How leaders start Electric Conversations

Powerful tips to facilitate more creative team meetings

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Have you ever been in a conversation that takes on a life of its own? You lose track of time and become completely engrossed? Sometimes, it even makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end? In the The Spark, How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity (FT Publishing) I coined a phrase for these special interactions that has chimed with a lot of business people: Electric Conversations.

After years of working with management teams in creative companies on leadership and change, I noticed an important skill that separates inspiring leaders from the rest: they facilitate meetings in which Electric Conversations are encouraged.

You’ll have experienced an Electric Conversation. They often precede important decisions and change in your life. Sadly, they’re often stifled at work. People clam up because they’re scared of sounding stupid – especially when the boss is the room. This kills off any hope of innovation.

Allowing creative discussions to flow couldn’t be more important to your business; these conversations are behind every profit-making idea you’ll ever have. They lead to that most precious of commodities: new ideas. Ideas change your future. Electric Conversations allow ideas to develop in the spaces between people.

You can tell when you’re having an Electric Conversation because they are:

Idea-Driven: Not focussed on hierarchy – all about the idea.

Brave: Constructive conflict is part of it – and the potential for failure takes courage.

Passionate: It’s not possible to be creative without caring.

Playful: No assumption of a “right way” – unpredictable, playful and fun.

Purposeful: The team can disagree – but share values and an inspiring purpose.

If you want to start some Electric Conversations here’s how:

  1. Find a Challenging Question: Think of one of the biggest or most intriguing questions facing your business. Something that makes you scared and hopeful all at the same time. Some examples: How could we improve our products to embarrass the competition? What are we really good at – AND really bad at (but have been too scared to admit it?) What new technology do we need to exploit before it makes us irrelevant?
  2. Pick a Diverse Team: Invite a group of people to a no-holds barred creative conversation – be careful to select them from all levels and all parts of your team or business.
  3. Drop Hierarchy: Make it clear you are all there “on the same level”. Listen more than you speak. Facilitate a flowing discussion where all are involved and then summarise what was achieved. This is a golden opportunity for you to demonstrate what an Electric Conversation should look, sound and feel like.
  4. Observe Carefully: Use your eyes, ears and instincts to make sure the conversation embodies the Electric Conversation characteristics listed above.

This blog is an adapted extract from The Spark, How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity (FT Publishing, £14.99). There’s more information at gregorme.org/the-spark/. It’s available in all good book shops and on Amazon.

Copyright © 2014 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Video snippets: Capturing Creativity In your Business

The individual answers from a one-to-one interview I gave tackling the key questions of business creativity. We’ve cut it into individual snippets so you can view the videos most relevant for you first!  If you want to watch it all in one sitting – that video is also posted on the blog.

Why is it important for businesses to be creative?

Are there other benefits for a business if it becomes more creative?

How difficult is it to lead creativity in a business?

Why is culture so important to creativity in business?

How do you influence culture?

What are the habits you’ve seen in good creative businesses?

How to clarify your business vision

This blog briefly describes a 3-step process to create and share an inspirational vision for organisational change 

How would you like to change the fortunes of your business this year? To drive change you need to see the future. This isn’t a mystical gift. It’s about believing your business can deliver more for customers and clients – and then persuasively communicating the specific pieces of this picture to others.

Gordon SelfridgeThe ITV/PBS drama “Mr. Selfridge” tells the story of the visionary entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge who shook up the straight-laced British retailing industry in 1909. He pioneered a vision of shopping for pleasure, rather than just necessity – and injected “style, glamour and razzmatazz!” for good measure. Crucially, he was able to back up the high-flown rhetoric (“we are going to show the world how to make shopping thrilling!”) with a highly-specific picture of what this would look, sound and feel like for his staff: everything from how silk scarves should be enticingly displayed (slight messy, so they’re more likely to be picked up by customers!) to the creation of attention-grabbing window displays that portray an aspirational lifestyle.

