On Tuesday 26th May I had the privilege of speaking with over 50 leaders across Ireland who are alumni of Timoney Leadership Institute. Timoney has had a great relationship with IESE Business School and many of their leadership programs are taught by IESE Business School faculty.
This is a wide ranging conversation about leadership and learning in these times of uncertainty.
Questions that I didn’t get around to answer during the webinar:
James G. : How do you communicate your vision in times of challenge without being selfish
In Vistage when we talk about the 7 critical skills of leadership, number 1 is “Create a Shared Vision“. What is important is not so much that a vision exists, but that it is the result of input from every person involved in the organisation. The leader’s role is not to create the vision. The leader’s role is to cultivate an environment and facilitate an ongoing process where every person contributes in some way to the vision.
If you as a leader know the vision, but if I enter your building and speak to the receptionist and ask “what is the vision?” and his or her answer is a blank stare… you have not been effective in creating a shared vision.
As I mentioned in my answer to Ann M’s question… a lot of this process is run by active listening. The 4 questions that I recommended that you ask over and over again are:
“What’s going well?”
“What’s not going well?”
“What would you change?”
It is more important that everyone believes that you care, and you understand their specific joys and difficulties, than having a beautiful well crafted poetic vision statement.
Before any work on vision, one of the activities that I do with people that work with me is ask “What are the characteristics of the best Vistage team mates?” “What are the poisonous characteristics that we must avoid in new people?” and make sure that everyone has explicitly contributed to articulate what type of people we want to spend our time around.
Dermot D. : Great talk, Conor! Any tips on how to become more courageous, in business leadership terms??
Dermot, I believe that courage is a practice. If you practice small brave actions in the little things, you prepare yourself to take brave actions in the big things. A friend of mine says that there are no big things… the big achievements arrive out of a series of small things. If you do the small things well, you don’t need to worry about the big things.
When I take a group of leaders on a retreat, we work on trust and vulnerability. If I can create an environment where you are willing to be honest with what really challenges you… then there is a high possibility that you will take valuable experiences out of the time we share together. If you choose not to be honest, there is little we can do to support you. When someone says “but I don’t know what type of vulnerability you are looking for”… my answer is “are your hands sweating as you think about sharing it?” If no, it is not honest sharing.
One of the bravest actions of leadership is to admit what you don’t know, admit what scares you, admit that sometimes you our way out of your depth. Your role is not to know the answers. Your role is to facilitate a process that leads to answers.
PS Admitting that you don’t know is not a ticket to enter the state of victim… you don’t get to not take responsibility for facilitating the search for good answers.
Philip C. : Conor, your conversation and guidance is very inspiring. I have just signed up for your YouTube channel. Can you tell me if you have any books and if so where can I obtain them.
One of my big life goals that I have not yet completed is “write a book”. I write lots of blog posts, I write many articles and teaching notes for IESE Business School… but have never had the sustained discipline and clarity needed to do the 6-9 month work to complete a book.
I did write a book about my experiences of parenting… Keep Wonder Alive but it is more a manifesto than a full book.
Sean O’K.: Great talk Conor, really inspirational and helpful ideas for all of us. It sounds to me like you firmly believe that each of us can create our own life story? Would you agree?
If you don’t do the work to plan the life you want for yourself, you will contribute to someone else’s life plan. In the case of our children and our good friends, this is a wonderful opportunity. If you are just handing over your energy, your imagination, your intelligence, your activity to other people’s projects… it is no wonder that you feel that life is somewhat empty.
Burn out doesn’t come from too much activity. It comes from too much activity on stuff that is not important to your life plan.
Louis D.: Hi Conor, thanks for all your wisdom. Can I ask if faith plays a roll in your life and success? Is this a topic people are reluctant to discuss and why is that? Love all your YouTube stuff, thanks.
I have faith.
I love working with people to find their own path to self-belief. I do believe that this process is a dialogue and a mutual exploration… not a static blog post or video.
What I think about online sharing of these ideas: The concern that I have about words that capture a spiritual experience is that they can be read out of context. I am more than happy to share my experiences in private courses…. where we have had a chance to connect and build mutual trust.
