Flourish or fail?


Working in the field that I do, an analogy has often been used comparing the success and development of people to the growth of a plant or tree  (yes, yes I know it sounds a bit ‘hippy’ but stay with me 🙂 ). That is to say, within certain conditions we will thrive and flourish and in others we shrivel up and shrink away. The idea of ‘greenhouse organisations’ in which staff are provided with the right conditions for growth, development and expansion is not a new one but I am reminded recently of how rarely our leaders and managers try to understand our individual level ‘greenhouse conditions’. The tragedy that subsequently results, is the shrinking and confinement of otherwise excellent staff.

As ever, I’ll start with a little context and perhaps a personal anecdote or two. Usually I choose to write about topics outside of a work environment but as I started thinking about this, it struck me that ‘greenhouse conditions’ and ‘nurturers’ are just as relevant to our personal lives as they are to work. We are talking about understanding our conditions for success and the people who support and encourage that.

I have been fortunate in my life (or unfortunate depending upon how you look at it!) to experience a very wide range of people, personalities and styles – most of them incredibly positive and inspiring but a fair few I have to admit unfortunately fall into the ‘soul shrinking’ category. As my experiences grow and I talk more and more with people of similar-ish life circumstances, ambition and outlooks it is becoming less and less the case that I hear somebody say ‘I love my job. My team are great, the work is interesting and fulfilling and my manager is fantastic. I feel valued and recognised for my contributions and I can see myself staying here for a long time. Better still, I look up to and admire our leadership and I’d like to aspire to be like that some day”.

Some people may look at that statement and say “huh? that’s idealistic thinking right there – no job is like that” but I can tell you, I have been lucky enough to live that job and thrive in that environment – it does exist! Perhaps I am now ‘spoiled’ forever more as a result 😉 One of the main issues is, we’ve all become accustomed to just ‘putting up with’ the quite frankly mediocre (and in some cases toxic) environments we find ourselves in – in many cases even thinking ‘perhaps it’s my own fault, I expect too much’. So what (in my humble opinion) is at the heart of this outbreak of unfulfilled, down-trodden, unheard staff? Bad management and bad leadership. And linked to this, an idea I am calling the ‘enemy within’ for many organisations of today. That is, a glut of bad managers and leaders who are poisoning the organisations from the inside out and bringing down many bright, passionate staff with them.

One of many issues with the ‘enemy within’ is that people are unaware it’s there and / or are unwilling to accept it’s existence. Bad managers and leaders are allowed to crush and shrink their staff like the proverbial plant shoved into a dark corner. This can be for a number of reasons – it might be because those people are good at ‘politic-ing’ and maneuvering away from scrutiny or that the organisation doesn’t care enough to honestly reflect in on and challenge itself. The most common thing I’ve heard (and seen) a lot of is the genuine belief of some leaders and managers that they are great at what they do, but the reality is a far cry from their perception.

This situation I think raises so many questions for the modern day workplace (and could be extended out to our personal lives too) about how we understand our people, value them and ensure the very best performance that comes from the heart.

I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) tell others what to do, as I am far from perfect and have much still to learn. But as usual I will share my thoughts on what works – as a manager and leader and as someone who has been managed and led. These are the killer questions I ask of myself:

  1. Have you sat down in a relaxed environment and asked your people about themselves, their interests and ambitions? This sounds basic and common sense but I believe this is where many managers and leaders are going wrong – they haven’t really invested time in getting to know their people so how can they genuinely care for and understand them.
  2. How clear are your expectations? Do your people know what you expect of them in terms of delivering specific things and the kinds of behaviours you would hope to see? This is another important thing for me, as a manager or leader there is no getting away from the fact that you will have expectations of your people – for me I think it’s about clearly articulating these but then allowing people the space to decide for themselves about the approach they take to meeting them. Goal and objective setting together is a great way to understand each others’ expectations and aims.
  3. Have you developed trust and openess with your people? This doesn’t just happen because you say it does. Actions speak louder than words so how do you really show people that you are to be trusted and that you truly welcome honesty.
  4. Do you regularly ask for feedback with a genuinely open approach? Are you prepared to hear the ‘bad’ things as well as the good? Nobody is perfect and hardly anyone gets things right first time. When someone is new to your team (or wider life) how do you find out how you’re doing and whether you’re hitting the right note? It’s by asking regularly and being prepared to listen to ways in which you can do better.
  5. Have you spent time reflecting on what things might feel like / be like for that person? Empathy is a hugely important part of connecting with someone, so being able to think about how you might feel if you were in their shoes goes a long way to helping them to feel understood and supported.

