Proving yourself in a new role: the “quick wins” paradox


New leaders must prove themselves quickly, but the quest for rapid results is inherently dangerous. Through a survey of 5,400 new leaders and their managers, Learning & Development Roundtable identified the five traps or problematic behaviours for new leaders to avoid on the way to a “Quick Win”, and discovered how focusing on Collective Quick Wins—not individual ones—can drive the performance of both new leaders and their direct reports.

An overview: in brief

“The Quick Wins Paradox” is a short, three minute, video from the Corporate Executive Board. It introduces the ideas explained in more detail in the article below.

The idea in more detail

Many leaders taking on new roles try to prove themselves early on by going after quick wins – fresh, visible contributions to the business. But in the pursuit of early results, those leaders often fall into traps that prevent them from benefiting from their achievements. To succeed in their new positions, leaders must realize that the teams they have inherited are also experiencing change. Instead of focusing on an individual accomplishment, leaders need to work with team members on a collective quick win.

In a study of more than 5,400 new leaders, the authors found that those who were struggling tended to exhibit five behaviors characteristic of people overly intent on securing a quick win. They a) focused too much on details, b) reacted negatively to criticism, c) intimidated others, d) jumped to conclusions and e) micromanaged their direct reports. Some managed to eke out a win anyway, but the fallout was often toxic.

The leaders who were thriving in their new roles, by contrast, shared not only a strong focus on results–necessary for early successes–but also excellent change-management skills. They a) communicated a clear vision, b) developed constructive relationships, and c) built team capabilities. They seemed to realize that the lasting value of their accomplishment would be the way they managed their teams through the transition. Collective quick wins established credibility and prepared them to lead their teams to harder-won victories. The authors provide a diagnostic tool for identifying opportunities for collective quick wins, and they share some advice for organizations: When grooming new leaders, don’t just shore up their domain knowledge and technical skills; help them develop the change-management skills they will need as they settle in with their new teams.

Resources for transition planning

In this third article on the theme of transition planning we recommend some resources for the newly appointed leader/executive and for organisations reviewing their support for the later stages of executive on-boarding and transition support. (Articles one and two are linked).

Career Transitions

  • “Navigating major career transitions” is a recommended short interview with Michael Watkins. The video is available here
  • “The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins. Publication Date: 1 Oct 2003. ISBN-10: 1591391105. ISBN-13: 978-1591391104

Since its original release, “The First 90 Days”  has become the bestselling globally acknowledged bible of leadership and career transitions. In this updated and expanded 10th anniversary edition, internationally known leadership transition expert Michael D. Watkins gives you the keys to successfully negotiating your next move—whether you’re onboarding into a new company, being promoted internally, or embarking on an international assignment.

In “The First 90 Days”, Watkins outlines proven strategies that will dramatically shorten the time it takes to reach what he calls the “breakeven point” when your organisation needs you as much as you need the job. This new edition includes a substantial new preface by the author on the new definition of a career as a series of transitions; and notes the growing need for effective and repeatable skills for moving through these changes. As well, updated statistics and new tools make this book more reader-friendly and useful than ever.

This book contains five fundamental propositions:

  1. Transition failures happen when new leaders either misunderstand the essential demands of the situation or lack the skill and flexibility to adapt to them.
  2. There are systematic methods that leaders can employ to both lessen the likelihood of failure, and ensure that they reach the breakeven point faster.
  3. The over-riding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility, and avoid getting caught in the vicious cycles that damage credibility As a vicious cycle takes hold, the organisation’s immune system gets activated and the new leader is attacked by clumps of ‘killer cells’, encapsulated, and finally expelled; it’s not nice, and it can get messy.
  4. Transitions are a crucible for leadership development and should be managed accordingly. They are an indispensable development experience for every company’s high-potential leaders.
  5. Adoption of a standard framework for accelerating transitions can yield big returns for organisations.

CEO Succession

  • “The Successors Dilemma” by Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins. Harvard Business Publishing. PDF.  Available online here.

This article is focused on CEO succession. Botched leadership transitions occur with alarming frequency. Dan Ciampa and Michael Watkins, who have counselled senior executives and successors through more than 100 leadership transitions in the past 25 years, point to the successor’s dilemma as the dominant cause of failed leadership transitions. The dilemma is an emotionally charged power struggle played out between the CEO and his/her would-be heir. Ciampa and Watkins describe the way the problem builds on both sides of the desk–the CEO’s fear of giving up control versus the designated successor’s need to enact the changes expected of him/her and prove himself / herself to the board. They cite anecdotal evidence and their own research to suggest that this complex psychological dynamic leads CEO-successor relations astray and can block the successor’s path to the top spot. But the authors also offer four ways for the would-be heir to overcome the successor’s dilemma. These include gauging the CEO’s readiness to leave before accepting the number two spot, maintaining regular communication with the CEO despite ever-present obstacles such as travel and business schedules, and developing and using a balanced personal advice network to help navigate the shift in power. The authors stress that defusing the problem is the responsibility of the successor, not the CEO. The reason is simple: the successor has the most to lose.

  • “Blessings or curses? Succession in organisational existence”

Available on-line here.

A reflective, Grubb Institute paper examining the relationship between individualism and corporate life partly through the lens provided by the Biblical narrative of Jacob and Esau.


Key players in role transitions


This is article number two in our series for leaders and executives making role transitions and working through their first 100 days. (Click here for the first article in the series). In this article we are looking at the key people that should be involved in your transition.

Your new manager

Research shows that the new leader’s performance is greatly impacted by a number of key people – notably the new leader’s manager.

It is vital that the new leader’s manager (or, in a matrix, managers) is (or are) fully engaged in the on-boarding and transition process. They have a key role in managing the entire on boarding process to hold the new hire (or newly promoted leader/executive) accountable for their learning. They also need to clarify specific job expectations so they are customised to the newcomer’s needs.

Wherever a new leader has both a direct and dotted line reporting relationship – implying accountability and responsibility – they must know how the relationship between the two “bosses” actually works. This can, and should be explained, but it needs to be experienced as well and that reality can take a while to understand and respond to.

Your human resources business partner/adviser

This guide can helpfully represent a “wide lens” view of the entire enterprise to ensure that learning aligns with wider business needs. They should be in a position to recommend and support transition interventions that are based upon deep knowledge of the business and available learning resources.

A buddy or peer guide

A trustworthy buddy or peer guide should be able to offer credible insight into the political landscape of the team and the department members. As a new manager you will want to form a trust-based relationship that enables them to feel secure about providing a synopsis of how your new role will interact with accompanying lines of business. You will want to use your own judgement to decide what weight to attach to their perspectives but you will certainly be the poorer without their points of view.

Your direct reports

As their new leader you will want to establish open lines of communication within which to discover how performance has been managed in the past and to set new expectations as you listen and learn. Where trust abounds they will be amenable to suggesting high-level mission and goals for the group based on their past experiences and future hopes.

In the next article in this series we will be reviewing and recommending some key resources for transition support and 100 day planning.

Congratulations on your new role!


This article is the first in a series written for leaders and executives who have been appointed to a new role, perhaps within a new organisation and possibly in a new field of work. It is designed to help with making a successful transition and the focus is on the first 100 days in the new role.

Five Main Goals

In planning your transition to the new role and your first three months (100 days) in the new job you will probably be wanting to achieve five main goals.