Words are dangerous… If I say “honesty” we each have an interpretation of what it means… and each of us has a slightly different definition. The more abstract the word, the more our interpretations are likely to vary. Words like “airplane” and “bird” are safe on a blog post. Words like “faith” and “spiritual” and “peace of mind” are more prone to widely varying interpretation.
James G.: Is 52 yrs of age too old to be successful
As a premier league footballer, yes.
As a chess grandmaster, possibly.
As a rock star, probably.
As a leader who positively encourages others to become the best version of themselves? No. Plenty of time.
Karl D. : How important is it to learn from past decisions and experiences and do you factor those lessons in when making a decision today. Great and insightful tal Conor…well done.
I love Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach. He often distinguishes between his brain and his mind. His brain is the same brain he had as a child… but his mind… is all the brains that he has access to today. His brain is limited. His mind is infinite. Our mind can take decisions not just on our own experiences, but on all of humanity’s combined experience. This type of decision making… an openness to not having to be the smartest, but to be the one willing to listen to the smartest is the greatest type of leadership.
Michael B. : Conor in our early entrepreneurial experience, would you agree that the unbridled drive and zest you need to get the plane off the ground means you tend to put projects first and people second – would you not expect this from a younger, raw, driven business person?
There is a Buddhist idea that every 7 years there is a specific phase of human development. Zero to 7 is “realise I exist”, 7 to 14 is “realise others exist” (and their dreams and fears and plans are as important to them as mine are to me), 14 to 21 is “kill your parents” (which is a metaphor!… it is a realisation that nobody is better than you, nobody is worse than you… inside you are all the positive aspects and negative aspects of humanity…) and the list goes on… you can only move to the next phase by fully living the previous phase. I can’t take a 7 year old and force them to achieve the compassion that a fully developed 70 year old can take towards the world.
I sometimes listen to my daughter talk about a difficult situation between friends, or in school… and I wish I could take what I know now and just shove it into her mind… but that is not how it works. She will live her own life and find her own way of coming to terms with life’s joys and struggles. I will always encourage her to take a positive, resourceful, creative stance towards the world… but beyond that, her answers are her answers.
I can wish that my younger self was less arrogant, less greedy…. but I wouldn’t be who I am today if I had not been that earlier arrogant and greedy self.
Mark McC. : Thanks Conor I was going to ask you what is the best way to explain resilience to a leader in these times www.createthegreatinyou.com
Right now you are home with family. Nothing is missing. Your memory can haunt you and your imagination can scare you. It is you who generates suffering.
Where is your intelligence working? For you? Or to scare you? Or to haunt you?
Memory and Imagination – this is what we are suffering. My cancelled plans for the future… never existed except in my head. My cancelled plans for my business… never existed except in my head. My memory of how much we sold last year… is in the past.
I find it so hard to let go of what I had expected to be doing. I find a lot of motivating for me comes from working towards a future that I have imagined that is “better” than this current moment.
I think we are born resilient, but we learn to be victims. I love the book “Who moved my Cheese” by Spencer Johnson. It goes direct to this difficulty of human to let go of what I had expected.
Joseph Campbell said “we must let go of the life we have planned so as to live the life that is waiting for us”. I struggle with this. My thinking is so often focussed to avoiding change and not accepting new situations that are not what I had hoped for.
Thank you for these great questions.
Thanks again for your participation and I look forward to hearing from you.
“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”
The day you lose your curiosity, you have lost the best of our human capacities. You have lost the capacity to see things as they could be, to use the incredible power of human imagination.
A child is curious. As we enter adolescence, our ego becomes stronger and stronger. It becomes ever more important to us to be right, to not be easily influenced, to hold strong to beliefs that shape our personal story of who we are. As we become adults, there is a need to let go of the adolescent ego need to be right. To regain our curiosity, we need to become able to accept how great our ignorance truly is.
Knowing the answers will help you in school. Knowing how to question will help you in life.
There is a great phrase that I hear often in Vistage circles “if you are the smartest in the room, you are in the wrong room”. The need to be the smartest, the best, the winning-est is a danger for your curiosity… this is something I know well.
