Leadership Insights from My Sabbatical
May 11th, 2022
As part of my sabbatical I conducted some work shadowing and had the privilege of shadowing or conducting in depth interviews with:
- A dairy farmer
- A clinical psychologist
- The owner of a construction company
- A charity CEO
- A fundraising team of a national charity
- A CEO of a social enterprise
- A priest
I knew these people personally or professionally and consciously chose to shadow a diverse range of people and professions. The only qualification was that I considered each individual to be consistently successful in their roles (using an ad hoc mix of subjective and objective measures).
The motivation for the shadowing was a genuine interest in fundamental questions, such as:
- Why do people do what they do?
- What does it take to be consistently successful in a role?
- Are there any common characteristics in top performers, regardless of their role?
Here are just three of the insights I gained from the experience.
1. The Importance of Purpose
A trait shared by all I shadowed was that their purpose was bigger than themselves. For example, when I asked the dairy farmer why he did what he did, he responded;
“I’m part of a story …. to make organic farming mainstream.”
He went on to say;
“My role is to ensure that if a cow ever leaves my herd, they do so in the best possible health.”
Given the costs of organic dairy farming are often double non-organic farming, but you can rarely charge double the price at the point of sale, there is an explicit need for innovation and consistently high performance. Also, if you do your very best to ensure cows stay fit and healthy, they’re more likely to produce good yields of milk. Both these factors are likely to improve the financial bottom line. However, for the farmer I shadowed, the financial benefits genuinely seemed to be an ancillary benefit to his primary goals of promoting organic farming and taking care of his cattle.
2. Values as a Driver
In many cases I was struck by the clarity of values and the lengths some of the individuals would go to live by them. To illustrate, the clinical psychologist I interviewed had worked with victims/survivors of rape. She was appalled by how often they were poorly treated by the court system. What she was observing ran completely counter to her value of justice.
Her response? Whilst still holding down a full time job as a clinical psychologist, she spent several years completing a law degree on evenings and weekends. This enabled her to engage with the legal profession, to bring about much needed change, in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if she weren’t a lawyer herself. Values drove outcomes.
3. Balancing Enough with Constantly Striving
One of the CEOs I shadowed had led their organisation through a period of expansion. As a result, the organisation’s Board felt it appropriate to award them and their senior leadership team and salary increase, in recognition of their increased remit and responsibilities. While the CEO did not oppose the increase for their team, they did not accept their own salary increase. Instead, they requested that their increase was reinvested into the organisation. This request was actioned very discreetly.
For me, this was someone who had taken the time to reflect on what was enough for them financially and then lived within those parameters. While at a micro level, I believe it sets a very important example for society as a whole, if we are to have a sustainable future. I also think that this individual understood that while their salary prevents them from feeling unappreciated, it does not provide reliable ‘fuel’ for continually striving to improve.
More than anything, the successful people I shadowed were humble. They were very aware that they would never be the finished article as a leader/practitioner, but they were deeply, intrinsically motivated to continue on the journey of improvement.View comments >
Helping Us All by Addressing the Leadership Imbalance
May 1st, 2020
Recently, I attended a research event that explored the experiences and challenges women face in transitioning to senior leadership roles in fundraising. The title of the excellent research says it all:
‘Missing Out: Understanding the female leadership gap in fundraising’
Four issues struck me in relation to the current leadership imbalance, which I believe are relevant to almost all sectors, not just fundraising:
(ii) A Lack of confidence/Imposter syndrome
(iii) Short-termism and its impact on strategy and culture
(iv) Perspective: unrealistic expectations as to what is ‘enough‘
In this blog, I aim to elaborate on these four issues and highlight what can be done to address them.
At times, being at the research event proved very uncomfortable for me, as a man. The stories shared about sexism were loathsome and the extent to which gender stereotyping takes place (75% of female fundraisers have faced gender stereotyping in their role) was deeply saddening.
What can be done? I have three suggestions:
Raise awareness amongst male leaders and trustees
Awareness of the problem is the first step to addressing it. I felt it was a shame that, at the launch event, which was attended by around 100 people, the number of men in the room was in single figures. Consequently, make it your goal to share the report with at least three male leaders you know.
Create opportunities for male leaders to be the ‘odd one out’
Privilege can be thought of as anything you take for granted. While I like to think that I have always been egalitarian, this value was sharpened during my role as Chief Executive of the Australian aboriginal organisation, Rumbalara. During my tenure, being on the receiving end of racism, sexism and ageism increased my appreciation of its impact. Furthermore, it was hugely valuable to simply experience what it’s like to be in the minority. It made me appreciate that being in the majority was something I had taken for granted.