Goal 1. To gain a deeper knowledge of the new job – most especially to obtain a realistic appreciation of any present ‘gap’ between the stated strategies of the new team(s) you will be responsible for and the current operational realities or de facto strategies. This will involve you in getting to grips with both initial perceptions and the underlying realities. And these, as you know, are usually more complex and subtle than they appear initially!

At the end of your first one hundred days in the new role, you will want to be able to answer the following types of questions:

    • What are the long and the short term goals, plans and budgets associated with your new job?
    • What are the current performance levels relative to plans?
    • Why are the timeframes for achievement set in the way they are?
    • What are relationships with clients and partners like? Are relationships improving or going downhill? How do we know?
    • How are strategies and individual manager’s goals aligned?

Goal 2. To accept and deal with the real capabilities of the organisation and the people. People’s capabilities do, indeed, vary – even when they are supposed to be doing the same job and have had the same guidance and training! If your role is to bring about change then you will certainly find that some of your managers may relish shaping, communicating, creating and managing change – but this, of course, is not universally true. You may develop an agenda for change and perceive that the platform for change is on fire: others may yet have felt the heat.

At the end of your first one hundred days, you will want to be able to answer at least the following questions with some confidence:

    • What are the key success factors for all operations in my new portfolio?
      How much time will I need to understand critical processes, situations and relationships before I make change plans?
    • What are the stated and un-stated processes, accountabilities and systems here?
    • What ‘landmines’ were built into prior decisions – and why?
    • What is the true depth of difficulty in (any underperforming) group? What are the reasons for underperformance?
    • What individuals hold the real power?
    • What are the real lines of authority?
    • What is the actual role of high profile leadership teams?
    • What is the actual experience and professionalism of my people and people over whom I now have influence?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the leadership and/or management team? Are both known and acknowledged by the members?
    • Do formal job responsibilities exist? Why? Why not?
    • What are the management philosophies here?
    • Is there real or imagined alignment between these philosophies and the way that leaders/managers are rewarded?
    • How much emphasis is placed on managerial consensus? Why? Why not?
    • What resources are there outside the formal networks that are contributing to the goals? How can they be brought into the network?
    • How will I strengthen and secure the leadership of my team to achieve agreed goals, given my expanded/changed portfolio?

Goal 3. To discover and prioritise multiple expectations. Deep investigation of many organisations tends to convey an impression that they are not adept at prioritising and often appear to wear out their key resources (not just people) because the difficult choices have not been made. Newcomers appointed to lead an expanded or changed portfolio often perceives this vividly. It is a valuable “newcomer’s insight” but it can negatively impact your morale if you are not prepared for this experience. This is an area where a competent coach, mentor or buddy can make a real difference to your experience.

Goal 4. To navigate political waters and establish alliances with the right people. This is often the most difficult challenge. Pretences about power are not particularly helpful. An experienced mentor or buddy could help you to make sense of the subtle power plays that really are at work, often just under the surface.

Goal 5. To set an agenda for action that has buy in and generates a sense of urgency.In this area you need to first make use of your excellent people skills. Your transition plan should enable you to make substantial connections with key people and from there to begin building out your network. Sources within this network will provide the data, information and commentary that you need to begin constructing your agenda for action.

In the next article in this series we will be looking at the various roles the key players involved with any leadership or executive transition should, and do, play. 

Follow The Star!

The STAR Interview Technique


Starfish on the beach

BOND, the UK network for organisations working in international development, published its most recent survey of non-governmental organisation’s (NGO’s) financial situations on October 7, 2020. On current financial projections, the survey found that only 52% of organisations can see themselves operating beyond the next 24 months24% of organisations expect to close within the next 12 months unless the funding picture drastically changes.

Small and medium-sized organisations are most at risk. Only 29% of small NGOs expect to be operating in two years.

In this context and given the dominance of people costs in this sector, it is not at all surprising that international NGOs are looking to enhance the effectiveness of their staff selection methods. One change, reflecting this trend, is the now widespread adoption of behavioural interviewing.

Why behavioural interviewing?

Behavioural interviewing (or competency-based interviewing) is becoming an increasingly popular approach to candidate assessment. This growing popularity is founded on the premise that what individuals did in the past is likely to be a good predictor of future performance. Perhaps that’s not a bad assumption – though it does rather overlook the impact of different contexts, varied team contributions and, sadly, the possibility that we learn and develop through what we do!

The search for evidence

The behavioural (or competency based) questioning technique is, however, much better than asking hypothetical questions (E.g., “How will you handle…,”). The behavioural interviewer will ask more specific and focused questions (E.g., “Describe a time when you had to…”) inviting the candidate to provide concrete examples of desired behaviours from the past. For example, instead of asking an interviewee, “How will you deal with a team member who is not pulling his weight on a project?” an interviewer using the behavioural technique may ask, “Describe a project where one of your teammates was not pulling his or her weight. What did you do?”

The association with key competences or behaviours in action

To select the most appropriate questions to use, an interviewer will have identified the behaviours associated with success in the job being recruited to. He/she then decides on a series of questions which typically begin:

  • “Describe a time when you had to …. What did you do?”
  • “Give me an example of a time when you had to …”
  • “Tell me about a situation in the past …”

The interviewer’s expectations

Through asking this initial behavioural question the interviewer generally expects the candidate to talk about four aspects of their experience: (1) what the Situation was, (2) what their Task was, (3) what Action they took, and (4) the Result. These four aspects give rise to the most common name for the method: the “STAR approach”. Each letter of the STAR mnemonic is associated with one of the four parts of an ideal candidate answer: “S” for their explanation of their “situation”; “T” for the “task” they undertook; “A” for the “actions” they took, alone or with others and “R” for the “result” (or the outcomes) achieved.

Pause to reflect

In my career coaching, I find that clients frequently rush to begin answering the question and I frequently have to counsel them to pause and consider some questions of their own. Let me explain in more detail …

  • Listen to the question carefully. Frequently, behavioural interview questions tend to be rather long-winded. This is because they typically begin with a statement that summarises the interviewer’s expectations. Here is an example: “Good problem-solving often includes a careful review of the facts and weighing of options before making a decision. Tell me about a time when you reached a practical business decision by assessing the facts and weighing up the options.”

The initial statement, before the question itself, provides the candidate who is listening carefully with a window into the interviewer’s expectations about the most desirable type of answer. In our example, the interviewer has told the candidate what they believe to be the valued characteristics of good problem-solving. There would be little point answering this interviewer’s question with an example that did not demonstrate ‘careful review of the facts and weighing of the options’.

That is not to say, of course, that your answer shouldn’t refer to the need for a swift and timely decision or demonstrate other ways in which you added value!

  • Make sure you understand the question before you start to answer. It is not unusual, given the length of a typical behavioural interview question, for a candidate to want to demonstrate that they have heard and understood correctly or to want to clarify the question. An acceptable initial response in this situation is to paraphrase the question and ask the interviewer if you have understood correctly. If necessary, ask the interviewer to repeat the question. It’s wise to use this technique sparingly, however. If you ask the interviewer to repeat every question, they may simply doubt your ability to listen.

When hearing the question, the candidate will need to be engaged in some ‘deep listening’.

For example, let’s examine this well-known leadership question: “Have you ever had to define yourself amid criticism, and did you succeed?” Whilst we can’t be certain of the interviewer’s intentions, this question provides the candidate with an opportunity to talk about their demonstrated ability to listen to feedback, to adapt as a manager, to lead teams well and to persuade others … alongside other obvious leadership capabilities.