But having vision doesn’t need to be about transforming an entire industry. It can also be useful in helping to change business culture (“the way we do things around here”) or turning around a specific department or team.

Dream, Create, Share

Here are three simple steps to develop a vision for change:

Step 1 Dream: Sit down in a quiet place with a blank sheet of paper. Throw yourself forward three years (or a time-frame relevant to you). In your mind’s eye walk into your business and describe what’ll be happening. What will you see? What will you hear? What will the place feel like? How will your people be communicating and collaborating? What will your customers be saying about the “new you”? What will you have achieved? What’s changed and improved? Write notes as you imagine what the future might look like. Don’t get hung up at this stage about it being “right” or even “doable”. Allow yourself to dream a little.

Step 2 Create: Flex your fingers and get creative! Write up your notes in the form of a short, first person story describing a perfect day in this ideal future. Keep the details and ideas from your note taking that strike a balance between aspiration and what you think can be achieved with some hard work, tough choices and focus.

Step 3 Share: Share this vision with your colleagues. Use it as a catalyst for inspiration  and as a way to ignite a high-quality, challenging conversation. Do they share your vision? Does it excite them? What could they add to this picture? And, most importantly, what do you need to do together to make it a reality?

This exercise can kick off a strategy development process to highlight the main areas that need attention. Or, it can be a way to creatively consolidate  your thinking in a more down-to-earth and accessible way after you’ve created a strategy and objectives.

A wise man once said: “”We think in generalities, but live in detail”. Writing a vision bridges the gap between the generalities of “strategy development” (dismissed by the disaffected as “corporate bullshit”) and the vital, detailed leadership conversation about how to win the hearts and minds of customers.

Copyright © 2013 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Don’t Be A Crash Test Dummy – Please Ensure Your Culture and Strategy Are Fastened Securely

In brief: Four insights into organisational culture followed by three leadership tips to ensure you reach your destination – rather than repeatedly crashing your business dreams. 

A common response to the global downturn is: “we need a new strategy”! But there’s a problem.

New strategy = new structures and processes.

New structures and processes = new behaviours.

How people behave on a day-to-day basis is where strategy collides with culture. The new strategy gains impetus from engaged staff – or is bought to the sort of shuddering halt normally experienced by a crash test dummy.

Four Insights into Organisational Culture

1. What’s culture?

Culture is the water in the fish tank. It’s everywhere you look. And, if you’ve worked in a business long enough, virtually invisible . It’s “the way things get done around here”: values, language, symbols, stories, beliefs and habits – everything from the organisation chart to the bonus system, accepted behaviour in meetings to parking spot allocations. Like fish tank water, it needs regular attention to stay fresh – and to avoid the growth of green slime!

2. Why’s it important?

Culture is important because it’s the way people learn how to behave. Crucially, it’s stronger than any new, whizz-bang strategy.

3. Is there a “right” or “wrong” culture?

What is your business trying to achieve? The culture at a creative agency like Saatchi & Saatchi is different from the culture required to deliver Sainsbury’s success in retailing. Both vary from the “lone-wolves-together” culture at a newspaper or on a trading floor. The best test is: “Does this culture help us to achieve our objectives?” Culture is not right or wrong, but appropriate or inappropriate.

4. What’s the role of leadership?  

Cultures can go rotten without clear leadership. Relationship-focussed cultures become highly politicised. Task-focussed, performance cultures become harsh, uncaring – and even amoral. Great examples: the Barclays LIBOR-rigging scandal, the role of banks in the global financial crash – and don’t forget Enron. Leaders keep the water clean.

Three Tips for Leading Culture 

Here’s what you can focus on increase your effectiveness.

1. Take time to fully understand your culture

Cultures differ on the focus they put upon maintaining relationships versus achieving goals. Understanding where your culture is on this spectrum requires close observation of the physical environment, the way people spend their time and how they communicate. (PS, you can also use analysis tools to try to quantify what can be viewed as “fluffy stuff best left to HR”).

