Thursday, 11 May 2017

The 10 Best Questions All Great Leaders Should Ask

I have been spending a lot of time talking with leaders recently about their questioning skills. Currently, I have a large project that is focused on customer engagement, and what strikes me is how quick and easy it is for managers to ‘tell’. They want to focus on either (a) telling me what they’ve done to resolve the issue (like that’s going to happen in three minutes flat) or (b) who they moved in or moved out of the business so that their challenges around engagement will now go away. My question is: what’s stopping you from being more curious about this situation?

It seems to me that as children, our curiosity is on turbocharge. We don’t know so much and so we ask endless questions. But what happens when we 'grow up’? As professionals and as leaders, why do we stop asking questions and why do we think we must always have a quick and ready answer? I used to work for a boss who endlessly said that the difference between managers and leaders was that managers had all the right answers and leaders had all the right questions. Leaders who have ‘executive presence’ ask brilliant questions regularly. These questions may be to us, or it may be to others, but they work. Here’s my top 10…
  1. Why are we doing this? In the words of Simon Sinek, “your people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”. Leadership is an inspiration business. Our people aren't inspired to make a profit. Rather profit comes as a result of inspirational leadership. So, that means engaging our people, our customers, our shareholders around a vision, so that they buy into something bigger, better, and more meaningful. When we do so, we can achieve extraordinary things. 
  2. Who’s doing this best? This is all about un-ending curiosity to find and learn from the very best. Are we looking outside of our business, and perhaps our industry, to see what we can learn from others? Wheel re-invention is over-rated. We need to consistently seek out those who are better/best and learn. 
  3. Who’s challenging my thinking? Great leaders surround themselves with people who challenge. However, it takes courage for our people to do so and it is a reflection of our style if the answer to this question currently is ‘no-one’. Have we created a culture where they are frightened of us? Or, do we have mainly ‘B’ players within our business? Or, am I not doing a good enough job in terms of attracting the very best talent in the market? 
  4. What are my values? People join organisations and leave managers – and they do so because their values aren’t aligned with ours. Do we live my values in our behaviours every day? Do we do so intentionally? If our answers are sketchy then the answer is ‘no’ and our people don’t ‘get’ us properly. We need to be consistent and intentional in order to be credible. 
  5. Have I done my best work today? This is about self-care, energy, drive. Paying attention to ourselves and how we are as leaders is essential to being effective. If we haven’t got enough exercise, sleep, water, fun, relaxation, laughter etc. in our lives, then our resilience is eroded by the sheer pace and demands of working life – and consequently both ourselves and our people suffer. 
  6. How am I spending my time? The single most consistent reason I hear for my clients not achieving what they set out to achieve is the lack of time. Everything about time is a choice. How we choose to spend it (like money), tells the world all that we care about. We can say that we care about our people, but if we don’t spend the right amount of time with them, then we don’t care enough. If we believe that we haven’t got time to complete a certain task then what we’re really saying is that we don’t care enough about it to make time. Regularly reviewing and auditing our calendar and our operational rhythm is an essential best practice. 
  7. Who have I caught ‘doing something right’? All too often it’s easy to get absorbed by what’s not working. Finding and celebrating success with our people by giving them feedback which is meaningful, authentic and inspiring drives engagement, productivity and performance off the chart. 
  8. How strategic am I being? Successful leaders have a strong operational focus and execution bias because of a fast paced business environment. However, if we don’t make enough time to be more strategic, challenging, disruptive and creative in our longer term thinking then we will falter, and so will our teams and our business. 
  9. What do I need to let go of? One of the tasks I set my clients is to delegate 30-40% of their role per year – so that in less than three years they are redundant – in their current role. Why? Because we need to stretch and develop our people to enable them to step up, plus the business will be so transformed within that time that our skills and our talents will need to evolve to meet that. We can’t progress if we’ve not invested sufficient effort in evolving our teams and if we don’t do that, then we are already out of touch and out-of-date. 
  10. What do I need to develop? I am always curious about how comfortable leaders are. If we feel comfortable – then it’s time to make a change. Whether that’s a new role, a new opportunity, a new project or new responsibility, we need to stretch and extend our capabilities so that we feel uncomfortable. That’s where we learn and grow, and that’s when we need the right resources around to help us on that journey. 
So, which questions do you need to ask more of today?