  • Organise your answer. Allow yourself five to eight seconds to collect your thoughts and structure your response. In this time, you should initially examine the question to decide what specific skill the question is addressing. Then choose your most applicable experience to relate. Finally, decide how to structure your answer using the four steps of the “STAR” technique. Sticking to this STAR model is important especially if you naturally tend to be quite an extravert, given to structuring your views as you speak rather than beforehand!
  • Answer the question. Try to limit your answer to about three minutes. This is long enough to relate a story completely and short enough to hold the interviewer’s attention. Try to avoid using stories that all come from one period of your work experience. Also, if at all possible, try to avoid selecting stories from work roles held years ago.
  • Stick to your STAR. Resist the temptation to think of new details as you provide your answer. By sticking with your planned details and structure, you can provide a consistent, concise, and well-reasoned answer.

Answering a question: Using the STAR technique to narrate an experience

Every answer should address the capability in question. The response should be based on an experience from a previous job assignment, project, academic study, or community work. As the interview progresses the candidate should aim to present a diverse range of experiences and each answer given should follow the STAR. Use the four STAR steps:

  • “S” for Situation: Preface your answer with just enough background or contextual information to set off your experience. Think of a photograph where the foreground is well lit against a contrasting background such that every detail is in high relief.
  • “T” for Task: Describe the task that needed to be done. Throughout the interview select some examples where you decided on the task as well as situations where someone else set the task. At this point in the story explain the expected outcome and any conditions you needed to satisfy.
  • “A” for Action: State the action you took in response to the challenge. Use ‘I’ and ‘we’ statements with great care here. Describe your contribution to analytical work, team effort or project coordination.
  • “R” for Results: Explain the results of your efforts: what you accomplished, over what period, what you learned, how your manager(s) and the team responded, and how your organisation recognised you. Wherever possible, quantify your (or your team’s) achievements and improvements.

Expect supplementaries

After the initial question and answer, the interviewer may question the interviewee further.

These supplementary questions may be phrased like any of these examples:

  • “What was the outcome?”
  • “Did you consider …?”
  • “How did the other person react?”
  • “What did you learn from this whole episode?”

Much advice given about candidate preparation for a behavioural interview tends to focus on the initial question. Whilst this is helpful, it is the – typically more focused – supplementary question that packs most of the investigative power. So, as you prepare for your interview, consider what supplementaries might be asked and prepare for these also.


Competency Based Interviews

Competency based interviews (sometimes called behavioural interviews) are now widely used in the humanitarian development sector. They are believed to be valuable because they give candidates the opportunity to talk about situations they have found themselves in, to outline their purpose, to describe briefly the action they took and to highlight the outcome. If this is done well they provide the needed evidence of their competence in action.

In essence, the value of these interviews is predicated on the idea that what has been demonstrated in action before, and suggests competence at work, is likely to point to capabilities that will be transferable to the prospective employer’s context and role.

Candidate modesty or humility are not assets when confronted with these types of interview. This can be a problem for the modest, humble or introverted candidate. It may even be that candidates who recognise that, even though they were leading the team, that team could not have achieved what was accomplished without the support and varied contributions of the team members.

There is also an ever present danger that some candidates may simply overstate their own contribution to the team’s achievements. If the selectors do not take this into consideration they may mistake high self confidence for high performance or low self confidence, in an interview, for low achievement at work.

Selectors can make use of reference requests that seek effectively to validate the competencies and achievements claimed but, in reality, reference checking has become almost a clerical or even an automated part of the selection process. Many organisations confine themselves to confirming roles held and dates of employment rather than assuring the veracity of competency claims.

So what can be done? 

A great deal of the responsibility for presenting an accurate and nuanced picture of capabilities in action lies in the hands of the candidate. If they are of an introverted disposition the competency based interview is, critically, the time to bring out their inner extroversion! They may benefit from some coaching with this to assure themselves that they are being honest to themselves. There are, additionally, other aspects of preparation for a competency based interview that will be of benefit:

  • Study the competencies or capabilities that the employing organisation say that they require.
  • Prepare a range of real life stories that showcase accomplishments and become aware of the particular skills in action that enabled you and your team to achieve what you did.
  • Think about how you contributed to the success achieved through delegation, orchestrating talents, managing resources, facilitating team interactions and careful planning.
  • Prepare carefully so that you can talk confidently about your contribution and the contribution of colleagues in a way that is thoroughly honest and that you are comfortable with.
  • Don’t forget to review what happened and make some notes on the learning that took place: your own and the team’s too.

Practice talking about your own strengths and abilities so that you are comfortable doing this. If you have a coach, ask that they provide some mock interview opportunities and provide you with some feedback on what they see and hear.

Begin to employ one of the well used frameworks for telling the stories of your past successes such as STAR. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. Answer the questions using this framework:

  • First, describe the Situation that existed prior to the action that you took. Make sure that you are balanced and honest in your assessment but don’t downplay your contribution to the assessment of the Situation either!
  • Then, prepare to talk about your goal or purpose: what was the Task that you set yourself or that someone else set you?
  • Third, explain what you did: the Action that you took, either directly or through other people. This is your opportunity to explain how you go about assessing team member’s capabilities, delegating work and multiplying their effectiveness through your on-the-job coaching. If these contributions “come naturally” to you, there is a real chance that you will overlook or even downplay their importance. Don’t do that!
  • Finally, you should describe the Result: what was the outcome and what did you and the team learn from the project?

In all of this it is to your advantage to listen very carefully to the question and to carefully make use of the key words that the interviewer used in their question, as you tell your story.

Practice this form of response with a coach or a friend and get them to give you some feedback. If you are to be interviewed virtually, online, then conduct these sessions using the same technology so that you get used to seeing yourself on screen and managing the technology well.

For more advice and guidance, especially if you want to work for a faith-based organisation, you may want to buy a copy of my book: “Careers in Faith-based Organisations” which is available here. There are sections on vacancy sources, consultancy opportunities, creating your CV or resume, education and training for the sector and how to use a ‘thank you’ email to consolidate your application.

Passion – and Mid-Career Changes

In my role as a coach it is a special privilege to work with people, typically in mid-career, who have been highly successful in establishing and developing their professional standing in the private sector and who now are seeking ways to apply their skills in the development field. People in this situation typically find it very helpful to explore what it takes to make the transition: to evaluate and sometimes re-express their transferable skills before considering at what level they might change sectors; to become acquainted with the variety of routes in and the common strategies that are used to secure the development sector role they are seeking.

I have had a career spanning public and private sector education, financial services and organisational and leadership consultancy before becoming a coach in a global talent leadership role within the world’s largest child focused humanitarian development organisation. I find I can readily empathise with motivations for mid-career change.

I particularly appreciate the importance that passion plays in mid-career change. A growing conviction about the need to make a difference through their career is a common motivation for those seeking entry to the development sector in their thirties and later. Passion is, of course, not enough to make the change that some of my clients seek. Occasionally, to illustrate this point I might suggest that a client watch Larry Smith’s sobering TED talk entitled “Why You Will Fail To Have A Great Career”. Professor Smith teaches economics at University of Waterloo. He is a well-known storyteller and advocate for youth leadership and has also mentored many of his students on start-up business management and career development. The most notable start-up he advised in its infancy is Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the BlackBerry.

Discussion about this blunt and challenging TED talk tends to centre on what passion really means and costs but, as Carmine Gallo wrote in Forbes, what you will see here “in this TED Talk is essentially thirty years of Smith’s frustrations reaching a boiling point.” “Wasted talent is a waste I cannot stand,” and this talk is Smith’s response.

