually see through such compliments and dismiss the compliment as meaningless and you as a fake.

The right way is, first, to mean it; secondly, to deliver it in a way that doesn't embarrass the other person; and, thirdly, to explain the effect it has on you and others.

One of the ways you can do this is to focus on a thing you admire about the other person, rather than on the person themselves. For example, "Jude, you're the best secretary in the world", might well be received with a disbelieving "yeah, yeah" and a roll of the eyes to heaven.

But, tell her, "Jude, Bill in Accounts told me that that report of yours really made him sit up and think", and you will be praising the report and, by association, your secretary too.

In "Business as a Game", Albert Carr relates the story of a speech given by a chief executive. The man was not an accomplished speaker and knew it. Nevertheless, shortly after he had sat down, he was approached by one of his department managers. "Mr Rossen, that was a terrific speech. A great performance. Churchill couldn't have done better!"

The chief replied amiably: "Thank you, Larry. Glad you liked it."

A few days later, another manager came up to the chief during lunch and said: "Mr Rossen, I've been thinking about what you said the other night. It's got me thinking about some changes we could make in our department. Would you mind if I sent you my thoughts?"

"Not at all, Bill," said the chief. "I'm glad the speech got you thinking."

It's not difficult to work out which compliment mattered most.

All of us love compliments. Few of us love flattery.

If you can deliver a compliment in a way that is honest, sincere, and focuses on the effect people have on others, then you will make people feel good, open them up and light up their day.

Monday, 26 October 2009

"It's About What Goes Out, Now What Comes In"

A recent survey by UK recruitment agency, Office Angels, says that 2 out of 5 people are regularly irritated by the people they work beside.

38% of those surveyed said that they had had to complain to their bosses about the behaviour of their colleagues, including too much talking, eating noisily, leaving desks untidy, and taking lunchtime workouts without showering afterwards.

This survey reminds me that few of us are lucky to work in great teams in every job we do. Some of us complain, some of us suffer in silence. A few turn the situation around.

A few years back, I took an interim consultancy position in a large organisation where I joined an established team. From day one, there was a noticeable atmosphere of suspicion. A few of the team were formally friendly, but others didn't exchange a word with me.

Although little bits of me were starting to hurt inside, I decided that, whatever the problems the individuals in the team were having, they were nothing to do with me, and that I should just practice 3 things that we teach on our Teambuilding courses at ManageTrainLearn.

1. Put the team first, even before yourself
2. Be a determined team sharer. Share information, ideas, thoughts and feelings with the rest of the team.
3. Ignore the little irritations that come your way and project a positive can-do and sunny disposition.

In the course of a few weeks, these 3 things changed the whole climate of the team towards me. By the time I left the assignment after 9 months, every single member of the team was not an irritant but a good and true friend.

The responsibility for making teams work isn't the boss's or the organisation's. It's yours. Despite what they say in the slogans, there is an "I" in "TEAMWORK" and it's you and what you give out to others.

One of my all-time favourite quotes comes from author Alan Cohen, who said: "We are hurt when we don't receive love. But that is not what hurts us. Our pain comes when we do not give love. We were born to love. You might say that we are divinely-created love machines. We function most powerfully when we are giving love. It's not about what comes back. It's about what goes out."

So, the next time one of your colleagues takes your pencil-sharpener and forgets to return it, don't get irritated. Buy them a new one, wrap it up, and give it to them as a present.

Monday, 19 October 2009

"The Vowels of Effective Communication"

"Ornery" isn't a word I use very often. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I'd never really used it at all. But this week, after a business prospect I'd been working with for a few months, failed to deliver on her promises, I really gave in to an ugly and unpleasant temper. I felt ornery.

My initial thought was to express my orneriness in a condemnatory email or phone call. It seemed like the natural thing to do. But a little voice in the back of my head told me to sleep on it and re-visit things in the morning.

That little voice in my head probably came from something we teach on our Communication courses at ManageTrainLearn. First off, don't communicate with anyone when your emotions, - and your orneriness, - are running high. And second, when you are calm and can communicate, don't think about getting others to understand your position and how you feel. Instead, do everything you can to understand their position and how they feel.

In "Chicken Soup for the Soul", Mark Victor Hansen relates Terry Dobson's story of the drunk on the Tokyo metro. This is a story of how Terry Dobson found himself on a late-night underground train in Tokyo confronted by a violent-looking drunk. Terry was in Japan studying martial arts and aikido. As the drunk got more threatening by the minute, he prepared himself to use one of the quick attacking moves that he had learnt in his studies.

At that moment, they both heard someone shout out, "Hey!" and turned round to see a tiny old Japanese gentleman sitting on a seat and beckoning to the drunk. "Come here and talk to me," he said.

The drunk ignored him so the old man asked, "What you been drinking?" with eyes sparkling with interest.

"Sake!" the drunk bellowed back, "and it's none of your business."

"Oh, that's wonderful," the old man said, "absolutely wonderful. You see, I love sake too. Every night my wife and I warm up a little bottle of sake and go and drink it under the persimmon trees in our garden."

The drunk's face began to soften. "I love persimmon trees."

"And I bet you have a lovely wife, too."

"No," replied the drunk. "My wife died. And then I lost my job. And my house." Very gently, almost like a child, the drunk began to sob as he related the story of his misfortune and loneliness to the old man.

By the time he left the train, the drunk had completely calmed down. Terry alighted from the train and sat on the station platform. He took a moment to think. "What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had seen aikido in action and the essence of it was love."

This approach to communicating can also be summed up in what we call the Five Vowels approach. The vowels are AEIOU and stand for:
A for Acceptance
E for Empathy
I for Interest
O for Openness, and
U for Understanding.

When I Skyped my prospect on the morning after my orneriness, I decided to put aikido and the Five Vowels into practice.

As a result, I now have a prospect with whom I have built understanding; a relationship that I can build on in the future; and, quite possibly, a friend for life.

Monday, 12 October 2009

"To Dream The Possible Dream"

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

When I was around 10, I dreamed of being a great journalist. When I was a teenager, of being a great writer. And when I left home, of gracing the acting boards at the Old Vic.

None of these dreams came true for me, (well, not yet anyway), but for most of our youngsters such dreams are still alive and kicking.

According to a recent survey, the top 3 dreams of today's youngsters are to be

1. a sports' star
2. a pop star
3. an actor or actress

This contrasts with the ambitions of their parents, who, 25 years ago, wanted most to be

1. a teacher
2. a banker
3. a doctor

Naturally, like me, the overwhelming majority of these children will be disappointed. They'll have neither the natural talent, determination, or luck to become top footballers, athletes, singers or film stars. And, like me, they will come to a day when they have to give up on their dreams.