Let’s be optimistic and postulate that the behaviour of some male leaders is down to ignorance, rather than malice. To address the ignorance, training in areas such as unconscious bias can be very helpful. However, I believe it would also be incredibly valuable if experiencing being the ‘odd one out’ became a standard part of any man’s induction into a leadership role. Such experience does not have to be as dramatic as being seconded to an aboriginal organisation on the other side of the world! There are numerous ways of surrounding yourself with people who are not like you. Simply going to events which are almost exclusively attended by women can be enough.
For leaders more broadly, spending time in institutions, societies or even pubs that have a very different social and economic demographic to the ones you usually frequent can be insightful. If possible, going to parts of your town/city where your skin colour puts you in a minority can have an equally powerful impact.
A key aspect of high performing teams is what is termed ‘psychological safety’. An overview of this term can be found here. In short though, if you feel you have psychological safety in a group, you feel able to be candid and honest. You feel the team has a positive regard for you and is sensitive to your emotions. Equally, you have a positive regard for the team and are sensitive to the moods of others. A key characteristic of teams with ‘psychological safety’ is equal ‘air time’: no one consistently speaks more in meetings than anyone else.
Do your teams have equal air time? How can you find out? Technology can help. Apps like GenderAvenger can be used to analyse how much time men and women are talking for in a typical meeting. A consistent imbalance could open up a useful conversation.
Confidence and Imposter Syndrome
A lack of confidence and/or a sense of imposter syndrome were also raised at the research event. In my role as deliverer of The Institute of Fundraising’s Future Leaders Programme, this is something I see a lot (in both men and women). The Future Leaders Programme is designed to help those who have either just started a formal leadership position, or for those who are at a career crossroads and are asking themselves:
Do I want to take up a formal leadership position?
What does authentic leadership look like for me?
Find a Good Boss
How can a lack of confidence/imposter syndrome be addressed? In my experience, the most effective way is to ensure it doesn’t arise in the first place! I’ve observed hundreds of staff members who’ve caught the syndrome and hundreds who have not. While correlation does not always equal causation, the most common distinguishing feature of those without the ‘disease’, is that they have a great boss. Consequently, when applying for a role, be sure to interview your boss as much as they are interviewing you. Speak to those who are/have been managed by them. How effusive are they about working for them? A significant number of ‘lukewarm’ appraisals should be taken as a warning sign.
Find Yourself a Mentor or Coach
A detailed review of both mentoring and coaching is a blog post in itself, but an insight into both can be found by clicking here. Essentially, both can cultivate the new mind-sets and behaviours required to be more confident. A mentor does not have to be some sort of oracle; some of my most valuable mentors have been peers. While coaching can incur a cost, the impact of a good coach should repay such an investment many times over. The key to either is simply to ask and give it a go.
Become a Trustee
Becoming a trustee is an opportunity to take on a genuine, but collective, leadership role. In doing so, many realise how much they already know and how much value they can contribute in a leadership role. The experience also proves incredibly valuable if you decide to take up a permanent leadership role, as such roles are very likely to require significant Board engagement.
Short-termism and its impact on strategy and culture
It’s commonly cited that many senior leadership roles are incompatible with caring responsibilities, and more fundamentally, with a balanced life. The reluctance of many organisations to allow part-time, shared and flexible working is often cited as a leading cause of the problem. Currently, since women are more likely to take on caring responsibilities, they are most impacted by the relative scarcity of the above practices.
In my view, the conversation needs to change. Currently, it often focuses on the difficulties and challenges of implementing flexible working practices. Instead, let the facts speak for themselves. Not only does flexible working lead to happier, more loyal staff, it leads to more income. In short, if you want to maximise your organisation’s impact to its stakeholders and beneficiaries, then flexible working should be the default way in which you work.
However, I think a more fundamental change also needs to take place, one in which organisations deprioritise short term targets and reprioritise longer term aims. Consider the following thought experiment:
A charity is recruiting for a new Director of Fundraising. Having completed the final round of the interview process, two candidates have performed equally well. Candidate A is female, recently married and has stated that they would like to start a family soon. Candidate B is male, has two adult children and has had a vasectomy to prevent having any more children. I realise it’s unlikely that the recruitment panel would ascertain this information, but for the basis of this thought experiment, let’s assume they have!