It’s challenging and – possibly – motivating too. At the heart of Smith’s talk and central to some of the work I do with mid-career changers is an assessment of the part passion plays in career decision making. If you are searching for your calling in life or what you most care about – here are five digested, and up to the minute, research findings worth thinking through:

  1. Types of passion A career path or a goal that fires you up is likely to lead to success and happiness. That much the research confirms. However, Robert Vallerandet al found, in 2003, that there is a real difference between a harmonious passion and an obsessive one. An out of control passion that upsets your mood and shapes your self-esteem can be referred to as an obsessive passion. Vallerand found that such obsessions, whilst energising, are also associated with burnout and anxiety. By contrast, if your passion feels in control, reflects qualities that you like about yourself, and complements other important activities in your life, then this is the harmonious version, and these are associated with positive outcomes such as vitality, better work performance, experiencing flow, and positive mood.
  2. An unanswered calling in life is worse than having no calling at all If you already have a burning ambition or purpose, do not leave it to languish. Recent research at the University of South Florida surveyed hundreds of people  found that work engagement, career commitment, life satisfaction, health and stress were all negatively impacted by having a calling that had not been responded to. The researchers concluded: “having a calling is only a benefit if it is met, but can be a detriment when it is not as compared to having no calling at all.”
  3. Invest enough effort and you may find that your work becomes your passion It’s all very well reading about the benefits of having a passion or calling in life, but if you haven’t got one, where can you find it? Duckworth says that it’s a mistake to think that in a moment of revelation one will land in your lap, or simply occur to you through quiet contemplation, what’s needed is to explore different activities and pursuits, and expose yourself to the different challenges and needs confronting society. This is where organisations like 80000 Hours can be helpful to the really talented individual. This Oxford, UK, based group conducts research on which careers have the largest positive social impact and provide career information based on that research. Many clients have found their website invaluable.
  1. Reverse the flow, perhaps It is also worth considering the advice of those who say that it is not always the case that energy and determination flow from finding your passion: sometimes it can be the other way around. Consider, for example, an eight-week repeated survey of German entrepreneurs published a few years ago. This found a clear pattern – their passion for their ventures increased after they had invested more effort into the ventures the week before. A follow-up study qualified this, suggesting the energising effect of investing effort only arises when the project is freely chosen and there is a sense of progress. “Entrepreneurs increase their passion when they make significant progress in their venture and when they invest effort out of their own free choice,” the researchers found.
  1. If you think passion comes from doing a job you enjoy, you’re likely to be disappointed
    Another issue to consider is where you think passion comes from. In a paper released as a preprint at PsyArXiv, Jon Jachimowicz and his team draw a distinction between people who believe that passion comes from doing what you enjoy, and those who see it as arising from doing what you believe in or value in life. The researchers found that people believing that passion comes from pleasurable work were less likely to feel like they had found their passion as compared with people who believe that passion comes from doing what you feel matters. This may be because there is a superficiality to working for sheer pleasure – which may not last in any case – whereas working towards what you care about is timeless and likely to stretch and sustain you indefinitely.

Introducing Vitas Consult Ltd

Growing English Capability

Across the globe, international humanitarian organisations and non governmental organisations are increasingly expecting managers and leaders to be able to write, speak and negotiate in modern business English. In this article we share some valuable resources that are being used to grow these increasingly important capabilities. This post also recommends some questions that managers who are coaching staff can use to encourage discussion.

Icebreakers & Introductory Level Learning

  • THE POWER OF TALK This very short video, from the BBC, shows how talk can be used to help people hold their leaders to account and influence the decisions that affect their lives. The language used is simple and straightforward and this video can be used as a discussion starter about the power of talk in development as well as a language learning tool.

Managerial coaching discussion questions, to support learning, arising from this material might include:

Did you find the speaker’s accent easy to understand?

How were words and visuals used to communicate?

What interested you about this video?


This six-minute film, designed to be watched vertically on a mobile ‘phone, helps the viewer to experience the confusion and fear facing refugees making a perilous journey by boat. It looks at how mobile ‘phones have become a vitally important part of the refugee’s toolbox. Managerial coaching discussion questions, to support learning, arising from this material might include:

What was the message of this short video?

How was the message communicated?

How were pictures and language combined to create impact?

What could you learn to use, at work, as a result of watching this?

  • CREATING CLARITY The big idea behind this very short podcast is this: speak simply. Do this by getting to the end of sentences quickly; using simple words; pausing between sentences; eliminating connecting words and ending sentences with downward inflections. Encourage others to do the same.

  • LISTENING TO ENGLISH SPEAKERS Here you can find activities that will help you or your team members to practise their listening skills. Listening will help them to improve their understanding of the language and their pronunciation.

The free, self-study lessons are written and organised according to the levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR). There are recordings of different situations and interactive exercises that practise the listening skills needed to do well at work, to get ahead and to communicate in English outside of work. The speakers in these videos are of different nationalities and the recordings are designed to show how English is being used in the world today.

Vitas Recommendation: Ask staff planning to use British Council resources to take the free online English test to find out which level to choose. Then they can select their own level, from beginner (CEFR level A1) to advanced (CEFR level C1), and improve their listening skills at their own speed, whenever it’s convenient for them.

  • SPEAKING ENGLISH Here learners can find activities to practise speaking skills. They can watch and listen to videos that show how English is used in different types of conversations. As they listen and speak aloud, they will also improve their pronunciation.

See the Vitas Recommendation, above, about taking the test to work out which level to choose.

More Advanced and Longer Development Tools/Resources

  • EXPLORE THE 3 ROUTES TO GOOD COMMUNICATION  This free, online, self-directed course – aimed at managers – will teach learners to communicate better. They will learn how to tune their non-verbal communication, communicate openly and understand the 5 levels of listening.

  • DEVELOPING AN INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION STRATEGY This free, online, self-directed course – also aimed at managers – will teach learners to use simple and concrete models to cultivate successful professional relationships. It also teaches the learner how to adapt their level of influence and to define precise objectives for communication. It will take between 30 minutes and one hour to complete.

  • LEARN ENGLISH SELECT This page and the embedded video introduce the “Learn English Select” online courses from the British Council. These, highly commended courses, require a small subscription. The courses are designed to help individuals improve their ability to find and apply for the right jobs, develop their interview skills and learn how to perform in the workplace with confidence.

At each level, tutor videos and workplace scenarios guide participants through the materials, explain key language and grammar points and give the learner vocabulary that they can use in everyday business life.

Career Change To Make A Change

In the course of my work as a career and executive coach I have the pleasure of working with many people who have reached a point in their careers where they are re-evaluating the contribution that they make to society through the work they do. The way that clients express their aspiration varies considerably, as you would expect, and their goals are, of course, very diverse. However, it is not uncommon for clients to express a desire to want to maximise their chance of having a big positive impact with the rest of their career, often in areas which would be considered to be part of a global problem.

At the heart of their aspiration they are often seeking high-impact careers where their additional contribution could help towards solving one of these pressing global problems. This aspiration may be expressed with more or less certainty, clarity and conviction. Indeed, part of my role as a coach is sometimes to help my client refine their goal and their understanding and expression of it.