2. If you simply want to manage the culture – learn to swim with the current

Aligning your style to the prevailing culture is a powerful way to stack the deck in your favour. This might be about taking the time to get to know people within a relationship-based culture. Or, it might be about developing clear goals in a focussed, high-performance culture.

3. If you want to lead change in the culture be prepared for a tricky job – that starts with you

Good management swims with the prevailing cultural currents. But a leader’s job is to constantly evaluate what might need to change to make things better. Put another way: “Do we need to change the water?”

Changing a culture is possible. But it effects the beliefs and behaviours of everyone so it takes time, energy and focus. If you want to change a culture, lead from the front. Don’t simply mandate new behaviours, demonstrate them. Every day.

Summary

Whether you are changing a culture – or just ensuring it works – Oscar Wilde was right: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” It’s true for organisations, as with people. There isn’t one “good” culture we should all aspire too.

But on thing’s for sure. Whatever your unique situation, culture needs to wrap around strategy like a well-designed seatbelt.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

Carrots and Sticks (Why They Don’t Work in a Creative Business)

In Brief: Traditional management tactics of reward and punishment fail where the business is selling creativity – businesses like this need management to encourage people’s inner motivation.

Enormous amounts of time and money are expended to motivate employees to be creative. Sadly, much of it wasted because traditional management thinking is obsessed with external rewards in the form of carrots and sticks. This external (or extrinsic) motivational approach leads to carrots in the form of higher wages and bonus payments. The sticks are demotion, performance management and even dismissal.

But there’s a problem. External motivation works well for people who are naturally driven by wealth, or are in a repetitive, process-driven job. People drawn to creative fields are often driven by a purpose higher than money – things like challenge, learning and peer recognition.

I work with some of the world’s best companies in TV, film, games and advertising. They produce creativity to order – week in, week out. So, how do they do it? And, what can they teach the rest of the business world?

My research with creative organisations shows encouraging people’s inner motivation is far more successful in delivering sustained creativity. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside. It’s a person’s abiding love for certain activities and challenges: coding a website, designing a brand, developing an idea for an online drama. This form of motivational management applies to creativity and innovation in “non-creative” industries as well. So the person might equally be searching for a new way to organise business information or manage customer relationships.

Let’s be clear. Nobody wants to be starving artist. But above a certain level of remuneration, when reasonable market rates have been met, or slightly exceeded – or when personal finance has been “taken off the table” as an issue – more cash doesn’t equal more creativity.

In summary, the sorts of people who end up in complex or creative jobs are often most creative when they are intrinsically motivated—in other words, when the work and the work are stimulating.Here’s five tips to manage for intrinsic motivation – and hence creativity:

  1. Match People and Task: Select the right people to do the right work – all the way from hiring to team formation.
  2. Create Challenging Teams: Good ideas get better through rigorous exposure to different backgrounds and skill sets.
  3. Offer Freedom within a Framework: Tell people which mountain to climb, but not how to put on their boots and put one foot in front of the other.
  4. Give Generous Support: Offer great support in terms of time allocated and investment – too stingy on either is a recipe for disaster.
  5. Show Gratitude: Let staff know senior management place great value on what they are doing by showing your face from time to time – and saying thank you.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

The ‘4C’s of High Potential Leadership Development

In Brief: The vast majority of companies don’t feel confident about the number and quality of management successors in their organisation. High potential leadership development programmes are a key weapon to help businesses win the war for talent. Without a rigorous well-designed focus on the next generation of leaders any organisation is heading for trouble. This article outlines the “4Cs” for the successful delivery of High Potential Leadership Development Programmes:

1. Clarify Goals
2.  Collaborate on Development & Delivery
3.  Choose Carefully
4. Communicate Honestly

The War for Talent Rages On

Even in these tough economic times winning the war for talent continues to be a crucial objective for businesses. Recent Harvard Business School research shows fewer than 30% of European companies felt confident about the quantity of talented, qualified management successors in their organisation. Creating and filling a management talent pipeline has become a business critical issue for forward-thinking leaders.