If the charity’s sole measure of success for fundraising is whether it achieves its ambitious 18 month target, then based purely on the above facts and criteria, selecting Candidate B would be the rational choice. This is because, given everything else being equal, Candidate B has a lower risk of taking extended time off in the next 18 months. Given the prioritisation of a short-term target, the potential impact of such a risk is significant. I realise that if the charity made their recruitment decision on this basis, it would be acting unlawfully (based on UK employment legislation). Unfortunately though, in my experience, this thought experiment is often played out in real life; it’s just that assumptions replace facts.
However, if the charity’s measure of success for fundraising is to hire and retain exceptional people and see fundraising income grow over a 10 year period, then Candidate B loses his preferential status. In addition to being more egalitarian, this approach also avoids the dangers of short termism and excessive goal setting. While such dangers are well researched and documented, many leaders remain unaware of them. Therefore, such information needs to find its way into more Board meetings and interview panels. Consequently, set yourself the goal of sharing this research with at least two Boards you know.
Perspective: unrealistic expectations as to what is ‘enough’
The last issue is the most fundamental. I believe we need to recalibrate our individual and collective sense of what is ‘enough’. As a former Chair of a social enterprise, I always asked the CEO to work with the team to satisfy themselves (not me or the Board) that the strategy we had collectively developed was achievable in the time we’d set aside. I did not prescribe how this should be done, only that it was conducted and that ultimately the team was confident the strategy was achievable. Conducting such a ‘sanity check’ seemed like common sense: there’s no point in committing to a strategy that staff don’t have confidence in achieving. However, many people have commented on how rare it is to conduct such an exercise. Sadly, it’s all too common to hear a training participant, or someone I mentor, articulate being asked to achieve more and more challenging targets with fewer resources. At the same time, they have incredibly high expectations in their role as a parent, partner, friend, sibling, son or daughter. Consequently, they often feel overwhelmed and unhappy.
The root cause of this dynamic is the expectation that we can always and should always ‘have it all’. I believe such an expectation is both pernicious and unachievable. We need to be kinder to ourselves. ‘It’s OK to be not OK’ and ‘done is often better than perfect’ are mantras I’d like us all be comfortable embracing. In my view, learning to have a genuine appreciation for having ‘enough’, rather than ‘it all’, is not a sign of defeat, but the way to sustainable contentment and success.View comments >
A Primer on Sleep
August 22nd, 2019
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey
‘A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.’
The Impact of Sleep
I’ve been fortunate to interview consistently successful people across an array of specialisms: organisational leaders, scientists, teachers, sports men and women, soldiers, actors and musicians. A practical characteristic they almost all shared was a focus on getting a good night’s sleep.
This finding is increasingly being backed up by scientific research. While there are some well publicised examples of high achievers claiming to need only four or five hours sleep per night, research suggests that the vast majority of us need seven to eight hours of quality sleep.
In her book, The Source, Dr Tara Swart states that:
- A disturbed night’s sleep can reduce your IQ by 5-8 points the next day
While such a reduction is not enough to inhibit your ability to function, it’s unlikely to lead to your best work.
More starkly, Swart highlights research indicating:
- An entire night’s disturbed sleep (e.g. taking an overnight flight) can reduce your IQ to a level akin to being drunk the next day
In addition to IQ, Swart stresses the replenishing/cleaning impact of sleep and its importance in reducing the risk of dementia. A video summarising Tara’s work can be viewed by clicking here.
“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”
David Benioff, Writer and Director
A lack of sleep can also lower your body’s immune system and start to impact on your mood/what you focus on. An interesting piece of research highlighting the latter, involved a memory test where participants were asked to remember sets of emotionally positive neutral and negative words. Participants who had a poor night’s sleep were able to remember 40% fewer words relative to those who weren’t sleep deprived, but they remembered far more negative words than positive ones. (1)
For me, the result suggests the evolutionary importance of sleep. A lack of it poses a risk to survival and puts our brains on alert for danger, hence the focus on the negative, rather than the positive.
“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Thomas Dekker, Actor
For all these reasons, sleep is increasingly being prioritised by those wanting to stay resilient and particularly those with management and leadership responsibilities.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, Author
For many, there is no great secret that needs to be discovered in order to get a good night’s sleep. The key is not so much gaining a new understanding to the practice of sleep, but strictly practicing your existing understanding.
