Tuesday, September 24, 2019


A Blueprint of Contemporary Leadership




The best value this month has surely been my WatchAFL subscription given I have travelled overseas for a conference in Grand Final Week. 

I've just seen the Bronlow Medal live-streamed (in stunning picture quality) in my hotel room. 

I've enjoyed (and analysed) an outstanding acceptance speech (again) by Nat Fyfe after winning the Brownlow for a second time this evening. Everything about what he said and the way he said it suggests he has deep self-awareness (including those aspects of himself he knows are less flattering), supreme confidence without arrogance, a willingness to work hard, really hard, a genuine will to lead, to learn from others (Matthew Pavlich), a capacity for perspective (apparently his trucker dad would be in bed already), gratitude (to his partner and others who lift him up), friendship and team support (his mention of Ross Lyon and fellow players), determination (17 surgeries) and a humility betrayed by the brief but present emotion one could see when it became clear he was to be recognised as the best and fairest of the best. No macho bravado. No quips about big boozy after parties. Just quiet dignity and eloquence from a young man who said he wasn't a very good student and had to beg his unimpressed teacher to let him attend Yr 12 Football camp. The rest is history.

Look no further for a blueprint of outstanding leadership attributes than his speech when it's up online hashtagemotionalintelligence hashtagethicalleadership hashtagyoucantteachcharacter hashtagleadershipblueprint

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Culture Code


                                                                                           Image from iStock

It may not always be comfortable or easy for us to find solutions to the problems of a workplace culture, but culture can be changed. Some simple cause-and-effect principles can make a profound difference. However, when we decide to preserve the status quo, we have made a default choice, and we bear no less responsibility except that we don’t yet have the accompanying focus, plan and strategy to improve anything. And that’s a scary place to be. In the immortal words of Robert King ‘Bob’ Steele, former Under Secretary for Domestic Finance of the US Treasury, ‘Hope is not a strategy’. 

There are complex definitions of the word ‘culture’ but for our purposes, are they so helpful? Organisational consultants, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy defined culture as ‘the way things are done around here’. Note that the definition goes to the way things are done  not what we say is important, how we say we do things or what we say we stand for - but how we really do things.

My daily ambition as an organisational psychologist and consultant is to help clients understand that great people management is not just a means to an end but a wonderful way to catalyse engagement, productivity, and innovation. Who can be motivated and creative when their fundamental needs aren’t met? Having working with the dysfunctional and toxic through to the high performing and elite, my approach is based on the following premises: 

It is not enough to pay people a salary for turning up to work. Many moral and legal obligations are associated with the support of the employees in our care. Buying into this premise is imperative if you want to change the culture. Employees are paid to do a job. Being inspired and enriched might seem like attractive added extras. Being bullied, subjugated, demeaned, manipulated, cheated, disadvantaged unlawfully, or led by incompetents are not.

Good culture, in and of itself, will not guarantee individual and organisational performance. Other factors can compromise success even if it’s a ‘great place to work’, Having said that, a growing body of evidence suggests that good culture, compassionate leadership, and happy people in organisations create a competitive advantage. Furthermore, new evidence suggests the ability to show appreciation - one attribute of attractive leadership - is intrinsic to true happiness.

‘Bad’ cultures can be ‘successful’, according to some criteria such as profitability and shareholder return. Some organisations have terrible reputations for the way they treat staff, vendors, and customers yet make a lot of money, particularly if they have something everyone wants that not many people supply. Yes, they can succeed in the absence of real competition, at least for a while. But listen to the way people people talk about them and the lengths to which a resentful customer can be willing to go to find an alternative supplier. People are more likely to rely on what others say about an organisation than what it says about itself, and a bad reputation is only a few key strokes away on a Google search. In an era where disgruntled customers or ex-employers can set up websites dedicated to flaming you or send an instantaneous tweet into the twitterverse, bad behaviour cannot be taken lightly. It hurts business. 

Some people will be content to, or at least prepared to, work in bad cultures. I make no simplistic threat that we will automatically lose our best and brightest because of a toxic work environment (especially if some of our best and brightest are the ones contributing to the toxicity). Why? Some of them deliver, so the organisation sacrifices culture for performance. Those who don’t perpetrate but stay and suffer may have chained themselves to the organisational treadmill via discounted loans and lucrative benefits or conditions. They may be financially vulnerable or apprehensive about entering the job market and the devil they know seems preferable. They may be extremely well remunerated or enjoy other aspects of the work (e.g. high autonomy) that, in their mind, balances out the equation. They may be able to objectify the bad or unethical behaviour as separate from them and display above-average resilience. However, some staff will feel victimised or compromised by the prevailing culture and will not fare so well. The lack of choice, or the perception of a lack of choice, and the ensuing feelings of entrapment contribute substantially to illness and depression as well as change resistance. 

