We’ve all been late and we’ve all been kept waiting by someone who is late. We almost certainly see those two situations through very different lenses. It’s called attribution.


Attribution is a technical term in social psychology to describe the conclusions we jump to (often the only exercise we get in the day), about why something happened. We all use it all the time, usually unconsciously, and all our biases are there to see (if we bother to look).


The interesting thing about attribution is that we are very kind to ourselves. When we are late to a meeting for example, we tend to put the cause on external factors and not our personal failings. You know that the traffic was really bad, the client in the previous meeting kept talking, or a crisis at home came up. 


But if we are the person waiting for someone else to turn up to a meeting, we easily jump to attribute the lateness to factors internal to the person. Disrespectful of others time, disorganized, life in chaos. Go on, you know you’ve thought it.


How to explain this? Well, we have lots more information about our own situation than we do about other people’s. When it comes to explaining your own actions, you know the variables at play. When you’re trying to explain another person’s behavior, you only have what is readily observable.


Just knowing this can really help in two ways. First in being more honest about your own behaviour. Some internal attribution will ensure you take at least some responsibility. Second, a little external attribution to other people’s failings, will allow you to cut them slack.  We could all do with being a little less judgy of others and little more honest about ourselves.


Quite a few leaders I’m working with are facing some big challenges when it comes to retaining their key people. Restrictive budgets for rewards and pay rises. A sellers’ market where people are being offered large salary increases to move into roles that are above their level of expertise. A freeze on adding to headcount, meaning when people leave, the people who stay have to take on more work. It’s a cocktail of factors to challenge even the most talented leader.


There is no one technique that solves these challenges and no combination that is guaranteed to solve them either. But if you play the long game, there is a way that might work. As Simon Sinek says this is an infinite game, that has no ending and no set of rules. 


The best leaders, faced with all the above, play the game based around factors that go beyond monetary reward. The people that work for them know they are absolutely doing their best to support them. They are hustling to get some extra budget, some permission to shift the boundaries beyond set budgets or head count limits.


In terms of workload, they themselves and their senior team, step into to lend a hand with time, expertise and influence. They can talk to clients and partners at matched seniority levels and get expectations reset, giving their people breathing space.


They might devote time to sit down and talk, coach, mentor, train or share knowledge. Exposure to seniority is something many people crave and value but is rarely available. 


They can use a currency to reward and recognise that doesn’t cost anything: sincere gratitude, recognition and validation of work and effort.


And yes, they might even dip into their own pocket and pay for some rewards that a specific person might value: a meal out, a ticket to a concert, a pamper package. The thought put into the right gift might ay more about your care factor than any words. 


And above all leaders have to keep showing up with honesty, integrity and vulnerability. Leadership is a way of thinking and behaving. Play the long game. Tough times don’t last forever.


Working with a client in the last few weeks, the term “hamster wheel has come up to describe their view of working life right now. Hamster wheels were a device designed to give little furry animals the ability to really stretch their legs whilst still being in a confined space (thanks Richard, I knew that) but it’s a metaphor for maximum effort with no progress. An exercise in futility.


This is a common refrain. We’re all super busy but progress, real achievement seems elusive. The exhaustion at the end of last year, as we stumbled across the finishing line of a second year of pandemic was palpable. What did I achieve? Was the effort worth it? People ask the same questions after a frantic week or month.


The people I work with tend to be senior players: GMs, MD’s, Heads of. These are people with influence and authority and yet there is still the feeling that they are trapped in a system they are powerless to change. They report in to National, who reports in to regional, who reports in to global. The requests keep on coming. Attend this meeting. Lead this project. Contribute to this pitch. Attend this conference. Design and launch this product/service. Saying “no” seems career limiting and unhelpful. Saying “yes” drives the busyness and the hamster wheel continues.


 As an absolute, I don’t buy this (and I acknowledge that being my own boss, I don’t work under such constraints as my clients). We are never powerless. We do have choices and we owe it to ourselves, the people working in our companies down the hierarchy, our family, partners and friends to make different choices. And these don’t have to be massive “line in the sand” positions we take. Maybe we seek a compromise or a negotiation, instead of a knee jerk “yes”. Small choices always ladder up to a different life. A life not in a hamster wheel. We’re not hamsters. Go on, run free. 