I know much of the above sounds simple and common place but having recently seen too many fantastic, intelligent and ambitious people be adversely affected by bad managers and leaders it struck me that perhaps more sharing of experiences and ideas wouldn’t go amiss. More challenge aimed at organisations to really assess whether they are good at leadership and managing their people.

So in finishing, here is my question to everyone out there…What will be your choice for 2016 and beyond? Do you choose to support people to flourish and grow or will you knowingly or unknowingly fail them, leaving them to shrivel in a world of disengagement and frustration? Will you choose to help your people to thrive and innovate or are you going to thwart ambition and change in favour of comfort and control?

An organisation is only ever as good and successful as the people working there and in investing time, effort and care in your people (much as that may require a cost to you in the short term) you will be successful beyond your greatest dreams.

“Success is a team sport. It requires dedication, inspiration, and passion; and one can never get that without cultivating the culture of trust, mutual respect, and empowerment.” Forbes 



How to lose without becoming lost…


I’ve come to the conclusion over the past few months that I have a lot to learn and that by writing about these important life lessons it may somehow help me to process / develop / accept. And so begins my first blog…You guys are the poor b*ggers who have to read this drivel 😉 I’ll be blogging about anything and everything…essentially whatever has been on my mind that day, week or month!

So I found out today that the leader of my current place of work is to leave. For many, this wouldn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary – organisations chop and change CEOs all of the time. But for me it has left me with a sense of loss and a slight feeling of panic. Our leader you see has been an inspiration to me – an example of someone who can work at a very high strategic level while keeping his feet firmly on the ground, someone who remembers the names of all those who work for him and always has a warm smile for them. The type of person who you know what his values are because they’re written all over his face, you know he’s genuine because his eyes and demeanour say so – there is a real feel of authenticity about him and you can’t help but warm instantly to that. This is a person who has managed to get the balance between leadership and staying ‘in tune’ with his followers right…something I am led to believe is a real rarity.

I think part of the reason I am feeling this particular change so significantly is because I came from a place of work before this where even the departmental leader didn’t know your name, let alone the Chief Exec. In fact the reason he didn’t know your name is because quite frankly, he didn’t really care what you did. You were just a tiny little cog in a big machine. Granted, my previous workplace was a much bigger organisation and it would be nigh on impossible for the CEO to know everyone but it was about much more than that. I never got a sense for who he was and what really drove him and hence never felt a particular affinity with him or the organisation he was leading. And that became the hallmark of the people who worked under him too – there was no real sense of curiosity or moral purpose in the corridors but rather a stale stench of cynicism and feeling unappreciated. A toxic atmosphere that if you stayed too long, would slowly eat away at your soul until you crumpled into a shell of your former self. Of course there were odd exceptions, most of whom I was lucky enough to work with in my immediate team… but one by one we left or moved elsewhere before the toxicity became too much and our careers became a lifetime of moaning and unfulfillment.