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Are You A ‘Manager On Meds’?

My focus with clients this month has been emotional intelligence and self-awareness. As the financial year and first quarter closes out, it’s fair to suggest that a number of teams, leaders and businesses are under pressure to make their numbers. There are several coaching assignments on which I am engaged at the moment where our conversations have taken us to how leaders operate under pressure. And therein lies the challenge.

Our leadership brand isn’t defined when we have had eight hours sleep, are fully prepared for a key meeting, present to a benign audience and communicate a non-contentious message. Our leadership brand is defined when we’ve had three hours sleep, had no time to prepare, have no idea what we’re talking about and face a hostile audience with a tough ‘ask’.

The problem with brands is a single word: consistency. Without consistency we don’t have a brand, and as leaders we need to be incredibly aware of this.

I once worked for a boss who fitted the description of ‘manager on meds’ perfectly. What I mean by that is each day was always a voyage of discovery in terms of whether they were going to be pleasant, approachable, encouraging and inspiring (and hence ‘on their meds’). Or, were they were going to be aggressive, arrogant, dismissive and rude (hence ‘off their meds’)? Each day became more and more difficult (even when he was okay), because what I was very aware of was the reticence and trepidation with which I approached my work, and my interactions with him. And he’s not the only one in business who fits the description, and the implications of this behaviour to our people and costs to our companies are absolutely huge.

I talk about the LEADER model of ‘Executive Presence’ which came out of my research on this topic. One of the ‘E’s in the LEADER model is ‘ENGAGE’. This is about leaders being able to win hearts and minds, inspire and enthuse, challenge and support, attract, develop and retain the very best people in the market.

Leaders with ‘Executive Presence’ are aware of their triggers and the impact of their behaviour on others – plus they know how to maintain control. We’re human beings, so that means we all have – and feel – emotion. If our leadership brand is defined in terms of being inconsistent, unstable, and overly emotional then it breeds the worst emotion in business - fear. People hide because quite frankly who needs it? Productivity, performance and people are seriously damaged by such behaviour and everyone loses out. All leaders are in a relationship business – no matter what their area of functional expertise. We never forget how others make us feel, and great leaders make their people feel safe, cared for, supported, challenged, empowered and motivated to achieve extraordinary things. 'Managers on meds' make their people feel the complete opposite.

Which one are you?

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Visible Leader

I have been working with a global business on a coaching assignment this year and I have had the pleasure to work with some of their senior talent. These are already extremely high performing, well regarded, long tenured leaders with superb technical skills. They are driving large, global, remote teams, at a distance, with cultural and language differences, in complex markets and against the backdrop of the need to be agile in driving change, get ahead of the competition and make their numbers.

So what’s the real challenge? (As if they don’t have enough already?) In short – and perhaps not surprisingly - it’s all about communication.

As leaders, our role is to engage, enthuse and inspire our people to deliver outstanding performance. Often the circumstances are tough, the market is difficult and our customers are incredibly demanding. We ‘communicate’ with our people, we are clear on our expectations, we explain our vision and we outline our values. So now, let’s just get on with it. If only it were that simple. If. Only.

