Monday, January 7, 2019

A New Year's commentary on... commentators, cricket and culture

Australia is poised to lose the Summer test series against India today but it won't be for lack of motivation or work ethic. Having watched more hours of cricket this holiday break than I care to admit, even to myself, I'm struck by the allegory of my patriotic sporting binge as it relates to teams, timing, culture and performance. The good news is you don't have to love cricket to get the point/s.

My New Year's three-part question is this. Are there people in our teams, right under our noses, who:
  1. Aren't getting the credit they deserve?
  2. Are being overshadowed by those who demand our attention or affirmation but have less substance or raw talent?
  3. Could absolutely fly if only we become attuned to those little things that could make all the difference?

Where might we focus our attention as we return to work? 

Emerging stars. Rishabh Pant has been a question mark for a long time because of his low run rate and the perception that he was a poor relation to MS Dohni as India's premier wicket-keeper. His wicket-keeping through the series and his stunning first innings with the bat this test has brought him out of the shadows; an Indian superstar in the making. His poise and patience at the crease was wondrous to behold, only second to that of Chesharwar Pujara's heart breaking innings that had me barracking for his double century.

Leadership through experience. Kohli is a proud, some would say arrogant man. Yes, his wicket celebrations can be a bit over the top but I love his passion and honestly, his batting prowess justifies a little swag. However he is transitioning from elite batsman to captain and tactician. Leadership is developed through experience even if one is born with potential. At the end of Friday's play, I saw Kohli get around each of his players. Patting their hearts, arms around shoulders, applauding them, imparting a word here or there. When he's at the crease, he's the man. When his opponents are sent into bat, in the twilight of the day's play, having spent all day toiling in the hot sun, he knows there is no "I" in team.

High performance culture. Australia is long-admired for our fielding prowess. Indeed, so often a catch taken in the slips or the outfield is made to look so easy that we're shocked when one gets dropped. But being blessed with fast-twitch muscles, even superb hand-eye coordination (I assume that's what commentators mean when they say exceptional batters see the ball early and play late) doesn't take the place of practice, and often the practice in the most unlikely of one percenters.... just in case... because you never know... This is often the difference between really good and great. Warnie talked about Kohli's net practice. He said Kohli puts down a shoe and doesn't stop practising until he has hit that shoe over and over and over again. How much do we practise to achieve flawless execution, especially such high levels under "exam conditions"? Yes, the journey from good to great.

Diversity. The coverage this year has been made better by the new commentary team. I love Isa Guha's contribution. I would have loved it in 2012 after she retired as a bowler for England from international cricket. But it took the #MeToo movement and a revocation of Channel Nine's 40-plus years of cricket coverage to bring new faces, male and female to the screen.

The only difference between the performance of knowledgeable, articulate and insightful women and the commentary team of yesteryear was deciding to contract them. Don't think for a moment though that the double standard has been swept away. I fancy it is not coincidental she is young, slim and attractive. She sits along side Shane Warne who told me in his book he has never had plastic surgery and Kerry "Skull" O'Keefe who I'm sure has not! 

Subject matter experts. In a world where many people work to acquire generic, portable skills, no team can over perform without its domain experts, its specialists. How wonderful to hear Brett Lee and Adam Gilchrist provide insights into the thought processes of bowlers and keepers out there in the field? And how exhilarating to watch the magic of specialist spin bowlers like Nathan "Garry" Lyon. I shudder to think what our test season could have been without him in the side.

The job security/performance nexus. In the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal I wrote about last April, the Australian team is down two of its best players and its entire senior leadership team. In the experimental environment of a team rebuild, few of our batsmen have performed well enough to be assured of a place in the upcoming one dayers, much less our Ashes squad. The crippling pressure of a new team fighting for redemption and respect against a top competitor has made it hard for them to operate "in the zone". I see this in my consulting work every day. At one end of the continuum are people whose job security is beyond doubt which allows some of them to lose their sense of "Why", stay too long, sell themselves short and cultivate a culture of mediocrity. At the other end of the continuum where players are fearful of failure, flooded with emotion, are too physiologically aroused, we know performance falls away. Marcus Harris, batting on the weekend, knowing that India's first two days' performance almost assured India of a match and series win, batted confidently, fluidly and without fear. He neither threw away his wicket nor played it too safe. With Aussie spirit broken after two days with Cheteshwar Pujara, Pant and Ravindra Jadeja at the crease, Australia's loss was virtually assured. This freed up Harris to play well for his 79 runs, and the likely highest score in the Australian innings. No hint of desperation. No risk of being blamed. And as opener for Australia, no expectation he would be solely responsible for clutching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The futurist. Every team needs at least one person who can read the context, observe what is happening with razor sharp acuity and know what to do next. With literally thousands of sports journalists in Australia and half of the rest of us wishing we were too, there is no shortage of musings, diagnostic firepower and unsolicited commentary on every move, snicko, opinion and selection. But nothing to me this season has been more impressive than watching the maestro Shane Warne, analyse a series of balls bowled and predict what the bowler was trying to do only to have the bowler do that... next ball (See here). If only all my clients had that acuity to be plugged in to the moods, values, beliefs and skills of each of their players, predict what was likely to happen next and either circumvent or capitalise.