When that day comes, although it can be filled with huge disappointment, it can also be filled with renewed hope. For as the impossible dream fades, the possible dream can take its place.

Martin Luther King knew this. Speaking to young people whose dreams may have been shattered by the reality of their situation, he said, "If a man is called on to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well."

In the film, "What a Wonderful Life", James Stewart, as George Bailey, aspires to conquer the world. He wants to see continents and do great deeds. But circumstances conspire to keep him in his little mid-West town where his deep-seated integrity and regard for his fellow human beings makes him a star without knowing it.

In truth, few of us can realistically expect to be a star to millions.

But, a star amongst our friends, our families, our customers, and our colleagues?

I think I'd settle for that.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

"Slay Your Nasty Jobs"

What's the nastiest nasty job lying around your office, you know those jobs that we know we have to do but just keep putting off?

If you're anything like me, it's likely to be a piece of paper with the words, "Tax Return" written on it.

Every year I get that form landing on my desk around May time and every year it's still there in January when the deadline looms.

I take some comfort in knowing I'm not alone. Apparently, more than a quarter of us admit to having nasty jobs lying around the office, jobs that we know we ought to do but just can't bring ourselves to complete.

There are both simple explanations why we do this and more complex reasons. The simple explanation is that we perceive nasty jobs as unpleasant so we just don't do them, especially if we can get away with leaving them for now by doing something else. The more complex reasons are to do with our personalities and personal experiences. The job is, or represents a pyschological block, possibly from way back in our past.

The odd things is, we all know that there is no logic in putting off nasty jobs. It is the worst kind of time management. For example, psychotherapist William Krause knew an otherwise successful businessman who spent 40 hours delaying a nasty job that took only 5 minutes to complete.

So, here for all of us chronic procrastinators is my 5-step guide to slaying your nasty jobs.

1. Force yourself. I know that this is pretty extreme, but it's about growing up and just doing what you know you have to do. If there's an image that helps, think about Ulysses who tied himself to his ship's mast so he wouldn't be tempted to follow the distractions of the Sirens. I'm not suggesting you strap yourself literally to your desk, but, figuratively, yes you should.

2. Do your nasty jobs at the start of the day. Make up your mind to do your nasty job first thing in the morning, a bit like someone who has to take a spoonful of nasty medicine. Get it over with and then you'll feel great for the rest of the day.

3. Use the 5-minute burst technique. Start by committing yourself to 5 minutes on some aspect of the nasty job, even if it's just sitting and looking at it. Then, once you've got into it, you'll probably want to spend another 5 minutes on it. And another. And another. Until it's done.

4. Sort out your demons. If you are a regular procrastinator with the same sort of jobs, work out what the block is. Simply put, ask yourself what you're afraid of. It could be fear of failure, fear of confronting certain issues, fear of making a decision, fear of responsibility, or something along these lines. Confront the fear and face it. Or, if it really is an issue, get some help.

5. Motivate yourself. Most of our nasty jobs aren't jobs we can't do. They're jobs we don't want to do. So the real issue is getting yourself motivated. If you're an "away" person, who is motivated by fear of bad consequences, write down the worst thing that could happen to you if you continue to put things off. If you're a "toward" person and motivated by the prospect of rewards, write down all the positives that will come your way once your nasty job is done.

"Nasty" jobs can be the bane of our lives. The one thing that stops us from feeling pleased about our day's work, the one thing that reminds us how lazy and inefficient we are.

So stop being lazy. Come out fighting. And do those nasty jobs.

Now where did I put that Tax Return?

Monday, 28 September 2009

"The Magical Mystery Tour"

The other night, my wife and I took a coach trip that was labelled a "Magical Mystery Tour".

Unlike most trips we go on, where we know the destination, this one had no end point. It was just a journey for the journey's sake. And we loved every minute of it.

We went along coastal routes lit by beautiful evening sunshine, along country lanes still glistening from the day's showers, and along busy dual carriageways at top speed.

It got me thinking that one of life's real secrets is not about getting some place quick but about enjoying the journey on the way.

Most of us have it the other way around.

We set ourselves goals, such as having lots of money, fine homes, big cars, luxurious holidays, the latest gadgets, and often stress ourselves out trying to get them and keep them. The process of working towards these goals is often classed as a "struggle" where success is measured by how well we perform and how well we compete. We believe that the more we want, the more we have to struggle. And then if and when we reach our goal, we have a momentary feeling of triumph, after which it's all taken for granted and we move on to the next goal and the next struggle.

There is an easier way to get what we want and that is to set the goal and then forget about it by just relishing every single moment of the journey.

One of my favourite authors is Benjamin Hoff. In his book, "The Tao of Pooh", Hoff uses the adventures of Winnie the Pooh to give some important life lessons. In one passage, Pooh contemplates what his favourite thing is. He is about to answer, "honey, of course", when he realises that the anticipation of the honey may be more important.

"The honey doesn't taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn't mean so much once it is reached; the reward isn't so rewarding once it's been given. That doesn't mean the goals we have don't count. They do, mostly because they cause us to go through the process, and it's the process that makes us wise, happy, or whatever. If we do things in the wrong sort of way, it makes us miserable, angry, confused, and things like that. The goal has to be right for us and it has to be beneficial, in order to ensure a beneficial process. But, aside from that, it's really the process that's important. Enjoyment of the process is the secret that erases the myths of the Great Reward."

The really amazing thing, of course, is that when you relish the journey, you don't need a destination to make you feel good. You're already feeling good. So, in one of those odd paradoxes of life, the journey really is the destination.

Here's looking forward to the next Magical Mystery Tour!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

"Wanting What We Can't Have"

A week or so ago, my wife and I were browsing in a second-hand shop when we came across a beautiful pine corner unit that was perfect for our newly-restored living room.

Being cautious, we decided to think it over and return in a few days' time.

When we did, we discovered that the unit had been reserved for someone else. We had lost the sale. And we now wanted it more than ever.

In our Negotiating Skills courses at ManageTrainLearn, we train people to use this tactic consciously. As an example of how it's done, we show how Eskimo hunters get the best price for their hides from their traders by downplaying the value of their hides, even to the extent of pretending that their furs are not worth looking at. Fearing that they won't get them, the traders are more desperate to buy and so increase what they are prepared to offer.

A similar trick of reverse psychology is played by Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain's book of the same name.

The young Tom has been conscripted by Aunt Polly to whitewash a 30 foot long, 9 foot high fence and, being work not play, he is not in the least interested. Moreover, Tom hates the thought of being ridiculed by his friends.

So, he hits on a plan.

As each boy passes by on the lovely Summer's morning, Tom pretends to be doing something that no other boy gets to do. He builds up the specialness and importance of his task so much that not a single boy can resist begging to have a go at it. And they're even willing to pay for the privilege.