I always thought my ideal job would have been a cricket commentator. A combination of watching a sport I love, traveling, meeting lots of interesting people and getting to talk and be incisive and witty for a living. Plus, a great Richie Benaud impersonation.
It never happened. I didn’t take a single step in that career direction. Pure fantasy. Sigh.
Doing what you are passionate about, or love is often touted as a recipe for a happy life. Do what you love and you never have to “work” a day. Lovely. Trouble is that isn’t the reality for most of us. Doing what we love may not monetize enough and if that’s the case, it isn’t sustainable. We might love it but not be very good at it (and yes, I know all about the 10,000 hours concept and the idea that talent is not fixed) and that’s not going to work as a career option either.
The truth is that most of us don’t choose careers doing what we absolutely love or are passionate about. We work in IT, professional services, media, healthcare, pharmaceutical, charities. We start in junior roles and get better, get promoted, get ahead.
Many years ago, I was asked by Mike Williams, a brand consultant, who had been talking to me for an hour or more and said: “I get your business Richard, but what is it all really about? Why are you doing it?” (This was way before Simon Sinek’s Start With Why TED talk). My answer, completely spontaneous and until then unspoken was “I think I’m just trying to help people enjoy their work life.” “Ah. I see. That should be your brand then.” And so it became the brand.
Most of us work for a living. It’s not a passion project. Hence, we have to enjoy what we do. We have to find joy, meaning, purpose and happiness in the careers and roles we are in. You may not have that right now and that’s OK. There are times when it’s Ok to grind through. If grinding is going on too long, it might be time to change. But I’d argue that enjoyment is there in almost any job. As with happiness, it’s the little things that create enjoyment and they could and should be cropping up regularly. If they are not, you may be looking in the wrong place, or working in the wrong place.


Golf as a sport throws up so many interesting behaviours. The obsession with buying new equipment is a case in point. Very average golfers going off and spending $800 on a new driver, or $1500 on a new set of irons, thinking that’s going to sort their game out. It doesn’t.


It’s a classic example of thinking a “technical” solution will fix a problem. This happens all the time. Sleeping pills will put you to sleep but really just mask a problem. Better habits before bed time are more likely to get the best result.


How about instead of running to the golf shop, you try practicing more, or getting some lessons? It requires more effort and won’t necessarily be a quick fix but then how’s the new driver working out for you?


The legendary American sports coach, Vince Lombardi has many quotes attributed to him and one of the most famous is “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” 


It’s grounded in all the success stories that come out of sporting success, especially at events such as the Olympics. There is always a story about some athlete who has overcome adversity, shown incredible resilience, persistence and won out against the odds. They are inspirational and make great copy. What is not reported are the many more stories related to a less satisfactory outcome. The people who also battled the odds and came up short, those eliminated early and the thousands who trained but didn’t even get the Olympics. 


There is a fine line between the courage of never quitting and the folly of never quitting. Seth Godin’s book “The Dip” explains how those striving for success will always encounter a dip and exhorts us to push through to the uptick.


But a dip is different to a flat line of failure or mediocrity. Making a decision to stop and do something else is as brave as any decision to stick with it. Quitting is a very loaded word, so let’s say deciding to stop and switch, requires courage in the face of the judgement of others, as well as their own unhelpful self talk. We don’t know what’s just round the corner and agonize over the “what if..” possibility, like the famed Dig Tree of the Burke and Wills expedition in the early exploration of the red centre of Australia. 


Deciding to stop and switch is the better choice in the majority of situations where you are facing constant failure, or simply not having any fun. Yes, you need to have options in terms of what you switch to and the switch needs to be well planned and considered but if you have done that, the switch is the better option.


Maybe the move is to something that is more enjoyable, more fulfilling, playing more to your strengths or passions. In order to seize the next opportunity, we need to let go of what we’re holding. Let’s reframe this to choosing a different path, rather than giving up or quitting. 


I’ve just come back from nearly a month’s holiday with my family. You’ll all know that travelling in close company with other people, never mind loved ones, is a real test of the relationship. Two teenagers, 19 and 16, presents its own challenges for them as well as me.


Two weeks in and things were getting tense and some frayed edges starting to show. Over an evening meal, it kicked off. Some tears, some anger but a good degree of honest and reasonable talk. It ended in a decent place.


On the way home on the tube, I made the comment that it’s good to have that type of talk. My daughter responded that talking never does any good. Nothing changes. At the time, it was clearly too soon to tell. Certainly, she was probably referencing that some other conversations hadn’t created a change.


Fast forward a few days and it was noticeable that the talk had shifted things in the right direction. One comment given to me was that at every meal out, I was doing the “the prices are exorbitant” rant. True, true. You can take the boy out of Sheffield…….. My daughter said this was not only annoying but was stressing her out about choosing anything to eat. Ouch.