If we could do what Warnie can do, then organisations would not spend months, even years on lavish change management programs only to have them fail miserably. Even if the physical/process/digital change is delivered, how do the staff feel about it and about themselves afterwards? Why do we end up scratching our heads wondering why we didn't see something coming as we do our own metaphorical version of trudging back to the pavilion, out for a duck. 

The maverick. I must continue my allegory on Warne because it's the most humbling lesson for me. I was always a fan of his bowling. What's not to admire in someone almost universally labelled the greatest leg spinner of all time? For twenty years he was my pet example of someone who seemed to get away with a lot of bad behaviour because his performance was outstanding. And I have seen what that does to the fabric of teams and to the individuals on the receiving end of indiscretions and harassment and bullying and other forms of counterproductive workplace behaviour just because the perpetrator is a superstar (Yes, David Warner. if the baggy green cap fits....). But Warne's bogan brashness, his criticism of Steve Waugh's obsession with the baggy green cap belies his patriotism, his commitment to excellence, his tactical genius, his courage to call things as he sees them, to enjoy life and to love passionately - his country, his sport, his children, his football club, his close friends, indeed his life. While his book will never win a Pulitzer prize, neither will this article. He has his moments. He can be impulsive and temperamental and trade on his name and reputation when convenient. Mavericks are not easy to have around but if we know how to get the best of them and set non- negotiable limits about the few things we will not tolerate under any circumstances (like sandpaper underpants on the field and trading above authorised discretions in banking), they can and will make extraordinary contributions to a team.

Feedback culture. Much has been said in the media about allegedly frank, fearless and even uncomfortable conversations between coaches and players at the end of the first day of this fourth test. Ribald and robust conversations in the locker room may not suit white collar corporate cultures (if indeed they have their place anywhere at all and some will argue they don't). But in teams where people worry they risk friendships, the silent treatment or retribution when they're honest, the team will never achieve what it could. Friendship at work is a bonus. All team members must feel safe to give and receive feedback; always aligned with the team's stated and shared purpose and in keeping with shared values and agreed behaviours. For every one of us armchair commentators who say that being a team player means being considerate of others's feelings (and I'm one of them), being a team player also means being willing to stick our necks out and get comfortable with the uncomfortable if it's going to make us better. A robust feedback culture is not just about honesty when we give feedback. It also means hearing that which we would rather not.

Celebrating success. Many of us will look forward to the feel-good accolades, the trophies, the awards nights - even the after-parties. But we first have to put ourselves in a position to qualify for such recognition. Celebrating success as much as anything else goes to that intangible quality in a great team - team spirit, heart and compassion. Digressing momentarily from test cricket to the Big Bash competition, I've been moved by the way Aussies have been moved; showing their compassion and affirmation for Rashid Khan, an Afghani bowler playing for the Adelaide Strikers despite losing his father last week. Each announcement he was to bowl an over was met with thunderous applause despite allegiances. We would all have understood if he had flown home. He embodies the one ingredient in exceptional teams consistently taken for granted.

Commitment to being a team. Charette is said to have remarked in 1796 that one can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Commitment to being a team cannot be taken as a given and that commitment, especially in the midst of discomfort and hardship, must be a full-throated commitment.

For those of us who lead, and that's anyone who influences, leadership must inspire and enable exceptional performance, not "drive" it. Please excuse the weak cricket pun at the end. Couldn't help myself.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Shove over, Simon Sinek. It's Trolley Man

Two household names. For different reasons. In vastly different contexts.

