Aligning Aspirations and Actions Just another WordPress weblog Tue, 15 Feb 2011 16:07:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gaining strength through the struggle Tue, 15 Feb 2011 15:54:27 +0000 My year has begun with a whoosh. Client work has taken me to Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and other parts of the USA already, and it’s only February. Each interaction has been an unusual challenge. One required me to wear two hats – as both coach and leader of the activity. The next had me running a workshop for eight people, in which there were four distinct stakeholders. And the third had me in a role where I had no authority, yet I was expected to provide clear, stabilising leadership. From the volume of work I’ve dealt with in 2011, it appears that activities in the business world are ramping up.
Businesses seem to be emerging cautiously from a long period of limited organisational growth activity. My mind returns to an old apocryphal, yet powerful story that can be used as guidance in such times.
The story tells of a man who is sitting on a park bench one sunny morning, when he notices a cocoon stuck on the wall beside him. He sees a small slit appear towards the top of the cocoon. The sharp proboscis of the creature inside begins to cut through the skin that has held it during metamorphosis.
Being of a kindly nature, the man takes out his Swiss Army knife – now you see that this is an old story, for who carries a pocket knife in these post 9/11 days? He very carefully enlarges the slit to allow the insect to emerge more easily. It is a beautiful iridescent dragonfly. It sits limp-winged in the warmth of the sunlight, gripping onto the shell of its cocoon –and dies.
The man, in opening the slit, has taken away the struggle out of the cocoon that is a vital step in the dragonfly’s development. As it squeezes through the restriction, fluid is forced into the capillaries of its wing and that pumps them to full shape and effectiveness. The struggle equips the dragonfly to fly.
I have used this story before to illustrate the training concept of allowing people to learn through the experience of overcoming a struggle by their own efforts rather than providing them with an easy, ready-made solution.
In this blog, the story illustrates a different point. Organisations that want to be ready to fly off in the increasingly warm economy should recognise that the recent tough times need to be seen as a struggle that made us strong. As the Germans say, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
Organisations that assess the last two years not by what they have suffered, but by what they have learnt through the struggle to survive and become stronger – these will be the ones who fly.

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IS HAVING FUN AT WORK FUN?! Mon, 22 Nov 2010 20:19:16 +0000 Schumpeter’s article in The Economist was titled “Down with Fun: The Depressing Vogue for Having Fun at Work” (

I pushed past Schumpeter’s nostalgia for smoking and drinking whisky in the mornings in the workplace, to pick up on another point the author made. Surveys show that only 20% of workers are “fully engaged with their job.”

Google, Twitter and Zappos were used as examples of places here fun is seen as a driver of engagement. The author set out, it seemed, to question the degree of direct impact of institutionally organised fun. It may be that, by their very nature, the likes of these trendy companies enjoy more than 20% engagement. However, if you think your less trendy organisation might be in the 20% category, there is a crucial question to be asked. What are people doing in the other 80% of disengaged time? Moaning and groaning about “management”? Or, more positively, thinking good thoughts about being at work?

Institutionally organised, forced fun seems to me to be a strange result of the climate of workplace litigation. Forced fun aims to permit only legally safe fun – not merely physically safe, but safe from some of the perceivably negative aspects of fun like the “dissing” of others (dismissing, discriminating, disrespecting or disparaging) that is said to lie at the heart of jokes and pranks. Hence the atmosphere of “inclusion” is present in the games and activities prevalent in the Google-Twitter-Zappos examples quoted in the article, and often referred to elsewhere.

When people have fun away from the workplace, they choose to have fun away from the “regiment of busybodies—from lawyers to human-resources functionaries” referred to by Schumpeter. This kind of fun is more personal, more spontaneous and more adventurous in nature. Note that these characteristics align with the very same attributes that signal the “engagement” that employers are trying to elicit in their employees.

Ideal employees should act on their own personal impetus in a spontaneous unbidden way to do, or try, something new or unconventional in their work to the benefit of the organisation. In a working world of rules, guidelines, regulations, procedures and boxes to be checked, institutionally imposed, compulsory and regimented fun sends the wrong signal. It is diametrically opposed to the more empowering message – “Go on, it’s OK to step outside the conventions – the social ones and therefore also professional ones.”