Naturally, Tom leads them on so that (a) he reluctantly lets each boy have a go at the job, only, of course, on condition that they do it in the very special way that it's supposed to be done, and (b) extracts a good swap from each boy in the process.

Very soon, while Tom idles in the sun with his bounty of swaps, the long fence is painted by a procession of boys who can't wait to accept the new challenge and the new experience.

Mark Twain adds, "And Tom discovers, without knowing it, a great law of human action, namely that in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make it difficult to attain."

I don't suppose I'll ever know if the Reserved Sale sign on our pine unit was a ploy for a sale. However, just a few days later, the shop rang to say that their sale had fallen through and we could now have it.

Naturally, like fur traders, and boys in the American South, we couldn't wait to snap it up.

Monday, 14 September 2009

"A 2-Letter Word That's So Hard To Say"

If, like me, you run your own business, you'll know how easy it is to take on jobs that are not really yours and that you don't have time to do.

We do it because (a) we believe we should; (b) we believe it will make others grateful; and (c) because we believe we are helping. In fact, the real reason may be none of these. We may just be unable to say that 2-letter word, "No".

Over the years, my inability to say "No" has landed me in frequent hot water: jobs that I promise to do straightaway, jobs that were far too big for me to do alone; and jobs that weren't any of my responsibility in the first place.

So, over the years, I've developed 3 preliminary rules to remind me that I really should be more assertive when responding to requests. These rules are:

1. checking whether it's really something I'm contractually obliged to do. If it's not, I think twice.
2. thinking through whether I really want to do it, or whether I'm just being nice to the other person.
3. working out whose problem it is and if it's there's not mine, believing it is better for all concerned if they work it out for themselves.

Having done this, and believing that I am entitled to say "No", I then employ a range of stock responses which include:

1. "I just don't have any room in my diary right now."
2. "I'm in the middle of several projects and can't spare the time."
3. "I've had a few things come up and I need to deal with those first."
4. "I'd rather say No than only give it half my attention."
5. "I'm really focusing on other things right now."
6. "I don't have any experience with that sort of work."
7. "I'm really not the best person to do it."

I've also recently adopted the Covey technique of saying "No". This comes from Stephen Covey who in his book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", tells a story of trying to off-load some work onto a busy colleague. The colleague gently took Stephen to a wallchart on which were listed her current projects.

"Stephen," she said, "I'll do whatever you want me to do, but tell me. Which of these projects would you like me to delay or cancel?"

Stephen smiled and decided he didn't want the responsibility of interfering with his colleague's workload and went off to find a less accomplished and less assertive manager to do his work instead.

I like that. Confident. No nonsense. Kind.

I still have relapses with saying "No" and I'm still learning. And, if I still can't remember my 3 rules, my one-liners, and the Covey technique, I've one last trick up my sleeve.

I just tell them that I'm learning to be assertive with my time management and would they mind terribly much if on this occasion, for just this once, I said "No".

Monday, 24 August 2009

"Decisions, Decisions, Decisions"

My two oldest kids are now in their late twenties and old enough to make their own decisions. But whenever they face a big decision, they always ring home and ask my advice.

This week, it was my oldest son's turn. He's in a job sector that has been going through some uncertain times. He rang to say he'd been offered a job with a previous employer, at a nice salary, good conditions, and a reasonably stable future. What should he do? Go back and be secure. Or stick with his present employer and weather the storm?

Being so far away and not knowing the ins and outs, I held back on making any decisions for him. Instead, I do what I always do in these situations. I pass on 3 valuable tips that we teach on our Decision-Taking course at ManageTrainLearn.

Tip 1: When you have to make a big decision, forget your choices and think deeply about what matters in your life.

According to writer Azriela Jaffe, each of us takes around 612 decisions a day. That's about 4,900 decisions a week, and 254,000 a year.

The vast majority of these are routine decisions with no competing alternatives and we take them without thinking because our choice is obvious and it takes us where we want to go.

But every now and then, a biggy comes along where there are competing alternatives and the choice is anything but clear. That's when we have to stop chewing over the "should I/shouldn't I?" issues and go back to the "what really matters to me?" issues.

As Azriela Jaffe says, "Strategic thinking is looking at how your decisions today affect your tomorrows. When your decisions are in alignment with what's important to you, life becomes meaningful, productive, and delightful."

Tip 2: Take the big decisions with your heart and the little decisions with your head.

I've always given this advice to my kids and it seems to have worked out OK so far. That's because the things that really matter to us most, our dreams, our ambitions, our understanding of what we're here for, don't live in our heads. They live in our hearts.

So when a big decision comes along, we need to do two things. First, we need to weigh things up in an analytical, informed manner and create a list of pros and cons on a sheet of paper. That's the bit the head does.

Next we need to listen to our hearts. The trouble is, the heart can be a deaf mute. It knows what's best for us but only speaks in quiet whispers or fleeting doubts and if we're not listening, we can miss what it's saying.

Albert Einstein knew how to listen to his heart. When he had to make a whopper of a decision, he would toss a coin, heads one decision and tails the other. As soon as the coin landed, he would look at the decision and ask himself how he felt. If he felt good, he would go with it. If bad, he would go the other way.

Tip 3: Don't decide until you're ready.

I know that my kids often sound me out on decisions well before the decision has to be made. It's often, "If I get offered this job, what do you think I should do?" or "If I fail my exams, what am I going to do next?".

It's natural to think about the forks in the road ahead but worrying about decisions when you don't actually have to choose is a waste of energy.

The best decisions are hot-iron decisions, not too soon, not too late, but well-timed and leading to clear decisive action.

Eric Aronson tells the following riddle, "If 5 birds are sitting on a wire, and one of them decides to fly away, how many are left?" The answer is 5. One bird's decision to fly away doesn't mean it did!

I expect that the next time my kids ring home, they'll get around to some choices in their lives that they want my views on.

I won't decide for them. But I will remind them to think about what matters most; to listen to their heart; and to wait for the right moment. That way, I know they'll make the right decisions.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

"What's Your Laughometer Reading?"

How many times have you laughed today?

If research is anything to go by, the answer will be, not as much as you should have done.

We're told that people are so overwhelmed by the gloom they read and hear on the TV and newspapers that we're forgetting to laugh.

I say "forgetting" because, as kids, we were masters at laughing. Research, again, suggests that, while adults laugh on average 15 times a day, small children manage up to 400 laughs a day.

On our Creativity courses at ManageTrainLearn, we produce evidence that suggests that the more you laugh at work the more creative you are.