Simon Sinek, articulate, clever, charismatic TED talker has been selling us his key premise for a while now. With over one million LinkedIn followers, people are certainly paying attention. His BIG idea? Knowing your Why.

Tragedy and terror hit the streets of Melbourne again three weeks ago. Not outside my office this time but right downstairs from the office of a close friend. There was the mystery man it took us two days to name; so he became "Trolley Man". Caught up in a horrific situation with nothing between him and a knife-wielding terrorist other than a shopping trolley.

It turns out Michael Rogers was not your average CBD business person. His Big Why was as powerful, poignant and poetic as Apple's. "I just wanted to do something good for once in my life" is what the man who'd faced burglary charges only days before told us later. For that weekend we celebrated his bravery while we turned another page in our book about the loss of innocence or as we say in therapy, the further "shattering of our assumptions". On Monday, notwithstanding our respect and admiration for the upstander who put his life in danger trying to save others, as opposed to the amateur videographers hoping they might go viral on Instagram that night, Graham Ashton, Chief Commissioner of Police, had the invidious task of giving us the responsible police version of "Do not try this at home".

The Why was great! But what if Trolley Man had died like our beloved Sisto Malaspina?
What if he had obscured the vision of the police and one of them had been fatally stabbed?
What if, while police were trying to get around him for a better view of the attacker, another civilian had been knifed or shot?

And while we probably didn't like this being pointed out by Chief Commissioner Ashton and in a sometimes bleak world we need to believe that many people are fundamentally good (and most are) , the why isn't good enough if the what is lousy. 

How often have I sat with a respondent in an investigation accused of bullying and heard them tell me with seemingly 100% sincerity that they didn't mean to bully anyone. Indeed there is an abundance of evidence to show that much abrasive workplace behaviour occurs in situations when dedicated people are pressing for good outcomes but get taken over by the dark side of the force while they do it.

There's the time when I investigated a grievance where the young man newly arrived from another country and an entirely different culture with an obvious crush on a young attractive co-worker, lavished her with compliments, left flowers on her desk, then one night followed her to the station and onto her train. What did he tell me was his reason for persisting with his attention? She was friendly. She had smiled at him. He really thought she liked him. His why was intelligible, even romantic. His what was stalking.

I've seen this one many times and it's delicate. I acknowledge that. Enter the compassionate boss, profoundly aware of the concurrent and prolonged non-work- related stress (or mental health challenges) being experienced by a member of staff. The well-meaning manager rationalises poor performance, costly (even high risk) mistakes, unscheduled absences, lengthy personal telephone calls and to me, the never-acceptable, explosive behaviour. The manager wants to be kind and be seen to be too. That's the why. They say nothing. They do nothing. That's the what. The staff member is neither accountable nor responsible and may not even be fit for work. Other staff can lurch between genuine sympathy and mild irritation, from resenting the manager to emotional exhaustion as they walk the tightrope between team support and vicarious distress (and particularly if aspects of private life being shared have personal relevance for them).

Simon Sinek, I'm not jealous of your one million LinkedIn followers. I will admit I have video envy because the seven minute Why you should Start With Why is dynamite! I agree that identifying the social and moral cause of what we do can be a hugely motivating force. That's why I'm still inspired to do M.A.D (make a difference) work some 23 years after I established my organisational psychology practice. It may even explain why most of us keep going until late December each year when our bodies are telling us to stop after Cup Day.

But our intent, even when it's good, needs to be matched by our impact and "Starting with Why" should be quickly followed by "Make sure you get the What right too!" Steve Jobs' poignant and poetic vision of "a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind" doesn't make me feel better about the corporation as a consumer afflicted with four devices worth of Lock-In when my iPhone curiously starts acting up just as the new model is launched.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Measure what you treasure

Image from iStock

Over twenty years of consulting has led me to believe this: one individual can disrupt a system but a vulture culture is a system whereby disruptive, debilitating, unethical or toxic behaviour is perpetuated or enabled by the system.