To be an inspiring leader means being a visible leader. To be a visible leader means being an outstanding communicator. And somewhere within those two sentences is the challenge. I have gathered feedback from the most senior stakeholders across my clients’ businesses and these are my top ten lessons for all of us who want to be even more inspiring, engaging and visible in our businesses:
  1. Create an ‘operating rhythm’ of communication and stick to it.
  2. Get support (from within or across your leadership team) to help you plan, manage and implement the right messages to the right people at the right time. 
  3. Create simple but engaging stories. Data is just data – it’s the story behind the data that will win the hearts and minds of others.
  4. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Never assuming saying once or twice means that they’ve ‘got it’. They won’t all have and they’ll easily forget.
  5. Being visible as a leader means getting your message across without getting lost in all of the detail. One of the most continual messages I keep hearing is: be more crisp, be more concise, be more compelling.
  6. Develop some key ‘sound bites’. Key phrases, metaphors and analogies that make the point – especially when it’s a contentious or potentially unpopular one. Soundbites are more memorable, they ignite our interest and curiosity and – if they are good – will be repeated and become part of the fabric of the language across your organisation. 
  7. Use multiple channels – digital, face-to-face, 'all hands calls' etc. Know your preferred channel of communicating and beware of developing a bias towards it.
  8. Results get delivered when we talk, rather than cranking out emails. The more you have on your desk/inbox, the less time you have with your people. Beware! Develop your team to deliver operational excellence so that you can focus on a more strategic approach. 
  9. Are you controlling your time or is your time controlling you? If we ‘don’t have time’, then it’s the latter and we are kidding ourselves that we’re in control. We’re not. Force a change, no matter how busy your diary, to how you spend your time. Otherwise you’ll never get hold of it. Remember, how you spend your money and how you spend your time tells your organisation all that you care about.
  10. And since we’re talking about time, make time to observe and absorb the experience of being in the business with your teams. It builds enormous credibility, provides you with an unfettered view of the challenges and opportunities ahead, as well as giving the vital space to ask questions and listen. 
Leaders with Executive Presence make this look easy. I know that it’s not. We live in an attention deficient economy and if we’re not seen, then we’re not heard. If we’re not heard, then we can’t engage and inspire our people. So, what can you do now to increase your visibility today?

Friday, 17 February 2017

Why Leaders Lose Great People

Last year at this time, I posted an article on love and leadership and I make no apology for returning to this topic again in the Valentine’s month of February. This year I have spent a great deal of time talking with leaders about engagement and the questions that have continually arisen in our discussions include:
  • How do we engage our people? 
  • How do we win hearts and minds? 
  • Why isn't paying them a lot of money enough to make them happy and consistently productive? 
  • Alternatively, if we work in a very low paid industry, can we blame ourselves as leaders if our people choose to leave and go elsewhere to earn more?
  • How can I reduce the constant stream of attrition? 
  • Should I just accept that I work in a ‘nomadic’ industry?
  • And so the questions go on…
Here’s the thing. The challenge facing all leaders is how to attract, recruit, and retain great people. No matter how gloomy the wider global economy might be; finding and keeping talent is still one of our biggest challenges to commercial growth and success. Of course we have to focus on results. We drive a number, we improve a process, we fix a problem. But we don’t spend enough time focusing on our people and specifically, we don’t spend enough meaningful time with them. Without people we don’t have a business, and I don’t mean that we should all be wandering around our offices in a vague, listless way. I mean we need to engage in purposeful, productive and personalised conversations with them as individuals, talking about their potential, their purpose in being here and of course, their performance.

In conversation with managers in a manufacturing business, what became apparent was the notion that 1:1s 'are more of a tick box exercise’. Well, there’s the first problem. If we think it’s a tick box exercise, so will our people. What’s the purpose of a 1:1? Quite simply I think it’s to inspire. I think it’s to excite, motivate, coach, direct, delegate, reflect and listen to our people. If we do that well, the results follow. If we only focus on the numbers….we lose. And we lose great people. When was the last time you were inspired by a ‘tick box’ exercise?

Great leaders convey ‘Executive Presence’. I describe it as an ability to ‘reach’ their people. Executive Presence is about being able to connect, engage, enthuse, direct, delegate, delight, appreciate, listen to and inspire others. Effective leaders do so authentically, consistently and continually. In life (as well as in business), how we spend our money and how we spend our time tells the world all we care about. That’s it. There’s nothing else. Leaders lose great people because they don’t spend enough time in meaningful conversations with them, and what they convey as a result is the notion that they don’t care.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Significance of Colour in Business

As I write this email it is 'Black Friday’. Traditionally this is the day after Thanksgiving in the US, and it represents something of a shopping frenzy. Billions of dollars are spent and the tradition also
seems to have found its way to the UK, where bargains galore can be found online and in store at all hours of the day and night. Leaving aside the possible reasons why on earth you might want to partake in such activities, I am struck by the moniker of it being ‘Black’ Friday (as opposed to blue, yellow or orange). As it happens, the significance of it being called ‘Black’ Friday stems from the fact that originally when shoppers went out in search of a bargain, there were traffic accidents, road rage and even civil unrest. The colour black signified something negative, dark, ‘bad’, ‘undesirable’ and quite simply it demonstrates a simple truth.