If you want to understand why compulsory, mandated fun fails to promote engagement consider this. In a cubicled world, while some employees leave their space unadorned, others choose to decorate their space with personal items such as photos of family, friends and company events, picture frames, figurines and small signs. However, it would be ill-advised for an organisation to decree “as of the 31st of the month all cubicles will be decorated by occupants with the following, and only the following items:

1. A family portrait photograph (8×10, wood frames only)
2. A set of three coffee mugs with humorous slogans (no reference to race, gender, sexual activity, intelligence of senior management to be displayed)
3. A stuffed animal (only soft toys permitted, no taxidermy)
4. An amusing poster (see 2 above for restrictions)
5. A figurine of a cartoon character (the pose of figurines must be non-aggressive, non-sexual and non-offensive in any way)
6. A seasonal object to reflect the nearest holiday celebration (the holidays of all faiths must be equally represented in this display)”

In principle these items can be motivators, but the obligation to include them has a negative reaction — on those who would rather not bother with decorating their cubicle, and on those who would normally do so if left to their own decision.

Why then, do organisations take a similarly dictatorial approach to fun? “Fun is good for you, so we have arranged fun and we insist that you will join in!” forms their approach. It must be grim to be a curmudgeon working in the Google-Twitter-Zappos world.

I remember seeing a large sign in the orchestra pit in the Theatre Royal, in Bath, England, years ago. It read “The floggings will continue until morale improves.” Now that looked like someone having fun at work!

I believe engagement lies not in compulsory fun – that’ll only turn people off, — but in allowing space for natural fun, the kind of fun that is generated genuinely among people. Find the key to that and you will find employee engagement increases naturally beyond the 20%, too.

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Could you be a Luis? Tue, 26 Oct 2010 14:59:46 +0000 Could you be a Luis?
(Third in a series of three blogs).
Walking out Walking out
Luis Urzua had the mother of all burning platforms to work from in applying his leadership. I would hope that none of us finds ourselves in similarly awful circumstances; however, the question should be asked – are there applications of Luis’s behaviors that we can use in the “normal” workplace?’
Effectively lead your team
• Centralized focus can be generated in a shared understanding of a set of genuinely valuable objectives, in a unified sense of purpose and a distinct team identity.
• Care and concern are expressed in frequent and genuine interest in, and engagement with, the team. Your acute sense of its well-being and your actions to maintain a high standard of collegiality among all members set the tone from the top for a team that will take care of each other in tough times.
• Individual identity matters within the team structure. Identifying and using each person’s expertise and experience for the team’s mutual benefit strengthens the potential of the team and the resolve of each person within it.

Efficiently manage your available resources

• Create the optimal physical environment for success by using what you have appropriately in a balance between getting the job done and satisfying the personal drivers of the team. Don’t sacrifice one for the other or you’ll lose both.
• Don’t get sucked in by those who make the most noise in the clamor for limited resources. Be transparent in both what resources you are allocating and why you are allocating them that way. Create distribution that will be seen as even and fair.
• Structure the consumption of resources. Use your resources in a task-relevant way in order to achieve specified results.

Lessons Learned in this three part blog
Buried within this marvelous story of human endurance and ingenuity, we find three critical lessons in the fundamentals of leadership and teamwork:
Leadership Lesson #1 – Solid Leader-Manager practices are sources of strength in, and are even more crucial during, the most dramatic of situations. Learn the fundamental skills of leading effectively and managing efficiently now so that you can rely on them when under extreme pressure.

Leadership Lesson #2 – Great leaders function on two levels: the systemic level and the symbolic level. The systemic level is where they should make the best practical choices to increase the efficiency of their team and its resources in order to meet its goals. And the symbolic level is where they should make the best decisions that raise the spirit of their team so that motivation was maintained.

Leadership Lesson #3 – We never know when we will be called upon to motivate and manage others, but we can know our strengths so that we are ready when the moment comes.

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How did Luis do it? Fri, 22 Oct 2010 21:43:30 +0000 How did Luis do it?

(Second in a series of three posts)

The news reports have focused on the “miracle” of the rescue, and it is indeed an amazing event. Read these reports through a leadership lens and there are some identifiable actions that Luis Urzua took in order to move the process away from disaster and towards its ultimate amazing success.  He seems to have balanced his twin roles of Leader and Manager to good effect.