Result? I stop doing that and almost immediately it changed the vibe at meals. Sure, she was waiting for me to backslide but happily I didn’t. And I wasn’t alone. Everyone made some small changes and the overall vibe moved back to happy days. Bliss.


Their is a quote in Susan Scott’s book, Fierce Conversations, where she says, “no one conversation can change everything, yet every conversation has the potential to change some things.” The relationships we have are driven by the conversations we have. The conversations ARE the relationship. If we don’t talk, we don’t give ourselves or others the opportunity to shift. Of course, some conversations achieve nothing and there are many reasons for that – poor timing, poor execution being the most common. 


But even a half good conversation can provide insight, reflection and create actions that in turn create change. Never give up on that and keep having those important conversations.


Focus On High Leverage Activities

Andy Grove in his book High Output Management devotes a lot of space to how managers should spend their time.

He was a legend in his time and one of the founders of Intel and the whole Silicon Valley explosion. Many of the tech titans reference this book as one of the most influential they ever read.

It could be said that Andy Grove ran a tight ship. Disciplined and precise. Part of that discipline, which he role modelled daily was the idea of making sure he allocated as much time to high leverage activities as possible and there is a whole chapter to the concept. It is very pertinent during this current turbulent period in our lives. It is easy to be reactive, eager to jump on tasks in an effort to solve problems and get things done at speed. But that default of doing tasks yourself may be a trap and provide little leverage.

Leverage is defined in physical terms as the action and mechanical advantage created by a lever. With the fulcrum in the right place, a lever can lift a disproportionate weight or object. Effort, directed correctly, goes a long way.

If you apply this to your managerial activities, there are really 3 key high leverage interactions:

  1. When you impact many people: when something you say or do impacts a lot of people. That could be a whole organisation, or simply your whole team. Perhaps an inspiring message, a clear vision or a decision that changes others’ behaviour.
  2. When you impact one person to operate differently over a long period of time. Hopefully, you have experienced this yourself, where someone has given you feedback, or advice and it has changed positively the way you operated for ever. It is a gift that keeps on giving.
  3. When you can impact a large group by providing a key piece of knowledge or information. Dropping in an insight can provide the “ah ha” moment and take people in a new direction to solve a problem.

Notice that all 3 involve you as a manager impacting another person/people. That requires interaction and conversation. We must always remember that management is a contact sport and is rarely accomplished from the seat of your chair via an email.

A high leverage activity does not need to take much time. A small amount of your time can have a long-term impact on someone else. Ken Blanchard’s famous book The 5 Minute Manager, rightly promoted the art of 5-minute feedback and 5-minute coaching conversations. That is not always the case, but it often can be quick.

Conversely the poor allocation of your time creates negative leverage. People and the organisation can be diminished by bad management: meddling, undermining decisions, poorly delivered feedback. Being skilled in all the important aspects of management is essential. A good time manager on its own does not make a good manager.

The final important element to note is that good managers think consciously about how they allocate time. It requires thought and deliberate behaviour, repeated over time so it becomes an embedded habit. Once understood, it is a really simple process. A simple way of starting this embedding is to think at the start of each day what activities will be high leverage and to reflect at the end of the day how you did. I wonder how you did today.

Don’t be too busy to call people during lockdown

There’s a sense with some managers at the moment that they are really too busy just dealing with the chaos of the Covid pandemic on their business to make individual calls to their team. And anyway they tell me “the team are doing fine”.

Really? I would assume nothing of the sort. I absolutely get it that sorting out supply chains, shoring up revenue, re-configuring the business model is taking a lot of time and energy. There is indeed a lot to get done.

It’s not that intellectually managers don’t know that they should be communicating regularly with their teams and the individuals. They do but something with an immediate deadline (a task) generally gets prioritised over the check in call with individuals, especially if, on the surface, all seems well.

This isn’t new because of Covid, it’s just getting amplified. Poor managers always neglected the human connection in favour of getting stuff done. And whilst you can justify that on any single day, to do it regularly is a mistake.

The “Are You OK?” campaign was predicated on the fact that people who we think are OK and who say they are OK, may not be.

So make the calls and keep making them. The deadline before something goes wrong may not be visible but it’s there none the less.


Creating Learning Cultures: we have to do better

As a provider of learning programs over the last 30 years, there has always been a nagging concern that a great workshop does not translate into meaningful change.