In chess, if I play against a better player… I will probably lose… but I will likely learn more than if I win against a weaker player. What is more important? Winning or learning?
Curiosity is a willing, a proud, and eager confession of ignorance.
Years ago I listen as a wise man in his late 80s shared this story of a human life. His challenge to us was that to be at peace in your 80s depends on how you live your 35-55 “mid life”.
There is an inevitable moment of crisis that comes in “mid life”, sometime between the ages of 35 and 55, and we can deal with it in one of two ways.
This video comes as part of a series of livestream events that I have been running every Friday at 17:00 CET (next one here). The last 3 have been covering the 7 beliefs that Vistage (and I) hold about great leaders.
1. avoid shortcuts 2. take time to work on the business 3. seek differing perspectives 4. are curious 5. are disciplined 6. seek trusted mentors 7. rise by helping others
Going Deeper on the 7 Beliefs of Great Leaders
If you are interested in getting deeper in these 7 concepts and practical tips to apply them to your own life and business, you can sign up to receive the Vistage ebook “The CEO’s Guide to Leading in Challenging Times” on the Vistage website.
By the end of the next 60 minutes you will have been exposed to a lot of ideas, some of which you will incorporate into your own repertoire, and they will ensure that you get the maximum opportunity to have your ideas valued and accepted by the people you speak with.
Patrick Winston, MIT
Patrick Winston’s How to Speak talk has been an MIT tradition for over 40 years. Offered every January, the talk is intended to improve your speaking ability in critical situations by teaching you a few heuristic rules.
Around 40 years ago, Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70 gave his first talk on How to Speak.
We were sitting in my office, whining about somebody’s horrible lectures, when he said, “You should do a class on how to speak.”
Actually, that first edition of How to Speak drew about 100. This past week about 250 showed up. It’s a little hard to say exactly because [the lecture hall] officially seats 150 and perhaps another 100 sat on the stairs and floor or stood in the back or watched from the hall.
It became so popular, in fact, that the annual talk had to be limited to the first 300 participants. Every year, Professor Winston improved upon the talk. As he put it, “There is much more now, of course, because I keep learning new things. I’ve added techniques for passing oral exams, delivering successful job-interview talks, and ensuring that ideas become as famous as they ought to be.
…like today with COVID-19/Coronavirus affecting all aspects of our daily lives across the world.
When there is a huge range of possible impacts in the short, medium or long term, how can leaders prepare and respond?
Today, it is impossible to predict the impact of COVID-19/Coronavirus on our societies, our people, our future cash flows. Leaders cannot abdicate responsibility and say that they cannot decide because there are too many unknowns.
In the current context, business leaders need to lead with a number of specific actions:
Communicate daily what you are seeing, what you are expecting, who is involved, what it means…
Scenario Planning –
Best Case – What is the best case we might possibly expect and how will we respond if the situation pans out in this way?
Worst Case – What is the truly worst case we might face? What actions can we take today that can prepare us for dealing with this? What cash reserves will we need? What will we do with suppliers, customers, banks, employees in this worst case? Are there any actions that can reduce the impact? Can we survive this worst case? (“You can only learn from the crisis that you survive” Jim Collins)
Other Cases between best and worst – What will happen under these scenarios? How can we prepare plans and our people to perform under these conditions?
It may be helpful to have separate people/teams working on response plans for each of the scenarios.
IESE Business School is working on 4 possible Scenarios and teams are putting in place the technology, the training, the support systems in order to allow for any of these 4 scenarios to be supported. As of yesterday, IESE has moved to scenario 3… All classes delivered online for at least the next 2 weeks. All travel stopped. All marketing activities with on campus visits stopped.
IESE is maintaining the capacity to go back to on-campus teaching, and is maintaining regular communications to employees, to faculty and to students via email, a blog and internal messaging tools.
Games to play with family at home or on travels. First I share board games, then card games. These are games we play at home, and when we are on travels, waiting in airports, train stations or cafes.
Thanks to Rich Mulholland for most of the inspiration on board games, and to Keti for being at the end of a phone when we need card game rule clarifications 😉
Strategic board games that are fun to play with your family.
