Regarding Communication

The Role of a Multiple Colour Pen in Feedback and Leadership

March 6th, 2018

Much of my passion for staff development comes from my own leadership experience. Such experience includes having been both a CEO and a Chair. In the near future, I will be standing down as Chair of a fantastic social enterprise called DECIPHer Impact (DI), which gets great public health research to those who need it. Consequently, I have been reflecting on leadership in general and my individual approach to it. The reflection was prompted when a friend asked why I always took a four colour pen to DI Board meetings and below is an abridged summary of the discussion we had.

Why the various colours?

I use the various colours to consciously denote the type of notes I am taking. Black is used to record key facts and decisions, blue for my own actions and green and red are for feedback.

Why two colours for feedback?

Firstly, because using 50% of the colours for feedback reminds me of its importance. In my experience, the level of good quality feedback often runs in direct proportion to individual, team and organisational performance. In short, feedback with a positive intent, delivered in a timely manner, is a key ingredient to success.

Secondly, the two colours highlight the type of feedback I am recording. Green records actions or behaviours that I think are worthy of praise. Red records actions or behaviours that cause me concern.

I find that using colours really helps when I reflect upon the meeting and my notes. Due to the colours, I can readily see the number and relative weighting of the various types of notes I’ve taken.

What are you looking for?

When it comes to feedback, ideally, I’m looking for five times as many green comments as red ones for each individual.

What’s with the 5:1 ratio?

The 5:1 ratio came to prominence through research conducted by the psychologist, John Gottman. He was really interested in the differences between successful and unsuccessful marriages. Rather unnervingly, he developed a way of predicting, with more than 90% accuracy, whether a couple would separate within the following three years. A key predictive indicator was the ratio of positive to critical comments between partners. Genuinely happy relationships consistently average 5 positive comments to 1 critical one.

Interestingly, the same 5:1 ratio has been found to be a key ingredient to high performing teams in the workplace.

[Note: The Harvard Business School article, ‘The Ideal Praise - to - Criticism Ratio’, by Jack Zenger and Joseph Falkman, summarises the related study.]

Anything Else?

An absence of both green and red notes is often a cause for concern as it suggests one of the following, none of which is ideal:

(i) I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to feedback

(ii) Individuals or teams are not stretching themselves

(iii) I’ve forgotten my pen!

So a Multi-Coloured Pen is the Key to Feedback and Organisational Success?

No. The colours are just a prompt. The key lies in disciplined actions. The first of these is disciplined reflection. A favourite quote of mine, by the educational reformer, John Dewey, is;

“We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”

In practice, this means taking the time to actively review my meeting notes. It also requires me to be really honest with myself, e.g. Have I been overly critical, by focusing more on mistakes than successes?

The second key action is disciplined follow-up: taking time to give feedback to the right people in the right way and at the right time. While positive feedback in the form of praise can be given within meetings, it’s advantageous to be mindful of individual preferences. While being praised in front of a group will be ideal for some, a quiet word on a 1:1 basis will mean more to others.

Positive feedback which is critical is almost always best delivered on a 1:1 basis. This poses challenges if team members are geographically dispersed. At times, these challenges can be overcome by using informal ‘windows of time’ for feedback, e.g. walking back to the train station with a team member after a meeting. However, sometimes it needs to be more formal and a special effort needs to be made. One memorable example is where I flew over 800 miles, specifically to give and receive feedback. While this was a significant investment of time and money, I’ve no doubt it sent out a powerful signal ahead of the meeting and played a really important part in it ending well.

Like with so much of management and leadership though, knowing what you should do is invariably the easy part. It’s the doing that’s hard. Looking back, I have not always been as rigorous as I should have been and there have been times when the discomfort of giving critical, but positive feedback has won out, and I’ve failed to provide it in a timely manner.

How can critical feedback be positive?

It all comes down to intent. If I genuinely believe that I’m giving the feedback to help the individual, team and organisation, then it can be positive, even if it is very challenging for the recipient to hear.

What about you? Who gives you feedback?

While I ask for feedback, I don’t always feel I get enough of it. This is one of the real dangers of being a leader. However, I often find external ‘critical friends’ to be very helpful, as are reflective conversations like this. Now I’ve got to go, or I’ll be late for the meeting!

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Why I’m a Happy Luddite

March 7th, 2016

This is the model of mobile phone I use. It first came out in 2010 and I liked it so much that I bought two more of them for when the inevitable replacements are required. As I see it, a major benefit of my phone is that it does not automatically tell me if I have a new email: I have to press a button if I want to find this out. My phone’s design is such that I couldn’t automate this process even if I wanted to do so. A year ago I visited a mobile phone shop and discovered that such a feature is far rarer in more modern phones. The visit was at the behest of a tech-savvy friend who, despairing of my phone, implored me to consider an upgrade. Upon picking up a shiny new phone and holding it up against my current one, I began by asking the sales person:

What’s the main benefit of this phone, relative to my current one?”

After trying (and failing) to disguise their surprise and bemusement that someone was still using my model of phone, they answered:

“Well it will immediately tell you if you have a new email.”