He effectively led his team

  • He created a central focus for them in order to hold them together as a team; for example, they were heard singing Chile’s national anthem with strong voices.
  • He showed care and concern for each of his team members. An Associated Press article on 13 October 2010 quoted Robinson Marquez, who once worked with Urzua in a nearby mine, as saying, “He is very protective of his people and obviously loves them.”
  • He was aware of, and encouraged each person’s individual identity within the team, making it clear that each person mattered. The media surrounding the mine reporting the arrival of the rescued miners referred to them individually by the separate identities. The author, Eva Vergara, wrote, “The 55-year-old miner who led a prayer group followed the 26-year-old former security guard who helped manage packages sent down to the miners. The one who while trapped asked his wife of 25 years to renew their wedding vows was followed by the one who went underground to pay for his son’s medical school. The miner colleagues referred to as “Dr. House” after the TV character preceded the one who monitored gas levels in the pit and sent readings to the surface”.

He efficiently managed the available resources

  • He created the optimal physical environment by using his knowledge of what resources were available. He used his experience of the mine and the dark space they were locked in for the 17 daunting frightening days, to keep his men calm and stay in control until rescuers could make their first contact with them.
  • He allocated consumable resources evenly and fairly among the team. The men had only a 48 hours emergency food supply but through efficient resource management Luis made it last more than 2 1/2 weeks. It took his strength, and their trust, to get the miners into a regimen where they took minuscule drops of milk and spoonfuls of tuna fish every second day.
  • He used resources in a planned, specific way in order to achieve results that were beneficial to the team. They used a bulldozer to penetrate a natural water deposit, providing drinking water and a waterfall that they could use to shower. Operation of such vehicles was limited and structured in order to minimize contamination of the available air.
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Underground Leadership: Wed, 20 Oct 2010 17:49:28 +0000 Leadership qualities run deep

(First in a series of three posts)

Here’s a situation that, as a leader, you might recognise: You are suddenly facing an unexpected and massive challenge. You have prepared for such challenges in principle, but this is no drill; it is suddenly, horribly real. Your team has a range of experience in what they do, but none of them has done this before. Your adequate resources are made unprecedentedly inadequate by the change in situation. Each of the team sees their very future directly dependent on the next series of choices and decisions you make. They look to you as their leader.

What are you going to do?

This question was ably answered by Luis Urzua in a clear demonstration of a Leader-Manager in action under extreme pressure. He effectively led his team through their challenge:

  • He created a central focus for them in order to hold them together as a team
  • He showed care and concern for each of his team members
  • He was aware of, and encouraged, each person’s individual identity within he team, making it clear that each person mattered

He efficiently managed the available resources to overcome the challenge:

  • He created the optimal physical environment by using his knowledge of what resources were available
  • He allocated consumable resources evenly and fairly among the team.
  • He used resources in a planned, specific way in order to achieve results that were beneficial to the team.

In case you haven’t guessed already, Luis Urzua is what the BBC referred to as “supervisor” and other news sources called “commander” of the shift of 33 gold and copper miners rescued in Chile after being trapped nearly a half-mile underground by 700,000 tons of rock for 69 days.

In the next post: How did Luis do it?

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Giving something back Thu, 23 Sep 2010 19:10:18 +0000 There is a great story behind this photo

It shows the Coaching Team at UNITECH International ( getting standing ovation, and as one of the coaches it’s nice to have work appreciated. The work is coaching 89 European engineering students in a programme I helped develop back in 1999. The programme extends their capabilities in the non-technical aspects of the workplace and this year it celebrated its 10 year anniversary.

The photo captures the moment our coaching week ends, and is a reflection of the strong student-coach synergy that develops quickly over the week we spend together at the beginning of their UNITECH year.

Students are selected onto programme from top 2% of students in the leading European technical universities.

From the Alignomics point of view, the interest is what is on the chalk board

This shows the objectives they have set for their year as a group spread over nine universities.

Three of these objectives you might expect – set up their network (Facebook, naturally), plan how and what to communicate and how to organise and advertise events throughout the year

The fourth objective is worthy of particular note. It’s about how can we add value to the UNITECH International organisation at large

this is typical of the Gen-Y mindset, the sense of giving back – their very obvious and immediate positive feedback to the coaching team, and their sense of responsibility for, involvement in and commitment to a world wider than their own situation – what can we do to expand the programme?