Every person who works in a company is a custodian of the company’s culture, but some will have more impact than others. Each of us interacts with, behaves, makes decisions, and has some control over something or someone, so each of us helps shape the place where we work. Many of us know the famous quote from George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’. And as Captain Ramsey said in Crimson Tide: ‘We’re here to preserve democracy, not practise it’.

In a system (e.g. team, department or company), everyone influences the system, but some will have more 'reach' than others. Again, context is key here. We have the capacity to disrupt the system by performing one action that is different from what we did yesterday (also known as the Butterfly Effect) and create the potential for a different reaction. For those reading this, who are seriously senior and carry real clout, you can make the biggest difference to others and the system. 

If you’re a leader, your people watch you. Leadership is like parenting: your children learn from you when you want them to, and they learn from you when you don’t. You can’t just turn to staff on any given day and say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling really credible and emotionally intelligent today. Could you just please follow someone else while I go into a cupboard and scream into a pillow?’ 

What you do carries more weight. Therefore, if you behave badly, it has more gravitas. There is also more permission around it. You tend to have more freedom, choice and pull than anyone else in the organisation but you also have to carry the most responsibility. If many staff are honest, they want to be you or be liked by you, the psychoanalytic parent figure, so they will do what they need to do to please you (feeding their aspirational drive) or guard against abandonment or rejection by you (harnessing their protective drive). Plus if you’re in charge and let them get away with the bad behaviour, even if you don’t perpetrate it yourself, then you’re saying it's acceptable behaviour. That may serve as classical conditioning for the behaviour to be repeated, especially if the behaviour invokes positive consequences. 

On the other hand, good culture and performance do not automatically go together, nor are they mutually exclusive. I have worked with highly profitable organisations that drive their people very hard and have ugly reputations but high engagement. Some companies pride themselves on their ability to look after their people, yet settle for mediocrity as people take advantage of soft or absent leadership; becoming spoilt, entitled, and motivated entirely by self-interest. However, the leaders of an organisation are the custodians of its culture and may have to make gutsy decisions in the name of culture and ethics, that at least initially, fly in the face of business interests. Every transaction we have with people will either perpetuate or shift the workplace culture. 

We get the culture we deserve and the behaviour we're prepared to tolerate.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Corporate "relevance deprivation"​ for Graeme Samuel or speaking truth to (Girl) Power?


                                                                           Photo by Sydney Morning Herald

It was always going to be risky (much like this article!). As I understood it, Graeme Samuel came out last week and said one of the potential downsides of opening the flood gates to women directors was that too few, and potentially overrated, were occupying too many top corporate board positions; spreading themselves too thinly and compromising their ability to be effective. As one might predict, particularly when one can write the article, be quoted in a trusted journalist's piece and someone else provides the headline, retribution from many quarters was swift and brutal. In this knife's edge environment and in a world of social media where everyone who writes a blog is a published author and everyone who tweets is a social commentator, the place simply went nuts. 

In truth if you read the actual article, his thoughts were a tad more nuanced than Eddie McGuire's "brain fade" on the weekend but what the two men had in common was that a) neither of them were fully in the picture and the actual statistics on female non-executive board directors do not fully support Samuel's view of the world and Eddie McGuire did not know that Cynthia Banham was a double amputee. I believe Graeme Samuel knew what he was saying and believed it to be true. While he addressed the furore two days later and appeared to have been reminded (the hard way) how comments can be construed, I don't think he would recant his actual viewpoint. I do believe McGuire, in contrast, is now in a world of pain as is the woman he unwittingly made fun of and would absolutely wind the clock back if only he could. That's where the comparison stops. It's for others to determine any appropriate response. 

But how much has the world changed? Why (still) the double standard? 

A (perhaps feeble) argument could be made that the sharp increase in female representation on Australian boards in the past year in the wake of the #MeToo revolution means that some of the women given opportunities now are underdone. However, I don't ever remember anyone worrying back in the day that their male counterparts, at the beginning of their Board careers, newly-minted members of the Boy's Club, were too green and that they would be doing a disservice to other men if they accepted their non-executive directorships. 