To which I responded:

“I can’t think of anything worse. Is it possible to switch that feature off?”

The by now dumbfounded salesperson stated they’d:

“Have to check.” as they “Never got asked that.”

Based on the above, it’s unlikely to surprise you that I am regularly described as a Luddite. The term Luddite relates to a group of 19th century English textile workers. It is a term that is often used to infer being ‘anti-technology’. However, the Luddites were only against technology if it had a negative impact on their quality of life, or if it threatened livelihoods.

While I accept that technology can make certain occupations obsolete, I certainly share a Luddite’s apprehension of the impact technology can have on our quality of life. I am, though, a happy Luddite. I find that I am happier when I have regular periods of being non-contactable. It is also good for controlling the ego – time and again I experience the reality of not being important enough to have missed anything significant during my time ‘off-line’. Furthermore, having time ‘off-line’ not only makes me more productive when I’m ‘on-line’, it also makes me more present in face to face conversations with others.

Over the last couple of years, I have been particularly struck by the impact of technology on face to face conversations. Unfortunately, it is increasingly common to experience ‘stop-start’ conversations with friends, as our face to face conversation runs in parallel with multiple text and Facebook conversations. In my professional work, it is common to see every single one of my training participants using their phones for the duration of scheduled breaks.

I generally consider myself as someone who is happy to ‘tread their own path’. Recently however, I was increasingly feeling in a minority of one in relation to my relationship with technology. So it was heartening to come across the book, ‘Alone Together’. Written by social psychologist Sherry Tuckle, it outlines the paradox that while technology enables us to be more connected than ever before, it may also be contributing to greater loneliness and straining our personal relationships. For this reason ‘Alone Together’ is mch’s ‘Resource of the Quarter’. For those who want a briefer overview of Tuckle’s research, click here.

Since raising this issue with colleagues, it’s been reassuring to learn that I’m not in a minority of one. It’s also been uplifting to learn how other individuals and organisations are balancing connectedness with solitary time or uninterrupted group time. For example, the fundraising department of one of mch’s clients is experimenting with a ‘golden hour’ every week. During this hour, staff switch off their emails, do not make any calls and go out of the main office if they need to receive a call.

I’d be interested to know if you are taking steps to maintain such a balance. Please add your comments below.

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Breaking Down the Elevator Pitch into Words

May 10th, 2012

In a blog post earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of the ‘Elevator Pitch’ - the ability to explain what your organisation does (and why it is important) in just a few seconds.

Are there benefits in being even more concise? Can your organisation be summarised in just a few words, rather than a few sentances?

mch believes there is value in trying to be more concise. To this end, we continually ask all our clients to nominate just three words which they believe best describes mch. We have summarised all these words in a word cloud, which can be viewed below. In essence we have found it very useful in finding out how we are perceived by those that really matter - our clients.

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Can you explain what you do in just a few seconds?

February 2nd, 2012

A current client of mch’s is the international mentoring organisation Mowgli. Last month it was a great pleasure to assist in Mowgli’s first mentoring experience in the South West of England (and only its second ever programme in the UK). At the end of the three day experience, the entrepreneurs involved gave their ‘Elevator Pitches’. For those unfamiliar with the term, an elevator pitch provides a short summary of one’s organisation, product or service and ideally outlines why it is needed/valuable. Having its origins in America (hence ‘elevator’ rather than ‘lift’) it is based on the following scenario;

You are waiting for an elevator and the door opens. Standing in front of you is your ideal investor/donor/person you would like to work with. It’s the chance of a lifetime, but it only lasts the length of the elevator ride.

Consequently, you have a very short amount of time to make a sufficiently positive impression that the person wants to continue speaking with you when they reach their floor.

There are many different ideas as to what makes a great elevator pitch. In general terms, my own views are it should:

  1. Answer some of the basic ‘W’ questions that someone is likely to have e.g. What?, Who?, Why?, Where?, How?, When?. You’re unlikely to have time to address all of the ‘W’ questions, so initially you need to make a considered guess as to which are most important. It’s then a case of testing your guess by practicing it out on people.

  2. Be simple. To put it another way, have a zero tolerance approach to assumptions: do not assume the person knows your sector and the associated jargon that goes with it.

  3. Focus on the problem that your organisation alleviates or the benefit it brings. This is because at the most fundamental level, people are drawn to things that either bring them pleasure or alleviate pain.

Specifically though, I have found hearing/reading the elevator pitches of other organisations to be most useful in developing an elevator pitch. Consequently, here is mch’s:

We work with third sector organisations….

Who are struggling in areas such as clarity of direction, staff performance, or the delivery of high quality services.

We help these organisations by providing management consultancy, staff development or non-executive director support.

Such help leads to an organisation’s:

  • Beneficiaries receiving improved support
  • Staff and volunteers being more skilled and motivated
  • Donors receiving a greater return on their donation

Ultimately this means our clients generate the positive impact they desire.

As a final thought, an elevator pitch should be considered in a similar light to a CV/resume, in that it should be tailored to different audiences and continually refined.

In the interests of ‘paying it forward’, please share your own elevator pitches by using the comment option below.

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Are you ready to increase your positive impact?