As we enter the festive season, we associate Christmas with red and green and the origins of these colours date back well before Victorian times. According to Cambridge University, red and green were used to delineate different spaces within the church and where people sat and worshipped. So, parishioners sat on one side of the nave, and the clergy sat on the other side. Using red and green to represent a ‘boundary’ (whether it’s in terms of worshippers at Christmas), or whether it’s in terms of one year ending and another starting, colour had meaning and it spoke a language that everyone understood.

The colour purple was the last colour to be discovered on the colour wheel, and that made it expensive as a dye to use on clothes. This meant that only royalty and the clergy could afford to wear it. When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech after losing the Presidential election in November 2016, she (and her husband) wore purple. Let us be under no illusion. That choice of colour was deliberate. Purple signifies courage (i.e. the Purple Heart is a US military medal), luxury, ambition, dignity, devotion, pride, creativity and peace. It was also the colour of the suffragette movement.

So what?

So the colours we wear have meaning. Whether it’s in the colours of our favourite football team, the colours on our national flag or the colours in our home, human beings emotionally and physically respond to colour. There is a myriad of data which proves that the colour around us can affect our mood, our blood pressure and our appetite. Hotel lobbies, bedrooms, meeting rooms and offices around the world often have a pale, muted hue because it’s more calming and makes the space look bigger. When we wear high contrast (dark and light), it conveys authority because of the professions (police, judges, clergy, nurses etc.) who wear it. When we wear colours with little contrast, it conveys more approachability. Our choice of garment colour represents a chance to convey a message. There is a reason why bright yellow trouser suits for men are hard to find…or orange suits for work for ladies.

The colours we wear matter; so when you next get dressed for work, ask yourself – what is the message I want the world to get about me and how is my choice of colouring helping or contradicting that message. Leaders with Executive Presence put consistency and intention into their look - including their choice of colour to wear.

Until next time…

Sarah Brummitt FFIPI AICI CIP

Check out Sarah’s website at and sign up to the newsletter.

One of only a handful of image professionals as well qualified in her field, anywhere in the world.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

For Professional Women Everywhere - The Rise of the Power Haircut

Hair has always been an issue. Whether we are talking about history, culture or religion, there is certainly a lot of significance attached to hair. In addition, when we are looking at photos of ourselves in our formative years; the thing that usually gets noticed first is our hair. And whilst it is all too easy to dismiss this topic as frivolous and unimportant, the reality is that our hair matters.

On November 8th 2016 the USA went to the polls. Despite the fact that this particular election cycle appears to have been the longest, and certainly the most divisive in US history, it has created history. And what’s the thing that people often comment about in relation to Trump’s appearance? Of course it is the hair.

In the UK, we have a female Prime Minister, as well as female First Ministers for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The first female Presidential candidate was nominated by the Democratic party this year. The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund is also a woman and of course, the list goes on. One of my absolute favourite TV shows ever is ‘VEEP', (a political satire based on the Vice President of the US, who again happens to be a woman), and even in this brilliant show, there was an absolutely hilarious episode that focused on her hideous haircut.

The question is of course: 'so what’? Well, all of the politicians I’ve named so far - and there are many more besides - have a particular type of hairstyle. It is shorter, shaped into a ‘bob’ style that now has the moniker of a ‘pob'. The political bob. This type of hairstyle is all about power. A women taking on a somewhat masculine style and softening it just enough to be feminine, in order to succeed in a male dominated political world. It¹s about authority, impact and strength. Long, luxurious locks don¹t work well for politicians because of the potential to convey frivolity and unnecessary expense in keeping it looking good. In addition, there are some social psychology studies that would suggest long hair can be associated with weakness. Hippies have long hair. Forbes magazine published the ’50 Most Powerful Women In Business’ and only eight women on it had long hair. A shorter style conveys control and power in a business world still dominated by men. Where hairstyles are longer, is in traditionally female dominated professions, which is more than a mere co-incidence. Ironically I have long hair. It's styled on Cruella De Vil and in combination with being tall, wearing high contrast black and white a lot, having a more dramatic sartorial style, a ‘flat’ face and an opinion on most things; my hair length is the one attempt to ‘soften' my appearance and appear less scary. 