Goran Ekvall, professor of organisational psychology at Lund University in Sweden, says that laughter is an essential ingredient for workplace innovation. When comparing the creativity of various departments of a Swedish newspaper, Ekvall found that the most creative teams were those that had a high level of laughter and humour.

This is why Tom Peters says that you can measure an organisation's creativity from its laughometer.

There are many other reasons why laughter is good for you.
  • laughter releases serotonin, the "feel-good" hormone, into your brain
  • laughter helps you connect to others. It's one of the best rapport-building tools around.
  • laughter massages your inner organs
  • laughter can help you lose weight by burning off fat
  • laughter helps your immune system work better.
Madhuri Kataria, who created the idea of World Laughter Day, says, "There is an epidemic of seriousness that is raging all over the world. People seem to think that being grim-faced and serious is the only way to show commitment at work."

It reminds me of that Red Indian proverb, "When you get to heaven, most people ask themselves, "Why was I so serious?"."

So, here, to raise your serotonin, build your team, and increase your organisation's creativity, is one of my favourite jokes of the moment. Read it and laugh. Or read it 400 times today and laugh.

A young man, hired by a supermarket, reported for his first day of work. The manager greeted him with a warm handshake and a smile, gave him a broom and said, "Your first job will be to sweep out the store." "But I'm a college graduate." the young man replied indignantly. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know that," said the manager. "Here, give me the broom, I'll show you how."

Monday, 10 August 2009

"Learn to Let Go"

One of the key differences between managers who manage up close and those that let go is how they react when their staff run into difficulties, whether over a piece of work that they can't get right, a relationship in the team that isn't quite working, or indeed something outside work that is affecting them.

The up-close managers tend to see roadblocks like this as a major problem. They see a hitch in the smooth running of their department. They see things no longer running to time or cost or output. And they see the effect on today's, tomorrow's or this week's bottom-line.

That's why the knee-jerk reaction of the up-close manager is to step in as soon as a problem is detected and fix it quick.

The let-go managers see it quite differently. When they see their employees hitting a block, they don't see a "problem", they see an opportunity. They see the chance for people to learn and grow. And they see the effect of such an opportunity not on the short-term bottom-line but on the long-term development of the employee and the organisation.

That's why the quiet approach of the let-go manager is to be supportive, to be there and to lead.

On our Leadership Skills courses at ManageTrainLearn, we like to relate the story of The Butterfly's Wings that perfectly encapsulates this difference.

It goes like this.

A man found a butterfly cocoon. One day a small opening appeared. The man sat and watched the butterfly for hours as it struggled to force its body through the little hole.

Then it seemed to stop making progress. It appeared as if it had gotten so far and could go no further.

The man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped the remaining bit of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily.

But something wasn't quite right. The butterfly had a swollen body and shrivelled wings. The man continued to watch the butterfly expecting that at any moment the wings would enlarge and expand to support the body.

Neither happened. In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with its swollen body and deformed wings. It was never able to fly.

What the man in his kindness and haste had not understood was that the struggle for the butterfly to get through the small opening in the cocoon are Nature's way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

We're all a bit like butterflies. We sometimes come to a stop in our development when the next stage is a major step in our growth. But we need to do it ourselves. Because when we do, we don't just get to where we should be; we also learn how to cope with "problems", how to face up to life's difficulties, and how to learn about ourselves.

If you manage people like the man in this story, why not take a deep breath next time someone in your team has stopped and is struggling. Be there for them but learn to let go. And, you never know, they too might learn to fly.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

"Fill In What You Deserve"

One of the things I admire in the younger generation is their belief in their own worth.

Unlike them, I never got any assertive training at school. We learnt from the hard-knock school of life.

That's why, even to this day, I and others of my generation, often pause when we need to charge for our services or set a price for our products.

It all goes back to a fear that we might be making a mistake about our own self-worth and that, if we get it wrong, some terrible act of retribution will follow with a voice from the skies demanding to know, "Just who do you think you are!"

That's why I love the following story from Scott Kachelstein who's a singer and speaker from America.

"I remember the first time I was ever paid for my musical services. No one asked me my fee and I was so excited to be getting the job that I didn't bring the subject up either.

After my performance, the man who had hired me took me aside to discuss payment. His words sent my head spinning. "Here's a cheque. It's blank. Fill in what you think you deserve."

He stepped a few feet away from me and waited patiently, a smirk on his face, as if he was saying, "Now's your chance, kid. Step up to bat and tell yourself, tell me, and God how much you value yourself." I looked at the cheque in my hands, a little slip of paper with no numbers, no zeros. Freedom of choice had never felt so intimidating.

I didn't like that moment!! I wanted someone to tell me what I was worth. I wanted familiar boxes and lines of definition, not free will and open space! I took a deep breath, pondering just how much I felt OK being paid. Gulping, I added fifty dollars, wrote it down and handed the cheque back, trembling all the way.

He glanced at it, smiled, and we said goodbye. The sky didn't fall down, and the world didn't come apart. And that's what I was paid. Now, eighteen years later, if anyone dared to pay me like that again I might consider adding a zero to my comfort zone!"

The fact is, there are no such things as fixed values for anything. The global credit crunch and the plunging property markets should tell us that.

As Anthony Trollope said, "Never think that you're not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you much at your own reckoning."

Or, as Scott Kachelstein says about your life's remuneration: "That's pretty much what God says to you before you come to earth: Here's a life. It's blank. Fill in what you think you deserve. Fill in what your heart longs for." And that's what you'll be paid.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

"Are You Willing To Be an Imperfectionist?"

Last week, I spent most of my time working on updating the ManageTrainLearn e-learning courses. (Coming soon to a website near you!)

When I say "most of the time", I mean that 20% of the time went like a dream and I updated 80% of the courses without a hitch. However, 80% of the time went on trying to resolve a handful of less than 20% of the courses.

(And if those aren't good examples of the 80-20 Pareto principle, I don't know what are.)

The reason why I spent so much time trying to fix a handful of courses that wouldn't play ball was that, when it comes to getting things right, I'm a perfectionist.

When other people see the big picture and what they're doing right, my brain slips into seeing all the little details and what I'm doing wrong.

I should know better.

If, like me, you have a strong perfectionist streak in your make-up, you'll have spent a lifetime agonising over the 20% of things that didn't work rather than the 80% that did.

Well, last week, in the middle of my frustrating battle with the DHTML and the file transfers, I had a eureka moment, triggered first by the excessive amount of time I was taking and secondly by a blog from my friend Scott Ginsberg.

Scott happened to be writing about the very thing I was resisting: imperfection.

And, in his own inimitable way, he was championing all the things that make perfectionists like me uncomfortable, but that we most need to learn.