So when I joined my current place it was literally like a breath of fresh air. The building was brilliant and light, the people were friendly and there was a real buzz about the place. The sense of commitment and moral purpose was palpable and best of all, there were none (or realistically I should say ‘less’) of the hierarchies. Here was a place willing to give a relatively inexperienced person like me a real chance with my career and as a result I feel I’ve grown from strength to strength and confidence to soaring confidence. I wondered to myself what made this place so ‘different’ and I now attribute it to two main factors:

1. The setting of high expectations, the development of a ‘nurturing’ environment and the air of informality from the current CEO

2. The objective positioning of the organisation away from too much government control or politicising…

Both of of these things are about to change…And it fills me with a sense of trepidation… 

People within the organisation often talk of it as pre-xxxx and post-xxxx as if he came in and created some new era or new world. Certainly the resounding opinion is that he came in and made it a much better place and I know from being out in the field a lot that many external people attribute the success of our organisation to this person too. However, I now feel I’m going on as if he is some kind of god on earth and that’s not my intention nor is it true – no leader is ‘perfect’ or infallible and I’m sure there have been times when some have questioned decisions made at the top.

In fact the real test I believe of how well his vision and values have been instilled will be when he leaves… Only then can a true judgement be made on leadership skill. You see I’ve reached the conclusion that if someone truly is a great leader, then they will leave a legacy within their organisation that continues long after they are there at the forefront. Those around them will have been so affected and inspired by their drive, purpose and approach that they aim to emulate that and help to sustain the positive environment created by their leader…I know I certainly will be aiming to do just that but the real question is, will others want to do the same?!

However, the leaving of this great leader is also made worse by the change of the organisation to a more politicised, government driven environment. This worries me hugely as I felt that one of the reasons my previous workplace became so toxic was in part because politics and ‘agendas’ got in the way of the fundamentals…i.e. having an organisation that actually cares and nurtures its workforce. Everything became about point scoring and what the government wanted (or would give funding for) and not actually about what the person using the service wanted or needed. We became seen purely as servants of the government’s agenda, disinterested in what the person at the heart of it all wanted – the media gave us all a bad name and tarred us with the same brush and the leadership of the organisation wasn’t strong enough to fight back and stick up for us. So we (and the government) began to believe the hype – the workforce began to think ‘well if I get all this flack for actually doing my job, why bother doing anything at all?’ and then the media would give us (rightly so this time!) another going over… And so began a vicious and toxic circle of rhetoric and self-fulfilling prophecy.

So what does all of this tell me about leadership? What lessons can I take away from my current feelings of fear and anxiety? Well quite a lot actually…

1.   No matter how high you climb, always stay true to your values and keep them plain for people to see – stay true to who you are as a person even when others try to change you. Showing emotion and the ‘real’ you is never a weakness and should be something to be proud of.

2.   Remember the people you lead are ultimately the ones who help you to achieve all you achieve. If you don’t have time in the day for anything more, the least you can to do is to remember their name and throw a warm smile in the corridor.

3.   If you truly want an organisation to succeed and grow, ensure you instil your vision and values in those around you. And when eventually you do leave, be confident that when you are no longer there your legacy will continue.

4.   Try to find the balance when working within a government focussed environment between politics and keeping the people you serve at your heart – if one of the two has to slip, well then let it be the politics…perhaps you’re not cut out for that kind of environment anyway! You can continue to live life knowing at the very least you kept the ‘people’ interest firmly in your sight.

5.   Always strive to have a motivated and what I’d call ‘curious’ workforce and if you feel that slip, make it your number one priority to address. A toxic work environment is not good for anyone and it’s amazing how it can slowly creep up on you bit by bit…

6.   Finally, when you lose someone who inspires and motivates you – then you have a duty to find someone else to fill that gap. Sitting here feeling a little lost is not going to help me, I need to look for my inspiration elsewhere! And if I can’t find it…well, that ultimately will tell me something about the environment within which I work.

So as a closing remark at the end of my yabberings…Whichever way I look at it, the person to rely on is me. As much as I feel a little abandoned and lost right now, I do have faith that I’ll find a new path and a new person(s) to admire. The fact that I can still be incredibly inspired by someone and motivated to do well is a good thing in its own right – it shows I still have more to achieve, learn and strive for. So I’ll take a small comfort in that thought while I ride out the storm of an organisation in change…keeping my fingers crossed for better weather ahead and a remaining legacy of a vibrant and inspirational leader 🙂