For some clients an enormously valuable resource is the work that’s been undertaken by 80,000 Hours. This non-profit has been analysing global problems for a number of years, working in collaboration with researchers at the University of Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute and the Open Philanthropy Project. In particular, they have been scanning global dilemmas to find problems that are large in scale, solvable and neglected.

One outcome of this research focuses on providing preliminary ideas about career change with a purpose. It is aimed at those who already have pre-existing experience or qualifications, or are unusually good at a certain type of work.

The resource starts with three “strengths” (quantitative, verbal & social, and visual). Then the writers go on to give advice for people with existing experience in fifteen specific fields. The resource was written before the Canadian research we discussed in “Humans Required”  became widely available. It doesn’t benefit, therefore, from an understanding of the Royal Bank of Canada’s research into six fundamental occupational clusters and their skills emphasis, their susceptibility to automation, and examples of career transitions that can occur within each.

80,000 Hours work in this area is, they admit, preliminary. They anticipate possibly changing their minds over the coming years concerning both the content and the advice associated with their work. It is also true that, from the outset, the career development pathways that 80,000 hours plot are contested by some with personal experience of career change making with a purpose. Indeed, this is one area of thinking and practice where the comments attached to the original work do add value and are well worth considering.

Lying behind the work there is a methodology that anyone can use when thinking about this type of career direction setting. The outcome of the work would be to generate a list of roles that would have high impact on pressing problems and then to narrow this list down. 80,000 Hours demonstrate their application of the methodology – given their own, research-based, view of global priorities – to come up with a list of five key categories of high impact careers. My clients may disagree with 80,000 Hours perspectives on pressing global priorities and can tailor their use of the methodology to align with their own views. Indeed, the originators of the method recognise that:


“The best career path for you will depend on your values, strengths and situation, so the ideal approach is to generate your own list of promising options, rather than use a generic list.”


Furthermore, the method can be applied no matter what your career stage – whether you’re an undergraduate or nearing retirement. What’s particularly interesting about this method is the way in which qualitative and quantitative decision making are combined into a relatively strong research-driven approach. At each twist and turn of the method the user will find that the underpinning rationale, exceptions and further research is available.

Would this method appeal to all? No. In my view the user would need to have a commitment to an evidence-based decision-making approach combined with a willingness to accept that a complete purity of process is impossible. It is also true that all of 80,000 Hours work is aimed at academically gifted and/or highly successful people who face a wide range of choices and options for making a difference through their work.

Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership

Leadership books can be turgid, full of unsupported assertions, difficult to read and extremely dull. Too few really engage with the daily messiness of leading, the acute uncertainty many leaders experience or the fragile loyalty offered by  team members. It is a real pleasure, therefore, to recommend Dr Eve Poole’s creative and encouraging book “Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership” (published, March 2017, by Bloomsbury Business. ISBN: 9781472941237).

Poole’s conviction is that real leaders learn their craft the hard way: through “critical incidents” that test their mettle. This conviction is based upon 2003 research undertaken to develop the simulation-based Ashridge future leaders programme. Eve Poole, on the way to explaining what she means by “leadersmithing”, contends that the seventeen critical incidents are the apprentice-pieces of the leader’s craft. Having engagingly introduced and argued the case for each of these apprentice experiences, Poole then explains how capable leaders really learn before defining and exploring the contribution of the leader’s character.

The second part of this immensely readable, good humoured and literary book provides a whole year’s worth of support for any leader who is really serious about their own development. As a leadership coach who often supports organisation’s rising talent, part two of Poole’s book has rapidly become my reference source of choice. Truth to tell, part two is too rich to be fully savoured in one short year: this is a playbook for a lifetime’s apprenticeship.

Naturally, Dr Eve Poole recognises that some of her readers may be drawn to the first part of the book where the theory is beautifully and succinctly explored whilst others will gain most from the more practical part two. Whatever your preference, I would urge you to read both parts because, developing leader, experienced leader, leadership facilitator or coach, the pearls of wisdom to be found here are well worth savouring.

Managing Two Careers At Once

Why do organisations manage their talent in ways that fail to take account of spousal careers? What happens as a result? What additional thinking and practices could assist organisations to manage talent located within a dual career relationship better? What do findings about what is valued in mid-life career counselling have to say to those involved in career coaching?

Spousal Careers

Writing in the May – June 2018 edition of The Harvard Business Review (“Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple”) Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, shows how companies invest significantly in grooming their star talent — but then fail to take account of marital situations and responsibilities.

This failure, which involves seeing the high performing employee “one dimensionally”and not appreciating their familial context is surprisingly common. Many corporations with relatively enlightened talent management programmes haven’t, according to Petriglieri, “figured out how to manage the growing population of employees who care deeply about their partners’ or spouses’ careers at the same time that they want to advance their own. As a result, many high potentials are heading for the nearest exit.”

Outdated Ideas About Career Progression

Jennifer Petriglieri has seen this happen time and again across a range of sectors and says the crux of the problem is that companies “tend to have fixed paths to leadership roles, with set tours of duty and rigid ideas about what ambition looks like. That creates flexibility and mobility challenges for employees—and recruitment and retention headaches for employers.”

In referring to these “fixed paths to leadership roles” Petriglieri signals that the companies concerned are likely to be practicing that, rather exclusive, form of talent management that Victoria Campbell and Wendy Hirsh (in their Institute of Employment Studies report “Talent Management: A Four-Step Approach”, 2013) dubbed “accelerated skill development for high potentials” (type A). An alternative, and more inclusive, form of talent management, based upon the conviction that every employee has talent, usually drives anemphasis onorganisational capability building throughout the workforce” (type B).   

That some corporations still use models for talent development that are based on fixed paths, set tours of duty and rigid ideas about what ambition looks like might be thought remarkable. That they often struggle with last minute realisations about the importance of spousal careers is perhaps predictable. It does not need to be so.

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

As Global Practice Leader for Integrated Talent Management at World Vision International I was constantly reminded that talent management is but “one side of a coin”. The coin’s “two faces” are talent management and the individual’s career. Talent management is that side of the coin seen from the corporation’s perspective. The other side of the coin is built progressively through the career – and other – decisions made by individual employees. Where they are in a relationship with another person also managing career decisions the two people will characteristically, and increasingly, take these decisions together.

Campbell and Hirsh found, through their case studies of 23 organisations, drawn almost equally from the private and the public sector, that between the “type A” and the “type B” approaches to talent management, there was “a more career‐oriented definition of talent management.”This “places more emphasis on establishing career direction (relating to individuals’ interests and ambitions), as well as deploying and mobilising talent across the organisation, by offering different career experiences and using talent populations to fill key roles.” I will call this approach “type C”. It is important to our current discussion because it has the potential to allow talent managers to understand “the other side of the coin”.

Understanding this important symbiotic relationship between the two sides of the coin has taken some organisations a while. If type C practices were more commonly used this might not be true but experience in the disparate financial services and humanitarian development sectors suggests this is not the case: the type A approach predominates. Predictably, organisations are in a comfortable place, for them, when it is clear that their decisions have impact on individual’s careers. It is less comfortable when the organisation becomes aware that individual’s career decisions can – and do – have organisational effects. When the conditions are right these organisational effects can be very significant indeed. Two examples from my financial services sector experience illustrate this point.

Example 1: In the ten years from 2000, there was considerable actuarial and insurance consulting firm consolidation resulting in the emergence of a smaller number of global organisations with considerably enlarged headcounts. This led to some professionals in this sector becoming more and more specialist and, consequently, their roles being ever more narrowly conceived. For the organisations concerned the opportunity was created to build teams of dedicated experts with niche consulting expertise. By the end of the decade however, employers and specialist recruiters were recognising that the individual career decisions of these business critical experts were having a determinant and sometimes limiting impact on organisation’s business strategy.

