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 >
March 1st, 2022
Huge thanks to the many organisations who helped the work experience part of my sabbatical so insightful and enjoyable. Yeo Valley, John Perkins Construction Ltd, Christ Church Westbourne, NHS Education for Scotland, Julia’s House, On Purpose and Meningitis Now, thank you very much!View comments >
April 13th, 2021
If you’re dealing with a big challenge, you’re often drawn to its physical or practical issues. This blog encourages you to also consider your mindset. If you want a book (or audio book) to explore mindset in more detail, I strongly recommend any one of the following three:
- The Chimp Paradox, by Steve Peters
- Positive Intelligence, by Shirzad Chamine
- Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
In different ways, all three articulate the view that our brains have two main parts:
1. The Growth Mindset aka Our Best Self, or Sage
As the names suggest, this part of the brain is ‘us on a good day’. It’s wise, empathetic, forgiving and discerning. It understands that things may not be as they first appear; that things are rarely black or white, good or bad. It accepts ambiguity and that very little is certain. It thinks before acting.
2. The Fixed Mindset aka Our Chimp, or Saboteurs
This part of our brain makes immediate judgements, sees things as good or bad and others as either friends or enemies. It’s fuelled by emotion and acts before thinking. It ensures your basic needs are prioritised and its tendency to worry and remain vigilant keeps you safe. Indeed, its evolutionary importance explains why it is often stronger than the ‘best self’ part of your brain. It’s also stubborn. If it decides it’s not going to do something, it’s unlikely that your ‘best self’ will be able to persuade it otherwise. This is why willpower alone rarely leads to sustained change.
So what can you do? Firstly, you need to accept that you can’t change your chimp’s nature; but you can manage its behaviour. To manage your chimp effectively, I recommend bringing in the A-Team. No, not the 1980s characters of BA, Murdoch, Hannibal and Face, but the A-Team of:
The first ‘A’ of managing your chimp involves being really aware of what it’s feeling. It’s easy to know when your chimp is dominating your thoughts and feelings; it’s anytime you’re having thoughts and feelings that you don’t want to be having. However, your chimp needs to feel listened to and understood. To do this, it helps to identify the specific emotion that’s causing your unhelpful thoughts. So if you’re not looking forward to the next part of your challenge, try and get beyond the common first response of ‘I just don’t feel like it’. Is it stress in relation to other things that need to be done today, or fear as to whether you’ll be able to manage it?
For example, during a recent personal challenge, going beyond the ‘I just don’t feel like it today’ made me appreciate that I was actually feeling feeble and inadequate, as I was struggling to do something I’d been able to do before.
By identifying the precise emotion, your chimp will know you’re aware of how it’s feeling and this will comfort it. It’s not uncommon to struggle with finding the precise feeling you’re feeling, so choosing from a list can be useful. One such list can be found here.
Once you’ve identified your emotion, the next ‘A’ is to accept it. If you’re not feeling a particularly positive emotion, this can be hard to do, but feeling bad about feeling bad is even worse. Accepting the emotion prevents this from happening, as acceptance takes the ‘heat’ out of the emotion. Negative emotions like lurking in the shadows. Acceptance brings them out into the light where they can’t last long. In my case, accepting that I was feeling feeble and ‘naming it’, helped avoid any sense of shame in feeling this way.
With the emotion not feeling as powerful, you can move onto the next ‘A’, attendance. Here the goal is to attend to your chimp, by finding simple statements that it will accept.
I give my chimp a name - it’s called Sparky. By trial and error, I’ve learnt Sparky accepts that;
“Everyone, including me, is allowed to have one bad day.”
Reminding Sparky of this during my challenging situation, helped calm him down and stopped him berating himself and me.
What will your chimp accept? Work out the short and simple statements that it will hear and accept.
The final ‘A’ is activate. Here the goal is to activate your chimp’s more positive attributes. So in my case, Sparky responded well to;
“I know you’re not enjoying this, but as soon as we get home you can have a nice hot bath, with a beer and some peanuts.” [Sparky loves peanuts!]