Like showing your vulnerability; believing that people really want the real, honest and imperfect you; easing back on the need to see perfection in others; learning to live in shades of grey, rather than good-bad, right-wrong; and "walking the halls" with an attitude of confident uncertainty.

In short, Scott was saying that there really isn't anything wrong with imperfection. It's what makes you more human and it's what people identify with and buy into.

So, that's a good lesson learnt.

In future, I hope the lesson will come back to me whenever I find myself spending up to 80% of my time on up to 20% of my problems.

As U. S. Anderson said in "The Magic Of Your Mind", "When imperfectness enters a man's soul, he is able to show that he does not live in the world alone but with millions of others in whose hearts exists the same animating spirit."

Or, to quote Scott Ginsberg, "What would happen to your career if you were known as the biggest imperfectionist in your company?"

"Speaking With Good Purpose"

One of the really hard but powerful skills of communications is to speak with good purpose.

Speaking with good purpose means conversing with others in a way that is honest, straightforward, and with the aim of building better relationships.

Take for example the following phrase: "You're so sloppy. Your work area is such a mess."

This is likely to antagonise the person to whom it is directed who will most likely respond in the same manner (since behaviour breeds behaviour) or go on the defensive. Either way, your point will be defended or denied and the conversation, to say nothing of the relationship, will pretty quickly be over.

If, on the other hand, you worked out in advance that you really needed the other person to know how you felt and what you wanted them to do, you could phrase the same message in the following way which leaks no anger or put-down: "I find it really hard to share an office with you because we have such different ideas about organisation."

Now, you have the basis for a much better working arrangement.

Bobby DePorter, the president of Quantum Learning Network, says that there are many ways we can learn how to speak with good purpose. Here are 3...

1. a "No Tolerance to Gossip" policy, since gossip is exactly the opposite of speaking with good intent.
2. letting people know your intent when you speak. So, instead of the slightly sinister-sounding "Have you got a minute?", use visible communication and let them know what's on your mind, as in "Have you got a minute to talk about the Jones' contract...?"
3. avoiding shut-downs by turning the conversation from them to you. So, if someone is telling you about a problem they've got, don't "me-too" them ("Yeah, I know what you mean. The same thing happened to me...") and don't give them your solutions ("If I were you...").

Marshall Thurber, the real estate mogul, has a rule in his office: "If it doesn't serve, don't say it." When he finds anyone breaking this rule, with gossip, negativity, or not thinking before opening their mouth, the culprit has to put a $20 in the charity box.

The result is not only that people stop saying things that are hurtful, malicious, or just plain unnecessary. They stop thinking them too.

Monday, 13 July 2009

"No Problem!"

It seems to me that one of the differences between leaders and followers is their attitude to problems.

Most people approach a problem in one of three frames of mind:

1. They get uncomfortable and wish it would go away.
2. They feel they have to come up with a quick and correct answer.
3. They look for someone or something to blame.

As a result, most people worry about their problems until they can be resolved.

Leaders are different. They have trained themselves to look at problems in three opposite frames of mind:

1. They see them as normal and therefore not something to worry about.
2. They see them as opportunities to learn and move ahead. As Richard Bach puts it: "There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hand."
3. They see solutions as inevitable.

On our ManageTrainLearn Thinking Skills programmes, we teach our trainees that problems can always be resolved by two approaches: moving your thinking to a higher level and taking your time.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, says that seeing a situation as a "problem" is the result of ego-based thinking. In this kind of thinking, a problem arises when it threatens our image of ourselves as competent, capable, and confident.

By moving our thinking from ego-based to non ego, or spirit-based thinking, our problems dissolve into thin air. They become simply another "interesting" situation with lots of opportunities to explore, experiment, and have fun.

Taking our time is the second way to solve problems.

Tom Hicks, of business consultancy Connexus, says that people are born problem-solvers but don't realise it. Our fear of discomfort means we rush into a solution when it would be infinitely better to take our time.

By being patient, we allow ourselves to put the solution at the end of the process of enquiry and higher-level thinking. It also means being able to live with "life unresolved", not always a comfortable thing to do.

Hicks adds that a problem is like a curve in the road where we can't see the road ahead. When we take the bend quickly, we come a cropper. When we take it slowly, we make it easily.

The next time you face a problem which appears to knock you off-track and de-rail you, calm your thoughts and take your time.

And, bit by bit, you will become a leader of class.

PS Find out more about problem-solving techniques in our Thinking Skills programmes here.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

"Intelligent Disobedience"

I am sometimes asked to define the difference between old-style organisations that use control to get things done and new-style organisations that use empowerment.

And this week I discovered the answer: in empowered organisations, people can disobey and become heroes.

What prompted me to this conclusion was reading about how guide dogs for the blind are trained. If you've ever seen a guide dog working, you'll know how devoted they are to their owners and how well-trained they are.

However, on occasions, the guide dog will disobey, for example, when the owner believes it's OK to cross a road and the dog notices at the last moment an approaching speeding car. Then the dog knows that, whatever its training, its care and protection to its owner comes first and won't go.

Bruna Martinuzzi of Clarion Enterprises who gave me this insight calls this "intelligent disobedience".

In empowered organisations something similar happens when employees know that, whatever the rules and procedures say, sometimes you have to break the rules for the greater good.
Peter Grazier tells the story of going to his favourite baker's shop one day to buy something to eat.

His gaze fell on the most delicious-looking chocolate muffins and the shop assistant noticed too. However, Peter was on a diet and, resisting temptation, ordered the healthier option of oatcakes instead.

His gaze, however, returned to the muffins so the shop assistant asked if he'd like some. Peter hesitated for a moment and then said, No.

He paid for his oatcakes, set off home and thought back to how delicious those muffins would have been.

When he got home, Peter opened his bag, took out the oatcakes, and found that the shop assistant had inserted a free muffin with them.

That's empowerment and creating a customer for life. Even if it's disobedience.

Friday, 19 June 2009

"The Credibility of Leaders"

Here in the UK, we have been reading for weeks now about the amount of money our Members of Parliament (MP's), have been taking from the public purse to pay for their expenses. Extraordinary though it now sounds, this information had been kept secret by the MP's until they were forced by law to reveal it.

Many of the claims for expenses were clearly extravagant and undoubtedly made because the public were not expected to find out about them. One of the depressing parts of the saga is that many of the MP's claim they were within the rules (which they devised themselves) or tried to justify themselves through the use of spin and their well-honed art of deceptive communication.

On the Leadership Skills courses that we run at ManageTrainLearn, we devote a fair bit of time to the credibility of leaders, on the grounds that when a leader's credibility goes, so does their moral right to lead. Under the heading of "credibility", we look at all those associated attributes such as honesty, integrity, ethics, candour, service, and authenticity. When these disappear, all a leader has left are the trappings of leadership such as the use of spin and deceptive communication.