In fact, there is a good argument that the ability to attract and develop leaders becomes even more important when the economy is in turmoil; businesses have fewer chances to “get it right”, and to take profitable opportunities. Beating the competition requires good leadership at board level – and the level below. Even more true when times are tough.

What’s more, finding and retaining good leaders will get even tougher for western-based international players in the coming decades. This is because most have to focus, in part at least, on emerging markets for growth such as India and China. Here the supply of experienced managers is even more limited than it is in the west. So, what can companies do to put them ahead of their rivals?

High Potential Leadership Programmes

More and more companies are recognising the value of high potential leadership development programmes as a powerful weapon in the war for talent. But it can be tricky to get right. And even trickier to ensure there is a genuine long-term return on investment. If the design and delivery of these programmes is mishandled there can be serious damage to staff morale – quite apart from being a huge waste of time and resources.

This article is a collection of insights and best practice in attracting, incentivising and transforming high potential management into true leaders. It’s based on experience. I spend a lot of my time working with creative businesses to design and develop leadership programmes to transform great mid-level execs into influential board-level leaders.

The 4Cs which follow are guiding principles to help you to design interventions in this area that have a far greater chance of transforming both your high potential people – and your organisation.

Experience plus Research = Best Practice

Over the last few years I’ve worked with advertising agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and BBDO; content creators such as Shine Group – as well as other global concerns such as the recruitment giant Randstad, and the well-respected World Economic Forum. Before this I ran the Centre for Creative Business at London Business School which delivered leadership development to executives in the UK’s creative industries.

I’ve blended my first-hand insights and experience with rigorous research. Harvard Business School joined forces with the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder to conduct a large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis* of how companies manage their rising stars. They also interviewed executives from 70 companies which had all taken the decision to run high potential leadership programmes. The research essentially asked: “what worked for you; what didn’t work for you?” The “4Cs” for Successful High Potential Leadership Development is my summary of both.

Why invest in leadership development?

The business rationale for investing in leadership development is strong and growing. Firstly, top talent gravitate towards companies that have strong development opportunities. Secondly, a well-managed talent pipeline increases the odds the company can continue to appoint great leaders in important positions – which increase its chances of success.

Fortune’s Most Admired Companies – the likes of Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, IBM and Mars – have known this for decades. They consistently spend more time and energy on developing leaders than average companies do – and they have better share price returns to show for it.**

Alan Lafley, former P&G CEO, said: “Nothing I do will have a more enduring impact on P&G’s long term success than helping to develop other leaders. I think the most important thing we do is that we are a continuous selection machine”

1: Clarify Goals

Let’s be clear: there is no generic leadership programme that works for all companies. Like any good investment, leadership development needs to align with organisational purpose, strategy, values and culture. A transformational leadership programme perfectly aims the right content, at the right people, to address the right questions. In practical terms this involves clarifying two sets of leadership development programme goals:

1. What’s the programme trying to deliver for the organisation?

2. What’s the programme trying to deliver for participants?

The answer to the first question needs to be linked to strategic objectives and culture change; the output of the answer to the second question should always involved leadership attitudes and behaviours.

For example, if you are working in a creative content company that has grown fast through acquisitions in a market-place that values creativity and innovation, you might need a programme that encourages highly-collaborative leadership – and which has cross-disciplinary organisational development projects as a key output to help knit the emerging  organisation together.

On the other hand, if you are working in a restaurant chain, which needs to grow through a well-established franchise model; the leadership behaviours and outcomes required will probably be more focussed around operational and productivity improvements.

In summary, a key point to clarify is how much of the leadership programme goals are around changing the organisation – and how much about changing participant behaviour. Clearly, these two goals are inextricably interlinked; but for the sake of clarity it’s vital to produce separate and mutually-supporting goals for each.