Example 2: Merger or acquisition based growth also created opportunities for individuals and teams that employers may not initially have anticipated. A range of firms lost talented specialists to their rivals as the result of a legal loophole meaning they were technically unemployed at the point of M&A transaction. In some cases, individuals or even intact teams were changing jobs and being recruited without serving their notice periods. Remedies were, of course, found (sometimes known as “golden handcuffs”) but constraining career choice often proved both complicated and expensive.

Petriglieri’s work highlights a further complication for corporations that have not got used to flipping the talent/career coin and appreciating, as we have seen, that in dual career partnerships, career related decisions are commonly made by the couple thinking and acting together. The decisions the couple jointly make address career choices in the wider context of family values and goals and give expression to their views about the overall well-being of the couple and the family. In doing so their decisions, taken for the good of the couple and/or the family, are at least as subtle as those taken by the employing organisations. My experience in talent management and coaching would suggest that these familial decisions are often much more nuanced than corporate talent managers contemplate.

Simply put, when managing their talent, organisations need to match the levels of subtlety found in spousal decision making. Expressed this way, that may appear to be a “corporate nice to have”: unfortunately the associated risks can have big price tags attached. Indeed, failing to recognise the relational aspects of career decision can be as expensive as not considering the talent aspects of a merger or an acquisition. The “golden handcuffs” mentioned above were, for example, sometimes resorted to precisely because the level of corporate talent risk management had earlier been inappropriate.

The challenges associated with having these types of career development conversations are significant. Creating the environment of trust, establishing the agreed ground rules, preparing the agreed summary of the discussions, taking time to plan and hold the conversations at the appropriate frequency all require significant maturity, planfulness, sophisticated data management, excellent communication and commitment to coaching behaviours.

Today’s Dual Career/Talent Management Context

The context for both corporate talent management and individual career choice is shaped by the hugely important ways in which our working lives are changing. These changes are well known: people are living longer, the labour market is shifting as a result of technological change and globalisation, employees may be caring for children and parents simultaneously whilst they manage and evaluate their paid work and consider their own second-half-of-life options.

As a consequence of this, people may see the need to change jobs and retrain; they may be having debates about their own and their partner’s careers; portfolio working lives are now a reality for many and retirement is being experienced as a more flexible reality with less of a ‘cliff edge’ between working and not working.

These changes indicate that organisations should approach the relationship they have with their key talent in much more subtle and responsive ways than in the past. “Indicate” seems the appropriate word here because, of course, employers have choices to make. Enlightened employers that operate talent and succession management processes that respond to these significant technological and socioeconomic changes – and recognise the importance of spousal career decisions – are more likely to retain their high performers. Those that don’t, increasingly will not.

Career Coaching Agendas

Employers may or may not invest in coaching for leadership and emerging talent. The extent to which career development looms large in that relationship will vary. My executive coaching experience suggests that career planning and development are increasingly important issues for coachees. Corporations purchasing developmental executive coaching variously recognise – and often support through other initiatives and programmes within which coaching may be located – the fundamental notion that the coachee is the captain of their own life and learning[1].

This recognition creates the context within which the coachee’s goals “are the foundation of the work, although in executive coaching the line manager’s and organisation’s goals are also fed into the agenda” as Jenny Rogers deftly expresses the situation (in “Coaching skills: The Definitive Guide To Being A Coach”, May 2016). Many coaches, including myself, influenced by the cognitive behavioural coaching school and the work of Carl Rogers, approach this type of development coaching with the belief that the coachee is infinitely resourceful and that their work is necessarily holistic in nature and scope. The individual has choices.

Outside of paid coaching, support for the making of those choices, some of which may relate to what Cadbury has dubbed the individual’s “crazy paving” will vary. In many countries individual adults do not have ready access to advice on what to do to make the most of their opportunities. The results can include premature retirement for some, a lack of fulfilling work for others, and insufficient saving for retirement for many.

However, evidence from a UK study (“Mid Life Career Review”, July 2015) evaluated by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) showed that valuable mid-life career review opportunities helped people take stock of where they were and who they are, and what they wanted to achieve for the rest of their lives. The pilot projects not only helped to determine the variety of possible agendas for such a career review but they also illustrated the range of career-related topics that a coachee may be considering.  The study showed that some or all of the following might feature in a well-regarded review:

  • Understanding life expectancy, and its implications for work, leisure, finance and health: many people underestimate life expectancy.
  • Reviewing changing aspirations for work and life over coming decades.
  • Making informed decisions about retirement timing and phasing (since working longer is likely to improve the quality of life of most people, as well as being good for employers and the economy).
  • Undertaking training likely to sustain the individual longer in rewarding activity, including paid work.
  • Reviewing the implications of working longer for personal health.
  • Reviewing the individual’s long-term financial situation including saving for retirement.
  • Developing strategies for overcoming age discrimination.
  • Understanding rights in relation to retirement timing, flexible working, and caring responsibilities, and developing strategies for negotiating adjustments to the individual’s and the working patterns of any spouse.
  • Realistically assessing options for job change and self-employment.

This NIACE research points to the level of sophistication that an informed mid-career review may need to achieve. Looking “around” and “behind” the bullet points above it is also possible to see the work/life considerations that dual-career couples are, increasingly, managing. This provides an indicator of what excellence in career coaching will increasingly look like and it should act as a wake up call and a compass to organisations whose talent management is as sadly one-dimensional as Jennifer Petriglieri found. Talent management should be aiming at least to understand the questions that are being asked by “the growing population of employees who care deeply about their partners’ or spouses’ careers at the same time that they want to advance their own.” This understanding can help to minimise something that talent managers are often said to want to avoid: unpleasant surprises.

[1]Sir Nicholas Cadbury expressed this well: “There is no such thing as a career path.  It is like crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself.”


Petriglieri, J. (May – June, 2018), ‘Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple’, in Harvard Business Review, pp.106–113. Harvard University Press, USA.

Watts, J. et al. (July 2015), ‘Mid Life Career Review Pilot Project Outcomes: Phases 1, 2, and 3 (2013 – 2015): Final report to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’. National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, Leicester, UK.

Rogers, J. (May 2106), ‘Coaching skills: The Definitive Guide To Being A Coach.’ Open University Press, Milton Keynes, UK.

Campbell, V. and Hirsh, W. (2013), ‘Talent Management: A Four Step Approach.’ Institute of Employment Studies, Brighton, UK.

Mid-Life Career Change?

As people look back over their working lives it is not uncommon to find them asking questions about service, achievement and satisfaction. Some may be in positions where the opportunities for development through work are limited and they may increasingly identify with the view that there’s a considerable difference between twenty years of experience, and one year of experience relived twenty times! Unsurprisingly, this feeling can be expressed in employee’s engagement with their work. Gallup, for example, has found that the percentage of actively disengaged workers tends to be highest among those aged 40-49. Workers in this age group were almost 1.5 times as likely as those aged 18-29 or those aged 60 and older to be actively disengaged (15% for both the youngest and oldest age groups).

Faced with the evidence, Gallup concluded that, once employees are past early adulthood – the years when many are learning their chosen profession – they become significantly less likely to strongly agree that their workplace is a source of personal development.