A counsellor friend shared a story with me a few years ago that illustrates this in a very different system to that of a business. She told me of a family that presented with a very bright six-year-old who was acting out. He was violent at times, belligerent, attention seeking, and disruptive: in short, a real handful. The parents went to my colleague to have Billy (not his real name) sorted out after he had found some matches and allegedly tried to set fire to his sister's hair. In the first session, he sat there quietly while his parents recounted a tale of woe about what it was like trying to raise Billy. He sat stony faced and impassive, occasionally blinking hard but absorbing every disparaging word. After a short while, when it became clear there was not going to be an upside to their story, my colleague asked the young boy whether this was an accurate summary of some of the challenges in the family. He said that it was. The counsellor asked to speak with him alone, which shocked the parents, but they reluctantly agreed, particularly after reminding themselves that he was the problem.

When they were alone, my colleague asked Billy how it felt to hear those things. He admitted it was rough but added it was all true. He also admitted he didn't enjoy getting told off all the time and excluded from family time by being sent to his room. The counsellor then asked him why he did those things if they weren't fun. He looked at her hand for several moments, was about to speak, and then hesitated. She quietly told him she would not share his answer with anyone else unless he let her. His voice cracked as he told her he did all those naughty things to keep his parents together. He wasn't sure they loved each other much anymore, and he didn't want to grow up without one of them in his life, which is something his closest buddy at school had to do. With permission, my colleague shared this with the parents (but without Billy in the room), and this became the catalyst for them to work on their relationship. Billy's behaviour was merely the presenting manifestation of a 'system' in crisis.

In this powerful and provocative try story lies the premise on which all our work on organisational strategies is predicated:

The keys to creating and sustaining better organisational health and eliminating counterproductive workplace behaviour in the service of innovation, work productivity and quality, profit, morale, job satisfaction, retention of talent, business reputation and risk management lie in a holistic multifaceted approach that may include important work to be done at the organisational, team, and individual levels in the system.

In Billy's case, his behaviour met a need; his acting out served a purpose for Billy and his parents. It was the same need for the two sets of parties; to provide a shared focus for the parental relationship and to distract them from the stuff going on between them that wasn't working. Billy's challenging behaviour was also a way to validate the tension in the family, and it prevented family members from having to look in the mirror and see problems (in this case anger, resentment and depression) in themselves. Some factors that enabled the continuation of Billy's behaviour were the game playing and point scoring that existed between the parents and the boundaries that the parents did not consistently enforce. None of this is to stay that Billy's behaviour wasn't extremely difficult. He could have found subtler and less damaging ways to manifest insecurity and give his parents something in common. I am not trying to excuse or justify Billy's challenging behaviour or to suggest this wasn't a real burden for the parents. But at the end of the day, this boy was just six-years-old, and his parents were subconsciously duplicitous in Billy's acting out by failing to address the underlying causes, allowing the misery to continue.

On paper everyone wants to work with a high performing team, yet some teams fire, some languish and tragically some implode. It's no secret many organisations are heavily investing in leadership and coaching development programs, spending big dollars on growing future talent and focusing on developing agile and resilient teams. However, we need to constantly assess the way we operate and change our internal organisational culture in a way that allows people to have the tools and comfort they need to do great work.

The 'enlightened' organisation will:
  1. Institute measures to minimise the chance of wrongdoing, reputational risk and other negative consequences (they will try to make it hard to do the wrong thing)
  2. Educate people to make sensible and ethical decisions (they will try to make it easy and attractive to do the right thing)
  3. Develop processes, policies and protocols that enable a timely and coherent response in the event something bad happens
  4. Act on any transgressions proportionately and consistently; and
  5. Be proactive in setting the tone and tenor of a professional, respectful workplace so that doing the right thing and fostering a respectful, dynamic, healthy, and innovate workplace is as natural as breathing.

It is logical that employees are less likely to bite the hand that feeds them (well). Engaged employees are more likely to want to come on board than those who are embittered, stale, or bruised. We know that optimistic, engaged and resilient people are more productive. So, take the time to understand your people - their "DNA", their skill set and what motivates and energises them. Counterproductive workplace behaviour happens in the context of poor moral norms of behaviour and absent, corrupt, or incompetent leadership, but it is also much more prevalent among disenfranchised staff. If we help people enunciate what motivates them and help meet individual aspirations, staff may not have to act out to have their needs met. They are also less likely to want to pay out on the organisation because they are dissatisfied.

So I ask you: does your organisation have a climate of goodwill and trust such that your employees want to stay and work through periods of uncertainty and challenge? Or when given an effective choice will they rather be quick to fly the coop and jump at the opportunity to go somewhere else to shine?

