September 21, 2017

Archives for July 2011

What can we learn from a stalled career?

Carol still applies for senior jobs that come up, but she’s lost count of the interviews she’s been to over the years only to be disappointed. She doesn’t tell her family anymore when she’s in the running for a new position. They can tell though.

Carol’s well-qualified, with plenty of relevant experience and good results to show for it. Her face just doesn’t seem to fit. That’s what she tells herself anyway, not noticing her victim mindset. The self-talk keeps her self-esteem up.

If nothing changes, she’ll see out the rest of her career at  her current level.

But wait, maybe the explanation is all wrong…

Maybe it’s because her attention is mostly on herself; maybe she doesn’t hear other people out; maybe she doesn’t focus on what’s important for them. I may be wrong, but that is my personal experience of her. Perhaps the interviewers somehow sense that Carol could be difficult to work with – focused on her own issues and oblivious to theirs.

It’s likely others experience Carol as not really attending to other people, but do any of them ever tell her? I doubt it. So they help sustain her misconception about her lack of advancement.

I’m complicit too…

I haven’t told her my hunch about what may be holding her back. I feel I don’t know her well enough.

And so Carol carries on with her behavior, oblivious to what’s holding her back, and what other people can see.

So what’s my takeaway?

Well, there’s the obvious one: “Attending to others” (listening and more) is a vital behavior. That’s a reminder for me too, having failed to do this with a friend recently.

But there’s a bigger learning…

We can’t depend on other people telling us what we’re doing wrong, even if they can see it.

So we need to develop our own self-awareness and sensitivity to feedback. We need an attitude of personal mastery – an openness to learning about how we interact with other people.

How do you tackle this? How do you track your own effectiveness

Are you stuck in other people’s comfort zones?

To grow, we need to step out of our comfort zone; to accept we don’t know everything; to take a risk.

We’re familiar with that.

But had it occurred to you that sometimes we may hold back because our actions, or intended actions are a frightening thought for someone else? We may be influenced by their fears, even if they’re not involved at all and have quite a different context from us and so a different view of the risks. Our conversation with them is enough for them to express their fears; fears they would have if they were taking the action. If we’re not careful, we moderate what we do to fit their comfort zone.

Make sure it’s your own comfort and discomfort that’s guiding you and not the fears of the uninvolved.

“Soft skills” are an optional extra, right?

The silence in the room is profound. Joe sits out front with the coach who’s running the workshop. No-one moves as Joe processes the question he’s just been asked; the question that will resolve the issue he expressed. The silence seems endless, as we wait for Joe to accept the shift within himself that will move him on; to see what he needs to see to progress. (We’re all Joe really.) The coach masterfully guides him in his learning, maintaining the trust and safety on which all else depends. Joe finds what he needs. He cracks a joke to relieve the tension. We laugh.

Some people call these “soft skills.” Well, they don’t look very soft to me and they don’t feel very soft either, when you expose your own issues, doubts, fears, and – even worse – ambitions to the constructive input of an experienced coach and 25 or so fellow participants…

OK, so this is maybe a bit more extreme than the typical workplace.

Or is it?

The ability to handle challenging situations is central to leadership. As a colleague once said “the ability to relate to other people is the most critical skill a person can ever have”, and Tom Peters, for example, said recently that senior people spend almost all their time doing two things: Running meetings and dealing with people, and so relationship skills are key.

Where possible, I avoid the phrase “soft skills,” because it risks implying relationship skills are a “nice to have” and much less important than other, proper “hard” skills. What are those anyway? Professional skills, I suppose. Better to use language that’s more specific about what we want to see happen like “collaboration skills” or “ability to resolve conflict” or “relationship building.”

“Soft skills” sound like something we’ll get round to when there’s time, which there rarely is, of course.

So here’s my takeaway…

To help others value the expertise as much you do, drop “soft skills” from your vocabulary and replace it with something else.

It makes a difference.

Collaboration – Everyone’s talking about it but do we have the bandwidth?

Talk of collaboration is everywhere. We recognize that we need to work together more, even in a competitive world setting us against each other if we allow scarcity to be our driver.

How well do we know how to collaborate anyway?

Collaboration, and teamwork for that matter, implies a number of people (techies might say “nodes”) working together in an interconnected way, possibly on something large and complex, with many links between the elements. If the enterprise was a physical system, we’d be thinking about the bandwidth of the interconnections, or at least the engineers would be. Are the interconnections up to the job? Will they carry the necessary signals fast enough in both directions, and will those signals be received and understood? Can they cope with noise and interference? What happens if energy levels are low? Will the interconnections work well enough to keep the system operational, or limit any down-time to something tolerable?

If the physical design doesn’t measure up, we know the system won’t work.

So why do we expect to get away with inadequate interconnections when we collaborate?

If the relationships in a system of collaboration aren’t strong enough to sustain the program, product or service it is intended to deliver, then the system will fail, just as surely, but perhaps less abruptly, than a physical system. Then, seeing as people are involved, we’ll probably muddle the analysis, attributing accountability in the wrong places, and, having made thoroughly sure nothing will be learnt, settle down and prepare for the next episode.

It doesn’t have to be like that…

Do all the interconnections in your systems of collaboration have the bandwidth to deliver the intended result?
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