As soon as Sparky heard this, he was bought into getting the challenging situation done as quickly as possible.
With Sparky occupied and engaged, it also allowed me to activate some of my best self. I was able to empathise with how I was feeling and remind myself about why this challenging situation mattered and was worthwhile. In doing so, I was able to give my challenging situation a better narrative.
The narrative we construct around what happens to us is ultimately up to us. I hope being mindful of your two brains and using the A-Team of Awareness, Acceptance, Attendance and Activation, helps you construct the best possible narrative for you.View comments >
January 8th, 2021
In my adolescence and early adulthood, I developed a series of core values that I felt would stand me in good stead for life. They were as follows:
- Service: Equipping myself for life, not just for my own benefit, but for the whole community.
- Balance: Balancing work with life outside of work. Trying hard, without becoming a fanatic. Knowing when enough is enough.
- Equality: Endeavouring to create equality of worth and opportunity and striving to ensure that these are not inhibited by any inequality of resources.
- Fun/Positivity: Life’s too short to commit myself to careers or activities that I don’t enjoy.
- Health: Emotional, mental, physical and societal health enable life to be lived to the full.
- Integrity: Telling myself the truth. Am I really living my values if I proceed in this way?
- Relationships: What brings most purpose to life: very little of any true worth is done completely on my own.
- Quality: If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If I live all my other values, this value should take care of itself.
When I founded mch in 2005, it seemed obvious to me that the company’s values should align with my personal ones. On its inception though, I chose only to declare publicly three of the above values as company values:
I took the view that these were the most relevant to my company and the values that clients would be most interested in. By 2008, my values-based approach to business gained sufficient attention that I was asked to write a short article for a regional enterprise network on how values can inform business. An edited extract of this article can be viewed below.
Fast forward to 2018 and, while my values remained constant, a considerable amount had changed in both my personal and professional life. A notable change was that I had started a relationship with someone who also led a company. A period of turmoil ensued as I felt that the way they were leading their business was in conflict with some of my personal values. In particular, my partner’s organisation was distributing resources in ways I found difficult to reconcile. I felt that they, like most businesses, were perpetuating the inequalities of opportunity that exist in society. Essentially, I found it very hard to separate the personal from the professional. Indeed, I began to appreciate that there really wasn’t a separation of my personal and professional values. Although I had only listed three professional/company values on my company’s website, the other five personal values had informed, and continued to inform, my professional practice.
In particular, I was reminded of just how much the value of equality had shaped my career choices. For example, my initial decision for mch to exclusively serve charitable organisations and social enterprises was, in part, driven by a desire to provide a level of support and expertise that such organisations wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Furthermore, a key motivator in taking on the role of Chief Executive of Rumbalara, the indigenous sporting and community development organisation in Australia, was to assist a community that had been deprived of equality of opportunity.
The experience also strengthened my view that so much of my own situation and success stemmed from an inequality of opportunity. The biggest contributors to my good fortune were nothing to do with anything I had done. Yes, I have worked hard throughout my career and have tried to make the most of opportunities. However, the greatest opportunities have arisen on account of being born in a country where I had access to free education and from being born into a loving and supportive family. My innate intelligence is nothing of my own doing either, and even my work ethic is likely to have been influenced by the cultural environments I have found myself in. The result is that from an early age, I have felt that I am already a winner in the lottery of life. Consequently, I have tried to find careers and adopt a lifestyle that utilises the skills I’ve been lucky enough to develop, to help others win too.
A key outcome of this experience has been to be more public about mch’s broader values and to use my business to promote them. For example, the value of equality informs the pricing of mch’s online courses and the appeal to support equality of opportunity in learning and development that features within them. I’ve also experienced the positive impact that can come from engaging with organisations with differing values. In addition to clarifying what’s really important, experiencing differing perspectives can help bring about positive changes in thinking and acting.View comments >
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:
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 >