There is a story that I love that comes from Ken Lloyd in his book "Be the Boss Your Employees Deserve". This is how it goes.

Two businessmen, one single and one married, formed a partnership and amassed a fortune of 200 gold pieces.

The married partner, however, fell ill and, as they had not decided on how the 200 gold pieces would be split, told his partner, "If I should die, give my wife whatever you want."

The married partner died and so the remaining partner went to the widow and gave her just one gold piece keeping the remaining 199 for himself.

The widow, knowing her husband to have been wise, caring, and honest, decided that this was not what he would have wanted and went to a wise man to ask how the money should be split up.

The wise man called in the remaining partner and heard what had been agreed. After much deliberation, the wise man told the greedy partner, "Give the widow 199 pieces of gold and keep one for yourself."

Incensed, the partner protested that he had followed the spoken agreement to give the widow whatever he wanted and so was "within the rules".

"Why should I give her the 199 pieces?" he demanded.

"Because they're exactly what you "want"," replied the wise man.

Oh for a wise man now for a class of discredited leaders.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Oops!


I'm often asked by would-be trainers how they can connect better with their audiences, particularly those who are not too keen on being on the training.

In truth, this isn't a problem just for new trainers. Us old ones also experience it from time to time.

My answer is that, if you are going to spend a day or more with people who perhaps don't know you too well, you need to become a skilled rapport-builder.

On the ManageTrainLearn Customer Care courses, we put rapport-building at the top of the customer communication skills. It's one of those skills that have lots of sub-skills, all of which can be practised on their own. These include:

1. finding something in common with your trainees
2. displaying empathy with their problems
3. using small talk to break down the barriers
4. dropping people's names into the conversation in understated ways
5. using humour to bond with them
6. showing them you're just like them through mirroring, resonance and pacing
7. respecting them.

My favourite story about building rapport comes from self-development guru, Anthony Robbins, and is called "Oops!"

It might serve as a reminder of how to click with your trainees, even if they start off in mischievous mood.

"A class of schoolchildren decided one morning to play a prank on their new teacher who was late in arriving. At a pre-arranged moment when she eventually came in and reached her desk, all the children dropped their books on the floor.

Noticing at once what was going on, and determined not to play the part assigned to her, the teacher put down her chalk, picked up her own book, and, as the children all waited to see what she would do, accidentally dropped it too.

"Sorry I'm late," she said, picking up the book. "Let's start at page 23." And she continued as if nothing had happened.

From that moment on, she had the children eating out of her hand.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

"You Have To Want To"

It's a funny thing about training and learning. We often assume that, when people don't perform, either individually or as a group, it's because they lack the skills, or the ability, or the talent. We then jump straight into all sorts of training programmes or skills assessments or coaching plans to rectify the situation.

But, of course, we could be barking up the wrong tree.

Brian Cavanaugh tells the following story about two American football teams:

There once was an important football game between two teams. One team was much larger than the other. The larger team was dominating the game and beating the smaller team. The coach for the smaller team saw that his team was not able to contain or block the larger team. So his only hope was to call the plays that went to Calhoun, the fastest back on the pitch who could easily outrun the larger players once he broke free.

The coach talked with his quarterback about giving the ball to Calhoun and letting him run with it. The first play the coach was excited, but Calhoun did not get the ball. The second play was again signalled for Calhoun, but once again Colhoun did not get the ball. Now the game was in the final seconds with the smaller team's only hope being for Calhoun to break free and score the winning touchdown. The third play and again Calhoun did not get the ball. The coach was very upset so he sent in the play again for the fourth and final play. The ball was snapped and the quarterback was sacked, ending the game. The coach was furious as he confronted the quarterback: "I told you four times to give the ball to Calhoun and now we've lost the game."

The quarterback stood tall and told the coach, "Four times I called the play to give the ball to Calhoun. The problem was that Calhoun did not want the ball."

The fact is, that many people don't perform not because they can't but because they don't want to. Like Calhoun, they have all the right attributes, even the best attributes, but they just don't want to use them.

Trevor Bentley is a trainer and facilitator who often puts a sign up in his training seminars. It says:

"If you can talk, you can sing,
If you can walk, you can dance.
Anyone can juggle and ride a unicycle, including you.
But you have to want to."

Perhaps, sometimes, it isn't a training programme you need; but a motivation one.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

"The Emperor's Appointment"

One of the interesting paradoxes about time management and creativity is that we can often be more productive and creative when we do nothing than when we do a lot.

Or to put it differently, when we pause in our busy, hectic, time-filled lives and let things catch up.

The story is told that when Emperor Hirohito of Japan travelled, his every day was planned down to the last minute. On one occasion, he was scheduled to meet with a delegation of monks and tour a local Buddhist temple for exactly ten minutes. The Emperor and his entourage entered the temple precisely on time, but the building was empty and the monks were nowhere to be found. The aide responsible for setting the Emperor’s schedule alternated between desperately searching for the missing delegation and making panicked excuses for their absence, but the Emperor simply stood in the centre of the room and said nothing. Exactly ten minutes later, the Emperor indicated that it was now time to leave. On their way out of the temple, Hirohito turned to his aide and said "I enjoyed that appointment very much – please schedule me another one tomorrow."

When we plan every waking minute with purposeful activity, we run the risk of crowding out moments of insight, joyful "Ah-ah" moments, and the fun of playing around idly and purposelessly just to see what might come of it. In most organisations, there is nowhere in the schedule for such moments. And as a result, creativity is less than it could be.

On our ManageTrainLearn Time Management courses, we use a model of time management based on the Four Elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, each one a symbol of four aspects of time and task management. We show our delegates that they are most productive when they devote roughly equal amounts of time each day to each element. And Air is the element and symbol for doing nothing.

Dr Nathaniel Branden is a psychotherapist and philosopher who has sold over 4 million books on personal development and creativity. He says, "It is generally recognized that creativity requires leisure, an absence of rush, time for the mind and imagination to float and wander and roam, time for the individual to descend into the depths of his or her psyche, to be available to barely audible signals rustling for attention. Long periods of time may pass in which nothing seems to be happening. But we know that that kind of space must be created if the mind is to leap out of its accustomed ruts, to part from the standard and generate a leap into the new."

In the coming week, why not find space in your busy day for your mind and imagination to just float and wander and roam and listen to the barely audible signals speaking to you? You might be surprised what you hear.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Speeding Ticket

On our ManageTrainLearn courses in Presentation Skills, we always have a session on anecdotes or funny stories. Understandably, it is often the highlight of the course, as trainees research, choose and then tell a tale that fits in with their theme.

As a result of this session, we usually come up with a list of what a great presentational story should be like. This runs something like this...