Do I think it's offensive for Samuel to have said "there … needs [to be] a nuclear bomb to smash down the impenetrable wall around the female club of directors"? The hypocrisy is startling in a world where "The Boy's Club" is a hackneyed shorthand cliche on favouritism to which we've become habituated. And given my work in conflict resolution and peace building, I find suggestion we need to go nuclear on the "problem" horribly and unnecessarily violent; disproportionately so to the oft-cited "smash the patriarchy" which I also don't like because it can be used to imply that all men conspire to keep all women down. Samuel said some of the women at the top may not be as good as their reputation suggests. That should not be made a gendered issue and that's certainly not new! Yes. There may be a few women sitting on a few prestigious boards and if they're seen to be hogging most of the juicy roles, it's because women are still the vast minority on Australian boards and they can subconsciously be regarded as taking their place on the life raft at the expense of (only) other women. I call it the "limited life rafts on the boat" phenomenon.What sits behind this near obsession is flawed, irrational and competitive thinking. And let's say some of those women are cliquey. Might that be safety in (small) numbers!? 

Deep-level diversity vs surface diversity

I do take Samuel's point that celebrity or "big name" board members of any gender don't always make the best contributors. Surely the way to ensure that too few women don't spread themselves too thinly is simply to ensure that any new non-exec director can comfortably manage the demands of the role and that Ministers who appoint to government boards and recruitment panels considering candidates for other boards do their due diligence, have accurately assessed the likely time demands and are rigorous in determining that candidates are sufficiently engaged with the purpose of the organisation and the duties to which they would be bound, that they self- select in or out appropriately. Some organisations will always go for the high profile chair (think BeyondBlue) and sometimes it's that clout that seriously opens doors but lesser known lights can transform organisations too. 

Building Bench Strength

I spoke with Nicole Livingstone, CEO AFL Women's recently about the AFL's strategy of phased issue of licences for AFL teams to compete in the women's comp. We specifically spoke about the challenge of the talent pipeline and what's considered "good for the game". One of the short-term issues for the women's game was depth of talent. Not enough girls and young women have historically been given the chance to play AFL at a high enough level (if at all) and many of the star athletes who've been coaxed across to this great game from other sports needed time to develop genuine skill at a completely different game, often necessitating a very different training regime. Some commentators feared that poor skills and big score blowouts would be injurious to the women's game in its infancy.Without an adequate long-term funding model yet for AFL women, something we can take for granted now in the men's game, a graduated approach was necessary. 

In the corporate world we're expected to get serious about succession plans and a good CEO has only done their job well if they pay mind to this as part of their legacy. We want good bench strength to buffer us against sudden defections of top staff and talent in reserve if metaphorically two players get knocked out in the third quarter (think maternity leave or long-term illness). I get the strategy with the introduction of AFL women. I want us to build an enduring and exciting game, with massive television rights paid to help fund wages for dedicated athletes. But this past weekend we saw score blowouts in both the men's and women's games. The fact that the blowout in the women's game was in the Grand Final made it slightly more interesting perhaps. What's also noteworthy as an analogous reminder is just how much the skill level in the women's game has lifted in just one season with more money, better coaches, training environments and professional sport science input. But let me be clear, we have no such challenge accelerating the progress of women as board appointees.

Smart, talented, skilled and collaborative women have been sitting on the bench for far too long waiting to be selected. Board prowess, just like any form of leadership is learnt on the job. And while I don't believe Graeme Samuel was being misogynistic per se in his concern about women directors over-committing and may want to ensure we set them up to succeed, until and if we have the same conversations about men or have the same expectations of them to step aside for others, lest they be perceived as selfish, greedy or privileged, let's not demand that of women. 

What I would ask of women is that we push for progression without aggression, that we don't immediately monster anyone who holds a different view to our own, that in a sound-byte world we read the article, not just the headline but that we do call out the double standard when we see it. Asking us to know our limitations and honour our accountability by not over committing should be the obligation of any board member who truly cares about the higher purpose of the organisation they serve, and not their own personal resumé capital. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Was unconscious bias really that unconscious?


                                                                             Image from Shutterstock

I quickly took my seat in the big auditorium as the previous conference session had concluded late. Five smart, qualified researchers as indicated by their published biographies in the conference pack were sitting behind a table to present in turn on the topic of psychologically healthy workplaces. One by one they were introduced by the MC for that session. The audience was quiet and attentive as each presenter came to the podium to present their 15 minute piece, followed by the next introduction and the next speaker presentation. I noted on entry the panel was quite gender imbalanced. Four women, one man. Beyond registering the fact of the imbalance and that the male presenter was to speak last I thought no more of it. That is, until the last speaker was invited to present.