Evidence from psychological research confirms what shared experience would suggest: that life goals and motivation tend to shift, as people grow older. As many coaches would confirm, mid-life is a time when people re-evaluate their goals and make changes accordingly.

Sometimes the incentive to make these career changes may be fuelled by a sense of dashed expectations. Hannes Schwandt, an economist at the University of Zurich found that young people overestimate their future happiness, and so feel disappointed as life goes on. But as people approach 60, they start underestimating their future happiness, and then are pleasantly surprised by reality.

For many, accumulated wealth, relative security and a desire to really make a difference or to “give something back” propels individuals in mid-life toward something of a career crisis. E B White captured their quandary: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

“My Career Development Plan” is a practical guide to career development for those considering a change of career direction. It was written by John Evans, a qualified career development practitioner, executive coach and former global practice leader for the world’s largest child focused humanitarian development agency. John was previously head of Hewitt Associates’ European Organisational Development practice. Your copy is available here.

A Career With Impact?

Impactpool is a unique career platform aiming to provide the best possible support to people who want to pursue a career within mission-driven organisations. Impactpool (previously UNjobfinder) was founded in 2015 and is a social enterprise with headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden. Its founders were aware of the need for a qualified, customer oriented and user-friendly service covering the global employment sector of mission driven organisations.

Impactpool’s own mission is to support highly qualified and motivated individuals by helping them grow professionally and to develop successful careers within organisations that contribute to a sustainable world. In just three years Impactpool has become the world’s fastest growing career website with a focus on talents and organisations who are striving for and contributing to a sustainable world. The service gathers opportunities from hundreds of international organisations around the world including all UN organisations, international financial institutions, the European Union and the most influential intergovernmental and Non-Governmental Organisations.

For talent seeking to break into this niche global marketplace, Impactpool provides a “shop window” on approaching 2500 daily-updated entry, mid-career and executive level appointments across (currently, and growing) 156 organisations. A single portal provides unique job search functionality. This is complemented by a dedicated and independent career coaching service provided by coaches with successful career records in the industry; I am honoured to be a part of this network. The organisational coverage is impressive covering an ever-expanding range of international, governmental, medical, justice, faith based, peacekeeping, and humanitarian and development organisations with current vacancies across the globe.

Alongside this dynamic slate of opportunities those who sign up to Impactpool have access to invaluable career guides. “Start Making a Difference” is a must-read providing an introduction to a career in international development. Experienced recruiters and HR specialists explain how to start your career in the sector, including what you need to know about educational requirements, relevant skills and experience, the differing organisation types, career tracks, and remuneration. The Impactpool authors share concrete, honest advice on how to approach your career strategically—from choosing the right jobs to apply for to positioning yourself in the best possible way for growth and advancement.

For experienced talent, “The Senior Assessment Guide” is an invaluable “preparation kit” to use when facing a UN assessment centre.  The eBook describes the different UN pools, how you get into them, how you are assessed, and how you finally get selected. These pools primarily target senior internal staff at the UN, but the Guide also describes how external leaders have successfully gained access to pools in the past.

Complementing this targeted Guide, Impactpool also publish general interview guides and question banks for those applying for international organisation careers, humanitarian and development sector roles. Regular summary articles highlight the beginning and flag up the closure of recruitment campaigns. Click for further information.

(The writer is an Impactpool Fellow).

Information sharing, pathos and apologies

It is widely believed that leaders should share information with those they lead. The arguments to support this as ‘best practice’ draw widely on studies of staff engagement. These repeatedly show that, by explaining the connection between employees’ individual jobs and the organisation, leaders and managers can greatly increase employee satisfaction with their day-to-day work. The commitment to communication also rests on the belief that, whilst trust evolves, ebbs and flows it is essential to staff engagement and motivation. For leaders and managers, the evidence shows that employees who trust them are most likely to follow through on goals set. Trustworthy leaders and managers are also more likely to get a flow of honest feedback on the challenges their staff face: which is invaluable.

At the strategic level, as Alkhafaji stated (1997), “no matter how brilliant the strategy may be, unless the business team understands and accepts it, performance will suffer.”

The “terms” of understanding and acceptance depend on leaders being able to communicate relevant information credibly. Leaders typically base their own judgements on both hard data and softer information. Many will take the view that the data is easier to communicate than the softer information. Of course, what is easier for one leader to accomplish may be more challenging for another and track records certainly play a part in creating the foundations for each call to action. Agreeing, perhaps instinctively, with Aristotle, many leaders I have worked with know that credibility depends upon a rather subtle demonstration of competence, good intention and empathy.

Modern business communication has tended to elevate the attention paid to what Aristotle terms “logos”. This is often, and to a great extent rightly, associated with logic, the hard data and the apparent proofs of our case. Business leaders, perhaps because they are business leaders, will often avoid paying attention to “pathos” in their communication. However, as we will see, this failure to consider the emotional impact of communication can have catastrophic impact on how it is received and responded to. More generally,  and perhaps through a fear of being seen to be overly emotional, much business communication appears leaden, stilted and impassive: not the tinder that lights fires of commitment as Henry V did on the Feast of St Crispian. (As Richard Olivier explains so eloquently in his book “Inspirational Leadership”, 2007, ISBN: 978 1 905879 00 7).

The dangers of a failure to attend to engage emotionally with people are well illustrated by the response of the CEO of United Airlines to an airline-overbooking situation on April 9, 2017. This resulted in a fare-paying passenger being dragged bodily off an internal US flight. When the gruesome video footage went viral and the CEO, who had previously been named U.S. Communicator of the Year, failed to apologise he was widely criticised. In avoiding emotional response and failing to give a profound and heartfelt apology for the terrible manner in which the passenger had been treated on a United plane the CEO stoked fear. He did not appear to understand or to respond to the fact that relationships between United, its public, investors and actual and potential passengers were breaking down. His initial communication did not include an effective apology that would right these collapsing relationships. He did appreciate that passengers felt unsafe at the hands of United. Later attempts to correct the impression given were seen as too little and too late.

An example of a generally well-judged communication style that combined logic and emotional intelligence comes from Steve Jobs. Jobs appeared to completely understand the need to marry logos and pathos when sharing information with Apple’s market. His style was typically as calm, enthusiastic, and confident when launching high stake products as others might be in their living room. The author and Associate Professor of Management Garr Reynolds put it this way: “His style is conversational and his visuals are in perfect sync with his words. […] He is friendly, comfortable and confident (which makes others feel relaxed), and he exudes a level of passion and enthusiasm that is engaging without going over the top.” Sometimes this was no mean feat when the subject matter might have been a little dry!

In making the judgement call about the use of the hard data and the soft information, Blanes I Vidal and Moller (2007), call attention to the importance of the leader’s belief about the accuracy of the soft information available. When a leader strongly believes (and is self-confident about) her/his judgement about the available soft information she/he is more likely to share it and this, Vidal and Moller show, can increase the organisation’s surplus.

Conversely, Blanes I Vidal and Moller’s work suggests that information sharing can help to reduce the autocratic predisposition of self-confident leaders. Information sharing can help organisations to avoid overconfidence-driven courses of action. This happens because, when workers have access to information, for example about a possible merger, they are able to form opinions about its potential viability. Because this opinion affects their motivation, the leader can find themselves effectively constrained from pursuing courses of action that are unduly based on her/his ‘gut feeling’ or instincts.

This is not what is generally thought of when “the flow of honest feedback to the CEO” is being discussed but it can certainly be powerful.