Monday, October 29, 2018

A long time coming

Photo from iStock

There was never a question I was going to go. I felt I owed it. To the organiser who worked so hard to track us down, to plan it and to get us there. To the friends in my year who had passed away; so many of them I'd hear people tell others that my year at school was "cursed".

But I'd be lying if I didn't say that deciding to attend my 40 year school reunion (yes I was a child prodigy and graduated when I was six) filled me and others with trepidation.... until we got there. As soon as I walked in to the old High School gymnasium, I was struck by the warmth and the joy; the genuine enthusiasm with which people greeted each other and the shrieks as people who had lost contact found others from across the far side of the room. You would have been forgiven for thinking we had all been one big happy family. But we hadn't been.

As hard as it is to believe these days, I'd been the only kid in primary school whose parents had divorced. I was taunted mercilessly for coming to school one day with my biological family surname and the next with a new one as my mum's second husband, my dad who is now 88, bless him, adopted my brother and me.

I still get wobbly when I remember how it felt to be told by an HSC girl I barely knew I should check out the secondary school toilets and walked in, alone, to see scrawled across four toilets in black bubble writing which was all the rage: "I hate Leanne Faraday". I don't know if the artist was in the room last Sunday night. It certainly didn't feel like it. In truth, I'll never know and while it was, and still is, a painful childhood memory and may in some unconscious way have helped me find my destiny working in the EEO, diversity and inclusion space, it doesn't define me. It certainly didn't help at the time with the abandonment narrative I had going on which can still bubble to the surface when I get an unkind course evaluation (which thankfully is very rare).

What I choose to remember most about that traumatic experience, one of utmost rejection, confusion, shame and public humiliation is the other side of my strict, gruff French teacher, my convenor that year. The one who always told off Ilana and I for talking through French class. It was to her office I went to sobbing that day, almost unable to get any words out. She got me to sit and softly but resolutely called the cleaner on the spot to make sure the amateur signwriting would come down immediately. She reminded me there are lots of sides to all of us and as the teacher trying to command attention, enforce respect for authority and ensure our vocab and verb conjugation improved, I had only seen one side of her... until then.

The other powerful revelation from Sunday night was the evidence of how much people can change. Some looked the same as they did 30 years ago. Thank goodness for the thoughtful name tags as some I might not have recognised at all. There were those who had hair where there hadn't been any. Predictably, there was the opposite. There was the guy at school who'd been quite overweight and was now slim. A significant number who'd been slim but no longer. There was the school hunk (still gorgeous) who hugged and kissed me warmly. I felt momentarily pathetic registering the thrill of acceptance by someone who wouldn't have looked at me twice back then. And there was the touching memorial to all our missing school chums because it was only the past two reunions where we had the maturity to know this was something we had to do even if it brought down the mood in the room for a short while. It was just decent and right and we'd all been on the planet long enough to know we have to take the bad with the good and that life isn't just beer and skittles or trips to Disneyland or in our case, Skyhooks and Sherbet coming to our school to do lunchtime concerts (although that was amazing and I even wagged an extra 10 minutes of class afterwards because Daryl Braithwaite asked me to get the basketball courts unlocked for a quick game).

There is a golden rule we have in the world of Professional Speakers Australia: Never do therapy from the stage. You might see this piece as breaking that rule. Atypically for me, I'm not going to finish this article with any references to leadership, EEO, culture or high performing teams. But we are all humans. We bring all of ourselves to work whether we are conscious of what's in that briefcase full of baggage we carry with us through life each day or not. The story of last Sunday night was an uplifting, empowering, healing and joyous reminder of many things that I want to carry me to the next reunion and beyond.

They are:

People can learn and grow and mature. They can shift from isolating, ridiculing and humiliating on the differences between us to embracing and acceptance. We can typecast people as being one-dimensional like my gruff French teacher until situations allow for us to see other sides of them. Do we even bother to look for these when the human brain doesn't need to be logical? It just needs to be right. What is the power of one leader to set the tone for inclusion, acceptance and joy? I believe the chief reunion organiser made a large contribution to the atmosphere that was cultivated on the night (OK maybe I am getting close to talking about leadership and culture with that one!)

And finally, how important is it sometimes to take a chance, to back ourselves, to walk into the uncomfortable. To put on our armor and our wrinkle cream. To risk being sad, hurt, reminded, rejected. Indeed to share our most vulnerable experiences and risk others' judgment. I could have stayed away last Sunday night. I'm so glad I went.