2: Collaborate on Development & Delivery

Like any intervention to try to change an organisation thorough groundwork makes a successful outcome much more likely. It ensures a leadership development programme will better deliver in the areas most needed by both participants and the company. It sounds like simple common sense, doesn’t it? But it’s surprising how easy it is for poorly-focussed programmes to get blown off course by pursuing content and objectives not directly linked to actual need. Even worse, when a leadership programme is not tied to agreed goals it can degenerate into the worst kind of corporate political football.

Collaborating on development and delivery means gathering input from as wide as possible – both inside and outside the organisation. Well-targeted programme content can then be co-designed and delivered by the senior organisational sponsors and whichever external learning and development experts are involved.

Senior-Level Engagement

The best way to deliver a transformative leadership programme is to ensure it has the buy-in and sponsorship from the most senior people in the organisation. There’s an old saying that “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing director”. The same is true for developing high potential leaders. Talent management strategy is a not an area that should involve only the HR Director.

Of course, it can be tricky to get the CEO involved. But it’s vital. This high-level sponsorship ensures the programme is not perceived by applicants as a frivolous “sheep dip exercise”. I’m sure you’ve come across the sort of fluffy, arm-waving away days which often give management “training” a bad name.

The perception of non-applicants and personnel at all levels across the company also changes. Having a CEO or similar senior figure onboard signals “this is important”. It immediately encourages other senior people to give freely of their time. This guarantees participants are exposed to the key people, in charge of the important issues, which are engaging the executive board.

Finally, senior-level involvement “raises the stakes”. This emphasis transforms what could be mere information and skills training into transformative experiences that can change behaviours permanently. Because of the massive difference senior involvement drives on all the programmes I direct, I push for one or more of the sessions to be run by the CEO – and ideally other sessions are run by other senior players from finance, operations, marketing and sales.

A learning organisation – not classroom training

A leadership programme has failed if it’s only about what happens “in the classroom”. Training is passive and centred in “someone else”; learning and self-development is active and based on what “I” can do.

Transformational interventions need to be about instilling a passion for self development and learning beyond the set-piece group sessions which usually form the core of a programme.

A holistic, multi-strand approach works best: group sessions supported by on-the-job development, mentoring, coaching as well as real-life projects and job rotations. Clearly, reinforcing group work with one-to-one support requires a larger investment in planning and coordination. It’s worth the additional effort and expense because the organisation is then not offering mere training, but designing a transformational experience which will play a crucial role in creating a genuinely learning culture.

3: Choose Carefully

Who chooses?

High Potential Programmes are a significant investment in time and money, so it makes a lot of sense to ensure the right people are sitting in the room on the first day. Having now tried both open application processes (perceived as “more democratic” in internal communications terms), and manager-nominated approaches (perceived as “more accurate and targeted”) I’ve come to the conclusion neither works very well on their own!

Research backs me up. Across the board the data shows that people often overestimate their own potential, or feel they are ready earlier than they really are for leadership, so applicants can’t be relied upon to put themselves forward at the right time. And untrained managers are often subject to serious prejudices and blind spots. Again, research clearly illustrates as a group managers are poor at reliably spotting potential leadership talent in their direct reports.

Because of this I recommend a combination approach which has a better chance of getting the right people as programme participants. Start with a tight, well-explained brief on who can apply in the first place. Then manage the process carefully to involve input from senior management, line management as well as output from annual appraisals, written applications, references and interviews. Anything less than a thorough multi-stage approach risks wasting time and money on the wrong people.

Understand Potential

Another necessary step is to create a shared definition for “potential” around the basic idea that it’s “the ability to handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope”. Participants need to be chosen with an understanding that potential is measured (and developed) on a number of different levels.

In my programmes I use the metaphor of an iceberg with visible behaviours above the water, and deeper layers, like identity, motivation and purpose, below the surface. The following diagram illustrates a model of executive potential (that combines my experience with the Harvard/Egon Zehnder Research) to demonstrate the importance of selecting, and then delivering programmes, to address the “easier to change” and “harder to change” aspects of people.