Strategy board game where players try to grow bamboo, guide rivers and avoid the Panda eating your garden. Takes 2 hours per game. Can play with 2, but better with 3+
Ticket to Ride
Strategy board game where players build train tracks and compete to have the biggest track network across Europe. 2+ players, but better 3+.
War game where players play to take over the whole world with their armies. Friendships can be damaged when you break your treaties! 3+ players. Games last 1-2 hours.
Turn based strategy game. This game involves building of alliances and getting people to trust you. At a certain point, alliances start to fall apart, and emotions rise. Not for the faint hearted… need to agree to forgive everything the moment the game ends 😉 . Games can last 5-6 hours.
Strategy board game where you accumulate resources and build your empire via trade.
Strategy board game where players buy properties and develop homes and hotels, allowing them to ask for rent from other players. 3+ players, lasts 60-90 minutes.
These are the games we play most in our home, the choice of game is often very much based on how many players we have for the game.
As we come up to the season of new year’s resolutions, I took some time to reflect on what it takes to make change happen in our lives, and in our businesses.
David Maister is a former Harvard Business School professor, expert on the management of professional service firms. He is best known for writing “The Trusted Advisor” together with Charles Green.
The problem is that many change efforts are based on the assumption that all you have to do is to explain to people that their life could be better, be convincing that the goals are worth going for and show them how to do it. This is patently false. If this were true, there would be no drug addicts in the world, no alcoholics, no bad marriages: “Oh, I see, it’s not good for me? Ah, well then, I’ll stop, of course!” What nonsense!
David Maister, Strategy and the Fat Smoker
Why We Don’t Do What We Know We Need to Do
We don’t make most changes because the benefits come later, whereas the pain (of self discipline) comes immediately. This is not a good deal for the emotional, instinctual part of us as human beings.
For many of the important habit changes:
the benefits don’t come next week or next year… but in a couple of decades.
dabbling or trying a little gets you nothing… only full commitment over a long term gets the results.
Short term results are often detrimental to long term success… Short term extreme weight loss is always long term catastrophic.
Strategy is Fundamentally about Commitment
The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve.
The essential questions of strategy are these:
Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever?
Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make?
What issues are we really ready to tackle?
Strategy as Commitment
Any weight loss plan that is based upon a temporary change in diet is destined to fail. Any corporate or organisational change that is about a short term push is destined to fail.
All Strategic changes must be seen as a fundamental lifestyle commitment based on the type of person or organisation you want to be.
An aspirational vision that is not based on a willingness to suffer the short term pain to change is a dangerous waste of time, and a dangerous loss of credibility.
There is no business benefit in claiming to pursue a goal that everyone can tell you don’t have the guts to pursue.
Only say you will do what you are really committed to doing.
6 Required Actions to Make Strategic Change Happen
If strategy is not about a To-Be future state, but about a set of disciplines that I or we as a team are willing to fully commit to, what is required for successful strategy?
What gets people on the program?
It is a permanent change in Lifestyle – Stay away from temporary fixes
You must change the scorecards – Measure what matters, incentivise what matters
Leadership lead by example – You can’t expect others to change if you don’t change
Principles over Tactics – make the changes because they are right in themselves, not because they lead to different results
People must Volunteer – Each person must make a personal commitment
People must get on or get off the Bus – Help those who are unable to make the personal commitment to find a place where they can be successful as they are today
Ideology is the Only Long-Term Strategic Differentiator
Is there a “way of doing things” that is particular to you or your organisation?
The most successful organisations have an ideology. There is a McKinsey way, a Goldman Sachs approach and a Bain philosophy, to take only three examples of firms with strong ideologies, clear strategies and the financial success to match.
At these firms, if you don’t subscribe to the ideology, you don’t stay and argue or act as a silent dissenter. You walk. Or, eventually, you’re asked to walk.
I am now thinking about what is “the Conor way of doing things” and “what is the Vistage way of doing things”… some end of year reflection.
As a leader, there are big disadvantages of saying things that you have not got the discipline to do. Be careful that your words are followed by actions.
As human beings, we accept the influence mostly, if not exclusively, of those we trust, and being trusted is mostly about true trustworthiness, not technique.
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