Consequently, adhering to the following rules is often enough to get a good night’s sleep:
Significant events e.g. having a child, going through a divorce, facing a bereavement, or a particularly stressful period at work can lead to sleep problems; even if you strictly adhere to the above ‘rules’. Generally though, when such events pass, or become manageable, good sleep returns. For an unlucky few though, sleep can remain elusive, even when the above are followed and no major events are being faced. If this is the case, there are four steps I’d suggest taking:
(i) Seek expert medical advice to rule out potential medical conditions
You may have a medical condition e.g. vitamin deficiency or sleep apnoea that is causing your sleep problems.
(ii) Explore whether your mind has become ‘wired’ for a lack of sleep
I’ve known people who have gone through such a long and sustained period of stress, that sleeplessness has become a habit and they have convinced themselves that they are a ‘bad sleeper’. In addition to the above ‘rules’, such people have often found that relaxation exercises, mindfulness or neurolinguistics programming (NLP) techniques have also been required. In severe cases, where trauma has occurred, exploring therapy and counselling options has also been required to bring about change.
An increasingly common issue I see in my coaching and mentoring work is that the gap between one particularly stressful period at work and the next is becoming shorter and shorter, until work is consistently very stressful. Unless the person’s perspective to stress can change, the harsh reality is often that either the workload needs to change, or the person needs to change jobs.
(iii) Investigate whether your body needs realigned
Sometimes, there’s a physical explanation for poor sleep. For example, if your pelvis, back, shoulder or neck is slightly out of alignment, then lying for long periods can readily become uncomfortable, no matter how good your mattress. Such discomfort leads to you waking up, without always being consciously aware of the discomfort and thus able to connect it with your sleep problems. An initial consultation with an osteopath should identify whether such an issue exists and subsequent treatment can readily realign your body so no discomfort arises during sleep.
Many who solve their sleep problems at this point can often trace back the beginning of their sleep problems to an accident or injury (e.g. a car crash, sport injury). However, this is not always the case.
(iv) You may be part of a special minority
If none of the above apply to you and you are not suffering from having less than six hours sleep a night on a consistent basis, then you could be one of the small minority of people who don’t require as much as everyone else. In which case, don’t worry about and use your extra time wisely!
“If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there and worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the loss of sleep.”
Dale Carnegie, Writer and Consultant
A Note on Gender, Aging and Sleep
The menopause for women and an ever increasing prostate in men can lead to sleep problems as both genders age. Although medication exists to tackle some of the symptoms of both conditions, efficacy can be mixed and these areas would appear under-researched.
Further Reading and Viewing
In addition to exploring Tara Swart’s video and book which is listed above, the following research may be of interest:
The Work of Satchidananda Panda and The Salk Institute
The Work of Michael Breus
The above links give heavy reference to circadian rhythms, which is the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. Panda’s work looks at the interplay between sleep, diet and exercise, while Breus’ research is an update on the view that some of us are ‘larks’ i.e. morning people, while others are ‘owls’ i.e. are most active in the evening. Respecting the circadian rhythm, recognising our specific preferences and adjusting our routine accordingly (when you can), often proves another important step in improving our relationship with sleep.
(1) Walker, The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156, 2009View comments >
An Acronym for LEAD
May 13th, 2019
At a recent conference, the social entrepreneur, Carol Akiwumi, gave a session on Transformational Leadership. In her talk, she used LEAD as an acronym to highlight the key qualities she believes are required for leadership.
L E A D
L is for Learn and Leverage
Great leaders appreciate that there is always more to learn and that they are never the ‘finished article’. Consequently, they are feedback hungry and retain an appetite for development.
They also appreciate that they cannot do it all on their own. Consequently, their most important decisions are people decisions. They recruit, induct and retain great people and embrace the practice of delegation.
E is for Embrace and Empower
Leaders embrace change (as it is inevitable). They also embrace risks and mistakes on account of them being essential for development.
Great leaders also empower others to embrace change, risk and mistakes too.
A is for Authenticity and Action
Great leaders are comfortable in their own skin. They share who they are as people.
Great leaders also promote a healthy urgency for action.
D is for Diversity and Drive
Great leaders delight in difference. Consequently, they are careful not to recruit in their own image and embrace the positive tension and variety of perspectives that comes with a diverse team.
Great leaders also connect their values to their work to create sustainable drive and motivation. They are also masters at helping others to connect with their intrinsic motivations.
What would be your acronym for LEAD? Please let me know by clicking on the ‘Comments’ link below.View comments >
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