Inside-Out Programmes

Programmes which seek to engage participants at the core “Purpose” and motives level (“Inside-Out” Programmes) are incalculably more powerful than those which seek to work “Outside In” – i.e. focussing on skills and knowledge and hoping for the best on the more powerful Identity, Assets and Purpose.

4: Communicate Honestly

Senior executive sponsorship of a leadership programme naturally leads to a high profile within the organisation. This is to be celebrated, not avoided. A study of 225 companies in 10 industries found that while 78% of the organisations did not inform high potential people they were labelled thus; 90% of the employees knew anyway!

My approach, as it is in all my organisational development work, is to deliver the greatest degree of transparency possible (“transparency” being the corporate expression for what we call “honesty” in the rest of our lives!). Of course, an honest approach is not without risks. To mitigate this risk there needs to be careful management of expectation for those chosen for high potential programmes – as well as for those that are not.

Copyright © 2011 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

*How to Hang on to your High Potentials, Harvard Business Review, October 2011

** Hay Group, Develop Your Leaders, 2011


10 Tips to Inspire Your People to Engage

How creating high-levels of commitment drives success

By Greg Orme

Over many years of working with business leaders trying to figure out how to create winning strategies I have come to realise one thing. For any change in direction to get off the ground you need a magical, intangible ingredient: employee engagement.

Inspiring your people to be bothered to deliver your company vision, pledge themselves to a new strategy or simply improve things is vital. Research shows an engaged employee is 87% less likely to leave a job – and a fully engaged person performs at a 20% higher level* . In business performance is so correlated to staff engagement it is in my view a key success factor for long-term sustainability.

So here is a bit of food for thought on how you can improve engagement in your business. Score your company on the following ten questions:

  1. Are your line manager’s real managers? And, just to be clear, we are not talking about skilled practitioners in any creative, functional or technical specialism. That’s how you get promoted to management in the first place. But being an empathetic and skilled manager of teams and people is not something most people are born with. You and your managers need to be clear about the distinction. We have all experienced bad management (and its toxically demotivating effects).
  2. Do your people really believe in your company direction? And remember, first they have to understand what direction you are going in before they can get to the stage of believing in it!
  3. Are you providing inspiring leadership from the top? This is not easy to do consistently. High-performance leaders provide direction, show respect, inform regularly, live their values, exude energy. In other words, they are role models.
  4. Do you engage people through involvement and consultation? I know this works. I recently facilitated strategy for a large UK business. Over 18 months we involved over 200 staff members (10% of the workforce) directly, and 2,000 indirectly, in an engagement and change management programme. This type of exercise can be time consuming for any business large or small but it pays dividends in the long-run.
  5. Have you got a genuinely “people-centric” culture? We all know the old company mission cliché: “Our people are our biggest asset”. But things become clichés for a reason. And all businesses appear horribly hypocritical if action does not match rhetoric.
  6. Do you have perfect internal communications? Don’t answer that one! However much you communicate right now you know the answer is “no” – at least in the minds of some of your staff! When we diagnose problem issues in businesses this is always in the top five staff complaints – normally because there is insufficient consistency, skill and focus from top management in this vital area.
  7. Do you offer your people genuine influence over how their job is done? This means doing the HR basics rights (e.g. two-way performance reviews) as well as open-minded and empowered line managers who are prepared to innovate to improve.
  8. Do your people get the “Big Picture”? In other words, do you take the time to explain why “things get done the way they do”. This is especially important for unpopular business practices such as time sheets and other forms of management information gathering.
  9. Do you offer opportunities for career development? This is one of the arguments for smaller businesses to grow a little as it avoids losing talented staff who get bored waiting to fill “dead man’s shoes”.
  10. Do you walk the walk? Are your personal values as an owner/manager and leadership team reflected in the organisation’s values? Any disparity between your leadership behaviour and what you project as “what the company is all about” can be potentially damaging.

©Greg Orme Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved

*Corporate Leadership Foundation ‘Driving Performance and Retention through Employee Engagement’, 2004.