So, should we all rush out and get our haircut? Actually no.

Leaders with Executive Presence put intention and consistency into their look – and so their hair is an important component of doing this successfully. What is essential for professional women everywhere is to have a cut that suits the face and manage the condition of it first and foremost. We shouldn’t fiddle with it endlessly in the office and if we add colour; we should look after it (as roots are never a good look). As leaders we have our own leadership style; and we all have different ways to convey power and authority. For some, this means a trip to the hairdressers.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Wearing What We Mean

In the United Kingdom, this time of year is known for two things: the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and the season of party political conferences. Leaving John Keats’s description of autumn to one side, in fairness, the UK has had a lot going on recently. Over the summer: a dramatic vote to leave the European Union, seismic changes to our political leadership across a number of parties and at the very top of our government, a change of Prime Minster (another woman no less!). In addition, as I write this, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have returned this week with their family after a very successful tour of Canada, and so I am prompted to revisit the topic of the meaning of our choice of clothing. Why? Because what we wear says something – whether we like it or not.

So let’s go back to politics for a moment. On Sunday 2nd October 2016, one day after her 60th birthday, Teresa May stood up to give her first conference speech as leader of the Conservative Party, and Prime Minster of the United Kingdom. A tough ask for anyone in her shoes, (which I’ll come back to in a moment), but particularly given the growing calls in the UK for clarity on when steps will be taken, to start to extricate the country from the rest of Europe and by so doing, move away from more than 40 years of legislative, commercial, economic and political entanglement. May needed to be clear, decisive, inspiring, inclusive, determined and collaborative. On top of all that – she needed to nail what she wore. In the end our Prime Minister chose a black trouser suit ('I’m a serious leader in a political world dominated by men'), accessorised with quite a fierce, chunky belt and bangle (but I’m not a man and I can assert my femininity and my individuality), pearls (a classic, feminine touch), and then velvet slippers. At first read of the last sentence you may be forgiven for
thinking: ‘what?!!!” Hold on a mere moment. Velvet slip-on shoes are very in vogue at the moment and Mrs May has a penchant for following fashion. She also has a reputation for being a hard worker, not very flashy, diligent, serious and earnest. Not necessarily bad qualities for a politician, but let’s get back to the shoes. Velvet as a fabric is soft and appealing to the touch and slip ons - or slippers – says casual, approachable, relaxed, ‘one of us’. But there was a detail to these shoes that cannot be mistaken. There were steel toe caps to these slippers. Yes, Teresa May wanted to convey warmth and approachability, but at the same time it’s clear that she was saying ‘Don’t. Mess. With. Me.’

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge brought their cherubic children with them on an eight day tour of Canada. Everything they wore was scrutinised for symbolism, relevance and – given the relentless number of photos taken of them – the visual aesthetic. The choice of colours for the Duchess’s outfit (a nod to the Canadian flag when she wore red and white, the maple leaf brooch which was a gift originally given to the Queen etc.) all drove acres of media coverage. When the children appeared, they were colour co-ordinated with their parents to convey family, love, aspiration, youth, the future, adorable, inspiring, in touch, the Monarchy etc. Royal tours create a vast amount of commercial and economic opportunity for both countries, as well as encouraging considerable debate, enhanced education and greater awareness of social, charitable and philanthropic interests which are close to their hearts. We cannot kid ourselves into believing that months of preparation and discussion DOES NOT go into finalising what they wear and wearing what they mean.

As leaders in business, we all have a visual signature. What we wear means something and the question is: do we convey the message that we want the world to get about us? Or do we think it doesn’t matter? Or do we simply never think about it? Whatever group you fall into, let’s be clear, leaders with ‘Executive Presence’ put consistency, intention and alignment in their look in order to support and convey their ‘brand’. Get it right; and we notice the person. Get it wrong and we notice the clothes.