The MC proceeded to introduce the last (male) speaker like a quiz show host in Las Vegas. The introduction was three times longer and seemingly more impressive than any that were made previously. As a professional speaker I would say confidently that the way the fifth speaker was introduced, both in style and content, was designed intentionally to precipitate a round of applause. Which he got. Because it was shamelessly engineered by the MC. Please understand, I would have thought nothing of this except for the fact that the introductions of the first four (female) speakers were entirely different. The MC had deftly introduced and thanked them in the most low key, almost cursory of ways. I knew it was the contrast I found stark and jarring.

I then silently reproached myself for overreacting. I reminded myself the final speaker was accomplished, more experienced and had undoubtedly contributed a lot to the field. It was probable the MC knew this well.

But that doesn't explain why the MC then name-dropped several distinguished male researchers in the audience and asked them to approach the floor microphone to challenge the fourth woman's research. One male doyen appeared extremely embarrassed and while he did ask a question, did so graciously. The others, chests puffed out, did accept the invitation and proceeded to poke holes in her research methodology, findings or both.

Again, I chided myself on a potential overreaction given I work in this space. I told myself it didn't happen to me. The presenter voiced no objection and perhaps I had perceived something that wasn't there. After the third "world authority" on the subject took his seat, I realised I had not imagined what happened. The speaker who had been the subject of several bouts of critical and public feedback looked visibly crushed.

To add insult to injury, when it came time for other questions from the floor, the MC advised that because we "had already picked on (Presenter Four) enough" she would not be responding to any further questions; thereby effectively silencing her for the remainder of the discourse.

I went up to her privately after the session finished and told her I thought she had been very gracious in her response to the questions from the floor. She said she was very appreciative that I had approached her and volunteered she had found the experience quite bruising.

For the sake of full disclosure, I must declare that I saw the MC pat some of the female panellists on the arm afterwards and tell them "they were good". I am sure he believed he was being encouraging and complimentary.

I later spoke of my disappointment to a senior conference organiser who encouraged me to give some feedback to the MC. I saw him twice more after that day but there were always other people around him. I do wonder how he would have received any respectful and well-intentioned feedback on what I believe I saw and heard that day. I would like to believe he would have been gracious and tried to ensure he did not do something similar again.

There are so many men and women out there intent on trying to redress the historical imbalance that includes indirect discrimination. I applaud my male speaker buddies who have said publicly they will turn down symposia, panels and conference keynotes if women are not on the card. But balancing the numbers does not preclude differential/inequitable treatment. Unconscious bias has no easy antidote.

In an ideal world this would not have happened. But if it did, what might we hope for?
  1. That the MC would receive private, balanced and respectful feedback and learn from it.
  2. That the feedback might come from any number of sources other than the recipient of the unwelcome attention who might be rationalised as "precious", "fragile" "overly sensitive" or worse, "ungracious" for the opportunity she'd been given.

Who might call out such behaviour if not the recipients themselves? Upstanders not bystanders.
  1. Her female colleagues who should not have to feel grateful for being asked to present nor frightened of being "ungracious" themselves or "difficult to work with"
  2. The male speaker who was treated differently (read that as better) who could have told his colleague more safely and collegiately than anyone else how he experienced the disparity in treatment (To be fair this may have happened)
  3. By the other "world authorities" who faced their own moment of truth when they were invited to critique the presenter publicly
  4. And by conference organisers who might take such feedback on board and make more adroit MC choices to further the cause of equality, not just for women but for all minority groups.

Equity of access does not automatically mean equity of outcomes. And for all invited speakers given an opportunity to showcase their contributions to any field, they should be able to do so without any aftertaste from actions however unintentional that detract from the original strategic intent and distract from key messages.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Breaking bad: Culture change and the bad boys of tennis


                                                      Image by news.com.au 

Perhaps even more newsworthy than Channel Nine’s off-centre camera angle which no-one is talking about anymore is the actual players themselves, significantly some of whom, like the weird camera angle, were knocked out early. I’ve been pondering what it must be like in that figurative and literal hothouse that is Melbourne Park and the Australian Open. 

People more expert than me describe Nick Kyrgios as a prodigious talent. We’ve watched, cheered and vilified the mavericks before. I’ve said in print they can be really good for business. 

He is. Isn’t he, Nike?

Is anyone else old enough to remember Jimmy Connors or the antics of John McEnroe? 
I wouldn’t suffer miserably from device lock-in if not for Steve Jobs.

Like Shane Warne, McEnroe still tells it like it is but both are highly socialised, eminently employable and compelling to hear commentate. Wayne Carey, according to some who know him, even work with him closely, have told me he’s reinvented himself as a person. So what do we do about our triple Ts - our talented tennis trio of Kyrgios, Kokkinakis and Tomic?