Alignomics Aha Moment: Gen-Y age members of your team or company are eager to contribute beyond the boundaries of their job definition. Exclude them from broader strategic matters and you risk losing their engagement in the business. Secondary Alignomics Aha Moment is that any Gen-Yer reading this blog will say “Well yeah! What’s the big deal?!”

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100 days Thu, 17 Jun 2010 19:55:35 +0000 100 days
Chris is about to take on a new role in his company, and with the new role goes a promotion to Vice President. This is exciting news, as Chris has long aspired to the associated status and responsibilities of this senior position. He came to me to ask for some coaching in preparation for taking over a diverse, established group of professionals.
There is little that Chris has to “fix” within the team, they have functioned efficiently and effectively for his predecessor. Chris does, however, have to define and establish his leadership style and impact. I focused him on a 100 days strategy. Not the classic new leader approach of “what am I going to achieve in my first 100 days”, but a longer term focus. Chris’ leadership success will come from how well he extends the team beyond its current capabilities and this extension needs to be in areas other than just doing things better than they are being done now.
Chris has to focus on adding new dimensions to the group and to individuals within it. This he can do by focusing on his last 100 days, on what people will say about his leadership impact in the days way out in the future after he announces his departure from the position. By deciding now on the legacy that he wants to leave in his wake Chris can determine the key focal points of his leadership and can begin in his new role with that focus. Strong focus on specific elements of his leadership will give Chris a clear leadership style that he can use to drive the growth and expansion of the group to establish his added value, and his future legacy.
Aha! Moment? Think “For what do I want to be remembered as a leader” rather than “what am I going to do first?”

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Symposia Synergy Thu, 29 Apr 2010 16:45:50 +0000 I am preparing workshops for delivery at three events over the next couple of months. There are three separate themes, and so I am preparing three separate presentations to provide the core content for each event.

The theme of the first in Muenster, Germany, is “Passion at work”. The second, in Nurnberg, Germany, is “Bringing your research to market and to profit” The third is in Prague Czech Republic, and concerns “Seeing and selecting career opportunities”. 

In all three cases, the simplicity of the Alignomics core structure fits as a driving force behind the work to be done in the workshops
Alignomics Aha! Trust and use simple models to frame your approach to multiple issues.

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The Educator Thu, 29 Apr 2010 16:43:49 +0000 D is an educator, having moved on from teaching to be a coach to other teachers in the state school system. She is keen to get out of schools and into coaching in the business world. Her key concern is her lack of “business experience”. As we talked we were able to draw parallels in our apparently separate coaching experiences.
D’s: process runs from the strategic intent of the school principal to her as the Learning Coach who then works with the Teacher in order to bring out the teacher’s best for the Student.

My process in the business world runs from the strategic intent of the CEO to me as Executive Coach who works with the Leader or Manager in order to being out that person’s best for the people they are responsible for.
These parallel tracks formed a base for deep discussion on opportunities to transfer her skills as a coach into other areas.

Alignomics Aha! Align the processes, not the location, to compare capabilities. D’s coaching skills in the school environment have parallels to mine in the business environment. The environments are different, but in each case success results from similar and transferable coaching processes.

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The Executive Thu, 29 Apr 2010 16:12:35 +0000 
“Sue” is an executive with the skills and the reputation for making things happen in her company – a major national US financial services business. She has advanced through three positions in the time I have been coaching her and is enjoying the challenges of her latest role.

A few months ago, Sue was asked if she would be interested in moving out of this HQ role to take up the leadership of a small, but interesting affiliate company. She would become President of this technology-based organization, which is far from the headquarters, both geographically and strategically. Sue asked me to help her sort out the pros and cons of making such a career move.

Thinking about the new status and professional challenges of the new opportunity, she was worried that she could easily seduce herself into accepting the role. What, she asked, would be the real benefits of such a move –freedom away from the constraints of HQ, but also loss of a degree of professional visibility?

The turning point in her thinking came from the simple set of questions I asked her. How would the company benefit from her taking the job? She told me it would solve a big problem, as the position was seen as “hard to fill.” What problem, I then asked, does taking the position solve for you?

When Sue realized that this “opportunity” didn’t resolve anything in her current situation, in fact it would add some issues, then the answer became clear’ and it was easier for her to decline.

Alignomics Aha! Align your own thinking with the thought processes that are driving the bigger picture. Make your decision using criteria that go beyond your own immediate reactions in order to match the larger situation.

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