1. it should be told as a narrative with dialogue and description
2. it should contain some drama and suspense
3. it should build and build
4. it should have a great punchline
5. it should have a moral with a universal message.

Well, this week, I heard a story from Paul Matthews that meets all of these requirements. Plus, it also made me chuckle out loud. See what you think. It's called "The Speeding Ticket".

A driver is pulled over by a policeman. The policeman approaches the driver’s door.

‘Is there a problem officer?’

‘Yes sir you were speeding. Can I see your licence, please?’

The driver responds, ‘I’d give it to you but I don’t have one.’

‘You don’t have one?’

The man responds, ‘I lost it four times for drink driving.’

The policeman is shocked. ‘I see. Can I see your vehicle registration papers please?’

‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that.’

The policeman says, ‘Why not?’

‘I stole this car.’

The officer says, ‘Stole it?’

The man says, ‘Yes and I killed the owner.’

At this point the officer is beginning to panic. ‘You what!?!’

‘She’s in the boot if you want to see.’

The officer realises he is dealing with a dangerous man and slowly backs away. He calls for back up. Within minutes five police cars show up, sirens everywhere, whirling lights...

The captain slowly approaches the car, clasping his half-drawn gun. The captain says, ‘Sir, could you step out of your vehicle please!’

The man steps out of his vehicle. ‘Is there a problem, officer?’

‘One of my officers told me that you have stolen this car and murdered the owner.’

‘Murdered the owner?’

The captain responds, ‘Yes, could you open the boot of your car, please?’

The man opens the boot. It is empty.

The captain says, ‘Is this your car, sir?’

The man says ‘Yes’ and hands over the registration papers.

The senior officer, understandably, is quite stunned. ‘One of my officers claims that you do not have a driving licence.’

The man digs in his pocket, revealing a wallet, and hands it to the officer. The officer opens the wallet and examines the licence. He looks quite puzzled.

‘Thank you sir. One of my officers told me you didn’t have a licence, stole this car and murdered the owner.’

The man replies, ‘I bet the lying bastard told you I was speeding, too!’

For pure creativity, quick-thinking, and inventiveness, - all necessary management skills these days, - I hope the guy got off!

Monday, 18 May 2009

"Turn the Lights Off When You Leave"

There's an old saying in self-development training that says, "Winners never quit; and quitters never win".

OK, but what if you're in a situation that sucks? One that you've been beating your head over for what seems like ages and just isn't getting any better. Do you quit? Do you fear that quitting will make you a loser?

All of us go through such situations at various times in our lives and many of us don't change for fear of quitting and fear of losing. We often weigh up the risks of staying the same against the risks of change and lack the courage or support to let go and move on.

If you're currently in such a situation, there are different ways you can sense the need for change.

One of my favourite writers is Danielle LaPorte. She says that giving up on what's not working doesn't mean failure; it means you make way for success. I like that. Danielle adds that there are 8 indicators that tell you when things are not working:

1. You use "it sucks" in a sentence to describe any aspect of your situation.
2. You "drag your ass" to it.
3. Sunday night anxiety (dreading Monday.)
4. Dismal sales (yes, the universe speaks to us through cash flow.)
5. The bleak absence of synchronicity.
6. Not a whole lot of thanks coming your way.
7. Your mother is your best customer.
8. Seething resentment.

Another indicator that I use is to get in touch with that "pit-of-the-stomach" feeling. If it feels bad down there, then something's not right. You have a block that you've got to remove.

So what can you do?

In any situation that just isn't working, you always have three choices:

1. leave the situation alone but change your attitude to it. This suggests that you are blocking out the inherent benefits in the situation and you need to do some work on you, your attitudes, and your way of behaving.

2. change the situation. This works if you think the blocks are external to you, for example with other people's attitudes and behaviour. If you have great assertiveness, influencing and negotiating skills, this might be your best option. In reality, of course, the changes in the situation result in a change in your attitude to the situation, so we're really back to point one.

3. leave the situation. This is the route that many of us want to take but feel guilty about taking. It implies that the problem is all your own fault and that, somehow, you have failed. However, when routes 1 and 2 are not possible, this option is always better than doing nothing at all.

Danielle LaPorte says that when you've been through this list and know that you've got to leave a situation that's not working, you shouldn't worry about how you're going to manage the next steps. Once the decision is taken, you'll probably feel a sense of elation. You now have a new vantage point on where to go next.

Letting go of a bad situation gracefully and moving on without regret is the sign of a winner, not a loser. As Danielle, says, look forward, don't look back. Just turn the lights off when you leave and announce your new destination.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

"Don't Take My Word For It"

If you're a trainer like me, how often do you take a reality check on the theories you present to your trainees?

Some years ago, I read the case of George Turklebaum, a New York print worker who had died at his desk in Manhattan and because of his normal work habit of arriving early and leaving late, none of his colleagues had noticed for 5 days. Since George also lived alone, nobody else had noticed or reported his disappearance from home.

I remember using the story of George Turklebaum in my regular newsletter as evidence of the growing lack of humanity in our workplaces.

Needless to say, I was fairly red-faced when the emails started pouring in to tell me that the story of George Turklebaum was nothing but an urban myth, totally untrue in fact if true in other respects.

That's why I now run reality checks before every course I give just in case there are similar stories lurking there that I have come to accept as true.

Here are 3 that I now think twice about before using them.

1. The Communications Myth

This is ascribed to communications expert George Mehrabian who said that 7% of our communication comes from our words, 38% from how we say it, and 55% from our body language when we say it. I now have some concerns over the figures even if I accept the premise.

2. The Presentations Myth

This one comes from the Sunday Times Book of Lists and suggests that the greatest fear that people have is standing up to speak in front of an audience. It even outranks the fear of flying and the fear of death. Since only a tiny proportion of us ever have to give a presentation, while all of us face death, and many of us take air flights, this one just has to be an exaggeration.

3. The Change Management Myth

The third urban myth is the suggestion that I often use on Change Management courses to explain the complex nature of change. It's the theory that the beating of a butterfly's wings in Mexico can change the climate of New Zealand. Like most urban myths, this holds a grain of truth that can be both illuminating and instructive. But, when you consider the facts rather than the premise, it is palpably untrue.

Of course, like most trainers, I'm rather attached to my urban myths. Like a good and relevant anecdote, they can convey a truth in a way that theories can't. They're stories that coach, but still only stories.

So, how do I go about insuring myself against claims of false story-telling? Well, I have found a disclaimer that I'm thinking about getting everyone who comes on my courses to accept before they come. Here it is.

"Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in the traditions because they have been handed down for generations; do not believe in anything because it is rumoured or spoken by many; do not believe merely because a written statement of some old sage is produced; do not believe in conjectures; do not believe in that as truth to which you have become attached by habit; do not believe because of the authority of your teachers and elders. After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and gain of one and all, then accept it, practice it and live up to it."

This piece of advice is an excellent way of still putting out your theories while getting people to think about them carefully before using them.

The quote is ascribed to the Buddha who lived from 568 BC to 488 BC. But, like urban myths, don't take my word for it.

Monday, 4 May 2009

A Word to the Wise

If there were a poll to find the top leadership trait, which one would you select? And how would you decide?

I've been musing over this question for a few days now after reading of the attributes of many of those top banking leaders who ruined some of our most respected financial institutions.

Their traits of greed, arrogance, and miscalculation are unlikely to figure on my top ten list. I think I'd prefer honesty, honour, and courage, which, incidentally, was the favourite of Walt Disney.

But, having given it some thought, I've now picked my personal winner.

It's an attribute that is very much out of fashion at the moment. In fact, trawling through other peope's lists, it rarely figures on them at all.

What is it? It's "wisdom".

Wisdom probably doesn't have a very good press at the moment, associated as it is with experience, maturity, and humility. In other words, it's something that comes with age. Of our world leaders, it's an attribute demonstrated by only a handful, for example the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela; though we have high hopes of Barack Obama making the final nominations.

So what exactly is "wisdom"?

For the answer, I turned to Abraham Maslow, originator of the theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. If you recall this theory, you'll know that Maslow said that we all have two kinds of needs: lower order needs such as survival, security, esteem, and recognition; and higher order needs which he described as "self-actualisation".

What I didn't know was that, when Maslow put together his higher order needs theory back in the mid-20th century, he based it on his studies of people who he believed were self-actualisers, ie people concerned with bringing the best out of themselves and others. What today we would call "leaders".

Maslow found that all the leaders he studied had a number of attributes in common. They were inner-directed people. They were creative. They appreciated the world around them with awe and wonder. Central to their lives was a set of values that Maslow called the B, or Being, values: wholeness, perfection, completion, justice, aliveness, richness, simplicity, beauty, goodness, uniqueness, effortlessness, playfulness, truth, honesty, reality, and self-sufficiency.

Maslow summed up this list in one word: "wisdom".

And what does that mean in practice? What do the wise do that others don't? Well, for that answer, let me quote what Cop Macdonald says about wisdom on his website "wisdompage". Macdonald says that wisdom involves:

* seeing things clearly; seeing things as they are
* acting in prudent and effective ways
* acting with the well-being of the whole in mind
* deeply understanding the human/cosmic situation
* knowing when to act and when not to act
* being able to handle whatever arises with peace of mind and an effective, compassionate, holistic response
* being able to anticipate potential problems and avoid them.

What a pity our banking leaders didn't study Maslow and Cop Macdonald and take a degree in Needs theory rather than dodgy accounting. If they had, and if they had developed the attributes of Maslow's self-actualisers and Macdonald's wise leaders, what a different world we would be in today.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Charm of Stories

As a trainer, I often have trouble explaining a concept that is new to people.

For example, how would you convey the idea of "leadership" to a newly-promoted manager who has excelled as a technical or professional person and never had to manage people?

I had the same problem recently on a train-the-trainer course with the word "facilitation".

Now, this is a pretty difficult idea to start with. The dictionary defines "facilitation" as, "the act of assisting or making easier the progress or improvement of something" which may be correct but doesn't help someone trying to understand it or learn how to do it.

In the end, I resorted to a device that rarely fails: telling a story. And I used the following one about Walt Disney.

One day, Walt Disney was showing a group of schoolchildren around his studios in Burbank.

When Walt asked the children if they had any questions, one little boy put up his hand and asked, "Mr Disney, do you draw Mickey Mouse?"

Disney thought for a moment and said, "Well, no, I don't. Not any more."

The boy persisted, "Then do you think up all the jokes and ideas?"

This was at a time when the Disney studios were at their most popular and Disney employed large numbers of creative staff.

"Well, no, I don't do that either," he said.

The boy looked puzzled and looked straight at Disney disbelievingly, "So what do you do, Mr Disney?"

"Well," said Disney picking his words carefully." Sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody. I guess that's the job I do. I certainly don't consider myself a businessman and I never did believe I was worth anything as an artist. Yes, I'm a bee with pollen."

My listeners were thoroughly taken in by the story. They found it true-to-life, amusing and instructive. I wonder how many of them went back to their workplaces with the idea of becoming bees with pollen.

So, if you ever have to convey an important concept to others, don't rely on language alone. Tell a story. Paint a picture. Engage people's emotions.

You'll succeed every time.

PS We use stories in all the e-learning materials at ManageTrainLearn whether to teach unfamiliar skills such as Facilitation or more familiar skills such as Time Management. Why not find out for yourself by taking a look at what's on offer here? It's what we call "learning the MTL way".

Monday, 6 April 2009

"Slowing Down to the Speed of Life"

You may have noticed recently that these newsletters have been a bit late. If that's bothered you, I apologise.

Now you might think that the reason for my lateness is that I've been too busy.

Well, in the past, that would have undoubtedly been the case. Too much on my plate. Too many deadlines to meet. Never enough time. Other priorities. You know the score.

However, over the last couple of weeks, I've been practising a new approach to work. It's called "slowing down to the speed of life".

It all started with me reading a news article about why Finland is the top country in the world for science education. Apparently the reason is two-fold. First, Finland employs only well-skilled teachers. And secondly, they slow down to the pace of their students. Unlike other Western countries that focus on deadlines and targets, the Finnish focus on the rate at which their students pick things up. And, as we know, no two people learn at the same pace. So they go at the rate of the slowest.

Doing things quickly is one of the sad symptoms of our global, anonymous, work-filled lives.

I recently heard about a man standing in a metro station in Washington DC playing the violin. It was a cold January morning and people were hurrying as usual to their places of work.

The man played six Bach pieces for 45 minutes. In all that time, only 6 people stopped to listen. The longest was a child of 3 who was quickly rescued by his mother to re-join the rushing stream.

At the end of the 45 minutes, the man had collected $32. He stopped playing, packed away his violin, and left the concourse without anyone knowing.

That man was Joshua Bell, one of the most celebrated violinists in the world. Two days earlier, he had sold out a concert hall in Boston with seats costing an average of $100 each.

If you're like I was, and find yourself caught up in the maelstrom of everyday working life, why not introduce a few minutes each day when you slow down to the speed of life? Just take your time. Tune in to the pace of things, not people. Saunter and relish each passing moment.

If you do, you might then catch a world-class musician playing for you personally. Or learn more Finnish science. Or get a newsletter finished on time.