It’s well established in neuroscience that the male cerebral cortex is still developing into one’s 20s. “Poor impulse control” aka reactive tweets deleted but a short time later are big telltale signs. Plenty of straight-laced judgmental baby boomers were rebels at that age too. We could explain it (even if we don’t forgive it) with the narrative of entitled millennials who want and “deserve” all the opportunities - think Davis Cup - just because I exist and it exists. But then how do we explain the way in which de Minaur and Barty carry themselves? Easy. Higher emotional intelligence, greater humility, perhaps better role models in their orbit, growth mindset including a positive relationship with feedback and the likely absence of personality disorder. Or all of the above. And what’s more, Tennis Australia, in a thinly-veiled manifesto about what it does and doesn’t find acceptable has applauded that too and made it clear opportunities will flow for those who model the desired behaviours. But moulding, rewarding, affirming good culture doesn’t equate to performance in the short-term, especially in an individualistic sport. Perhaps regrettably, it also doesn’t transcend talent and experience.

Kyrgios is patriotic and I believe him when he says he loves to play Davis Cup. Yes, #irony, it’s one of the things he and Lleyton Hewitt have in common. Also, Kyrgios seemed last week to have demonstrated a willingness to resist groupthink, distancing himself, somewhat awkwardly, from Tomic and a dastardly depiction of Hewitt. He indicated with his “Sure” (Enthusiasm) that he’d love to play Davis Cup if given the opportunity (Humility or the suggestion of it).

I’m fascinated as to why some have concluded Kyrgios and Tomic are mates. There is nothing in Kyrgios’s body language or “script” that I’ve detected that leads me to believe they are close. Perhaps they are somewhat bonded in the face of adversity but it’s adversity mostly created by themselves. And even if they are close, contrast the mates’ reactions to losing early at the Oz Open. Tomic externalised blame and created a subterfuge story in the best tradition of smoke and mirrors politics. Kyrgios said he thought he played quite well, that his opponent served unbelievably well and then refused to blame his injuries for his loss. His potty mouth and anger on court (thanks court microphones!) seemingly directed at the physio during his first round match but which was really a crass symptom update, is a reactive and raw sign that he really cares, wants to do well in his home Slam and his body just won’t let him.

His “What do you want from me?” in the after match press conference depicted by a news outlet as a “bizarre response” was a reasonable question. He was being hounded on a story he did not create and a feud of which he may not be part.

I do agree with Pat Rafter that any possibility of conscious or unconscious bias in selection should be toughly scrutinised. I also think it is entirely legitimate that criteria other than form weigh into decisions about who represents our country. More than just performance weighed into the cricket bans of our two best batsmen!

But that dynamic tension between character and capability is tough when you’ve got compliant and enthusiastic learners AND mavericks in your selection pool. 

Hewitt has driven a stake in the ground for great culture and character. He’s right to do it but it’s a fraught strategy. It is offensive to be half-hearted about representing your country when others would almost kill to do so. Stepping onto the court is the first bit. It’s staying the course when the going gets tough which is one of the things we love about the “Demon” and something Hewitt lived by and now demands.

As for Kokkinakis, he may have decided that all Hollywood bratpacks must have at least three members, or else he’s being roped in by Tomic’s use of the oldest trick in the dirty fighting playbook being “I’m not the only one that feels this way. Everybody hates Hewitt etc...” (or words to that effect). Brené Brown calls it the “invisible army” and while it may only be a small unit rather than a battalion, they are armed and dangerous. At the end of the day, whilst Lleyton Hewitt tries to embed a new culture in the nextgen Australian tennis players, Kyrgios and Tomic are responsible for the vast majority of wins against top 20 opponents and alienating them completely when they play for themselves most of the year and shoot their mouths off with abandon, is risky and publicly brand-corrosive. 

Hewitt with the backing of TA is trying to tell them what to do. Heck. Kyrgios doesn’t even have a coach. That’s how much he loves being told what to do. l’ve offered. He never replied. But Kyrgios is the majestic wild brumby; difficult to tame, but tame him we must, not try to break him. And I think he can get there. I want him to get there.

For mine, it’s Tomic I don’t believe is redeemable as our kind of national representative. I’m struck by his language and behaviour. It seems so pervasively damning, aggressive, arrogant, blame-shifting, ‘fused’ to his perspective, even anti-social and extreme in his self-importance that I’m not sure he can ever fit in with our normative expectations of our sporting stars, whom we have shown time and time again - think Mssrs Warne, Carey, Smith - we can and will forgive if they meet us even half way. Failing that, perhaps Tomic would like to have a go at being President - but please, not of Australia.