Alkhafaji, A.F., 1997, Strategic Management: Formulation, Implementation and Control in a Dynamic Environment, New York: Haworth Press.

Blanes I Vidal, J., and M. Moller. 2007. “When Should Leaders Share Information with their Subordinates?” Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, 16, pp. 251-283.

“Post-truth”: Word Of The Year

The FT reports that Oxford Dictionaries has made “post-truth” its word of the year for 2016, citing a surge in the frequency of its use in the context of Britain’s EU referendum and the USA’s presidential election.

Dictionary compilers say that the word was probably first used in 1992 – though then it was used to mark the time when the truth was known – “post-truth” was the “after the truth was known” situation. In 2016 the word is coming to denote “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Truth is a comprehensive term that, in most of its nuances, implies accuracy and honesty. Truth is also the currency of our analytical mind. A tension has however been created both through our frequent use of “truth” to refer to the idea of being authentic (or “true to oneself”) and the now widely accepted qualifications that truth may be subjective or objective, relative or absolute. Thus, “truth” involves both the quality of faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, sincerity, and veracity and that of “agreement with fact or reality”. We are increasingly confronted by the living reality that an individual may be sincere – and yet wrong – at the same time.

Trust is, however, an emotive “currency” of the heart. In organisational life it may be part of the foundations for the individual’s faith or belief in a mission or the value of the common good. Trust has both a prior evidential aspect (in that it is developed over times past) and yet it is also closely associated with expectations about the future (particularly the behaviour of another person). It may deliver an accompanying feeling of confidence and security depending on the degree of trust and the extent of the associated risk.

Without truth and trust built into the gears of the organisation it may grind to a halt. There is much discussion about the individual leader’s and manager’s trustworthiness. This is sometimes fuelled by the results of employee engagement surveys and, of course, a trustworthy leader/manager is of great value. Yet it is also true that employees want to be able to trust the whole managerial system. They want to believe in the organisation as a result of the quality of its leadership, its consistent application of sound managerial practices and the equity of its people systems. This type of systemic trust arises when all managers use the same management framework and are held accountable to and act consistently within the values, systems and practices of the organisation. It does not therefore rely exclusively on personalities or on individuals, who may be here today and gone tomorrow.

Organisational action planning to address poor trust scores identified through an employee survey sometimes focus too narrowly on the behaviours of leaders and managers and may overlook organisational design and work processes. This is shortsighted because each of these impact on the working environment for all employees.

Effective organisational design engenders trust by creating the conditions where there can be work clarity and relationship clarity. This good design passes the test of being easily and consistently explained and understood. It fundamentally enables managers and staff to be clear about how work is organised and delivered.

Systems of work are the organisation’s policies, procedures, forms and information and communication technologies. They operate all day, every day. They never take holidays – unlike managers. Some work processes may rankle initially and require improvement but when they are sound, known and repeated employees will eventually get used to them and follow them. There is rare skill in designing and implementing light systems that reinforce legislation, policies and what is valued in the organisation and embed required behaviours in processes. Almost anyone can create a heavy system that wastes time, creates confusion and burns money!

The recurring challenge in volatile, uncertain and complex environments is to hold to truth, build trust, grow leadership and use effective organisational design and work systems to engender engagement.

Development Planning & Snakes

In this article we explore some factors that may help to explain why some people create and then actively work on development plans and others don’t! In the course of the discussion we will be looking at the role of snakes in shaping our understanding of the topic!

Generally, the aims of personal development planning are, first, to document a process of self-analysis, personal reflection and honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses and then to help the individual to “take charge” of their own learning and development. The process of taking charge is usually encouraged through documenting a plan that typically lays out goals, timelines, interim achievements and the methods of goal achievement. 

Commonly a plan will outline areas of learning and development activity that are reasonably considered likely to enable the individual to either acquire new or develop existing skills and behavioural attributes. The end goal may, helpfully, be rather precisely identified and the whole process is often aiming at enhancing performance, addressing anticipated changes in a current role or laying out a developmental pathway towards a future role.

What is considered relevant content in the planning process – and the content of the plan itself – will clearly be influenced by the purpose to which the plan will be put. Development planning of this type is now, of course, widely used in educational, relationship, leadership and career contexts.

When the purpose of the plan is personal, an individual may want to retain to himself or herself the function of assessor of improvement or of regression. Where some validation of objective improvement is needed that will require assessment using standard criteria. These might include goals or benchmarks that define the end-points, strategies or plans for reaching goals, measurement, and assessment of progress, levels or stages that define milestones along a development path, and a feedback system to provide information on changes.

Much practice in this area has been influenced by psychologist Albert Bandura’s work – and here come the snakes! Bandura, investigating the fear and behaviours of people afraid of snakes, found that those who believed that the snake would not hurt them and/or that they would be able to manage the situation with the snake and to control their own rising fear would, in fact, succeed. This self-efficacy belief enabled the phobic individual to manage both their fear and their own behaviour.

According to Bandura, self-efficacy, or the individual’s belief in his or her own abilities to deal with various situations, can play a role not only in how people feel about themselves – but also whether or not an individual successfully achieves their goals in life. Indeed, since Bandura published his seminal 1977 paper, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change[i],” the subject has become one of the most studied topics in psychology.

But why has self-efficacy become such an important topic? As Bandura and other researchers have demonstrated, self-efficacy can have an impact on everything from psychological states to behaviour to motivation.

Bandura’s research on success in reaching goals suggested that self-efficacy best explains why people with the same level of knowledge and skills get very different results. According to Bandura this self-confidence functions as a powerful predictor of success because it enables those who have it to expect to succeed; it allows these people to take risks and set themselves challenging goals; it motivates them to keep trying if at first they don’t succeed, and, it helps them control emotions and fears when the going gets tough.

Coaches will be familiar with such people and also with those who lack this self-confidence. It is in the context of working with this second group that it can be helpful considering the four major sources of self-efficacy, according to Bandura. Each source provides an inventive coach with an indication of ways in which self-efficacy might be strengthened:

  1. Mastery Experiences

“The most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences,” Bandura explained. Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. However, failing to adequately deal with a task or challenge can undermine and weaken self-efficacy. Bandura’s perspective underlines the importance of providing clients with opportunities to practice in a “safe” and reasonably supportive environment and not necessarily “biting off” too much at the beginning of the development process.

  1. Social Modeling

Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed.” The key features of this observation relate, of course, to the phrases “similar to oneself” and “sustained effort”.

  1. Social Persuasion

Bandura also asserted that people could be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Consider a time when someone said something positive and encouraging that helped you achieve a goal. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and instead focus on giving their best effort to the task at hand. Whilst this is by no means universally true, it is my experience as a coach that many leaders rarely receive encouragement and that this, where appropriate, can be a very valuable coaching input.

  1. Psychological Responses

Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact how a person feels about their personal abilities in a particular situation. A person who becomes extremely nervous before speaking in public may develop a weak sense of self-efficacy in these situations. The coach can serve to assist a client really understand particular situations through sensitive questioning and by helping their client to put a single experience into an appropriate context. Doing so can help the individual pay attention to the totality of their experience and prepare for subsequent opportunities in a more rounded and holistic way.

As Bandura notes “it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted.” A coach who helps to bring these perceptions to the surface and to understand what truly was happening on that prior occasion can facilitate invaluable learning for the next time.

[i] Bandura A. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review. 1977; 84, 191-215.