Review: Dana Caspersen’s Changing the Conversation – The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution

Change the conversationThis review first ran in the Feb. 2 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution

By Dana Caspersen

Penguin Books


Scrapping the downtown bus lane was disappointing.

The blowback on social media was disconcerting.

Folks railed against the “flagrant disrespect for civic engagement” and the “pious hypocrisy” and “sheer foolishness” of Councillors “who seem to viscerally resent downtown residents.”

There were charges that “Hamilton has an autoimmune disorder that attacks and destroys the connective tissue of civic engagement.”

A local nonprofit decided to auction off Councillors without their consent.

There were calls to “make life miserable for these jokers for the next four years” and confessions that “I have no intention to be even polite anymore.” A few Hamiltonians even mused about pulling up stakes and moving to more transit-friendly cities.

It’s been just shy of two months since Hamilton’s newest edition of Council was sworn in. We’re looking at a long and unproductive four years unless we learn how to change the conversation in our community. We’re not going to build a better transit system for all if we careen down the low road.

Conflict mediator Dana Caspersen has identified 17 principles of conflict resolution that we’d do well to adopt in Steeltown. “The principles provide encouragement to see conflict as a moment of opportunity,” says Caspersen, author of Changing the Conversation. “They urge us to recognize that we have the ability to call up the curiosity needed to step away from cycles of attack and counterattack and to move, instead, with as much grace and skill as we can muster toward resolution.”

Here’s a quick rundown of Caspersen’s 17 conflict resolution principles:

  1. Don’t hear attack. Listen for what is behind the words. “Cycles of attack, defense and counterattack often dominate the action in a conflict. Instead of hearing attack, listen for what people are really trying to say, even if they are saying it very badly.”
  2. Resist the urge to attack. Change the conversation from the inside.
  3. Talk to the other person’s best self. “Assume there is a part of the other person that is capable of moving with you toward a positive resolution – and talk as if that is the case.”
  4. Differentiate needs, interests and strategies. “Frequently, in a conflict, we can understand people’s needs and interests even if we don’t agree with their strategies. This understanding can make it easier to find solutions. Resist the urge to keep arguing for your own preferred strategy or position. Instead, help the people you are in conflict with get a full picture of what is important to you in the situation and find out what is important to them.”
  5. Acknowledge emotions. See them as signals.
  6. Differentiate between acknowledgement and agreement. “You can acknowledge a person’s position or way of thinking even when you are in complete disagreement.”
  7. When listening, avoid making suggestions. “Offering a suggestion can be a way of not listening, of trying to manipulate or ‘fix’ the other person. It may be seen as a way of devaluing the needs of the other person.”
  8. Differentiate between evaluation and observation. “Keep the people in the conflict – both yourself and the other person – separate from the problem.”
  9. Test your assumptions. Relinquish them if they prove to be false.
  10. Develop curiosity in difficult situations. “In the tension of conflict, our first impulse is often to abandon curiosity. When this happens, we stop trying to understand the other people. To varying degrees, we begin to dehumanize the other people. We move away.”
  11. Assume useful dialogue is possible, even when it seems unlikely. “Often people need reassurance that if they shift directions or back away from positions, they will still be respected and seen as credible. Focus on finding a pathway to resolution that doesn’t leave anyone embarrassed or with a lingering urge to even the score. Avoid personal attacks.”
  12. If you are making things worse, stop. “Sometimes our reaction to conflict is so ingrained that it seems impossible to change. However, the way we approach and engage with conflict is not a fundamental part of our character, it is a learned behavior. We can change it.”
  13. Figure out what’s happening, not whose fault it is. “Blaming obscures the mechanics of the conflict and keeps the focus on the past. It distracts us from finding out what happened and why, and makes it much more difficult for people to talk constructively about difficult things.”
  14. Acknowledge conflict. Talk to the right people about the real problem. “Avoid the temptation to try to address the problem by ranting about the situation in general, complaining behind people’s backs or attacking them in indirect ways.”
  15. Assume undiscovered options exist. Seek solutions people willingly support.
  16. Be explicit about agreements. Be explicit when they change.
  17. Expect and plan for future conflict.

Before we face the next Most Important Decision To Ever Be Made in the History of Hamilton, we’d do well to read Changing the Conversation.  While it delivers instant validation and adulation, ramping up the rhetoric on social media won’t get us where we need to go.  Caspersen’s 17 conflict resolution principles just might pull us out of the never-ending loop of attack and counterattack. Maybe we can even crowdfund to have Caspersen stage an intervention that gets us all on the bus.

@jayrobb lives and works in Hamilton.

Review: Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

thanks for the feedback

This review first ran in the Jan. 19 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Thanks For the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

By Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen



Feedback is a gift.

And so too is a colonoscopy that delivers a clean bill of health or an early diagnosis.

If given the choice, which gift would you prefer?

Apparently, one in four of us dread our annual performance reviews more than anything else we do at work. “Learning about ourselves can be painful – sometimes brutally so – and the feedback is often delivered with a forehead-slapping lack of awareness about what makes people tick,” say Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of Thanks for the Feedback, Harvard Law School lecturers and cofounders of a consulting firm. “It can feel less like a ‘gift of learning’ and more like a colonoscopy.”

Smart employers know this and prep their managers with bootcamps and tipsheets on how to give good feedback. But no amount of training matters if we’re unwilling or unable to receive the honest truth.

“The focus should not be on teaching feedback givers to give,” say Stone and Heen. “The focus – at work and at home – should be on feedback receivers, helping us all to become more skillful learners. The key variable in your growth is not your teacher or your supervisor. It’s you.”

Start by recognizing the inherent tension that comes with receiving feedback. We know it’s good for us, exposes our blindspots and reveals how we’re perceived by the people around us. Feedback is how we improve.

But along with our desire to learn and improve, we also want to be loved, accepted and respected. “Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away. But there’s a lot each of us can do to manage the tension.”

Start by being clear on the feedback you get and want. “Discuss the purpose of the feedback explicitly. It seem obvious, but even competent, well-meaning people can go their whole lives without ever having this part of the conversation.”

According to Stone and Heen, feedback comes in three different flavours – appreciation, coaching and evaluation.

When we want our boss to recognize a job well done, we’re looking for appreciation. We want our blood, sweat and tears to be recognized. We want to know that we matter and make a difference.

When we ask our boss for direction, we want coaching. We want someone to help us learn, grow or change. We want to improve.

When we want to know where we stand and how we rank and rate, that’s evaluation. Are we meeting, exceeding or falling short of expectations? Our annual performance review is an evaluation.

Stone and Heen strongly advise against mixing all three together. “The bugle blast of evaluation can drown out the quieter melodies of coaching and appreciation.”

It also helps to better understand our three emotional triggers that can block and distort feedback.

Truth triggers are set off by feedback that we perceive to be unhelpful, unfair or untrue.

Relationship triggers are tripped by the person giving us the feedback. “Our focus shifts from the feedback itself to the audacity of the person delivering it (are they malicious or just stupid?).”

Identity triggers are all about us.  “Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity – our sense of who we are – to come undone. We feel overwhelmed, threatened, ashamed, or off balance.”

Stone and Heen offer strategies to help us better manage our triggers and get better at receiving feedback. One solid piece of advice is to get specific. Don’t tell your manager that you’d like some feedback. Instead, ask what’s the one thing you see me doing that gets in my own way.

“This gives your giver permission to go a little further than usual and it helps them prioritize and cut to the chase.”

Yes, feedback and a colonscopy are gifts. One can save your life. The other can save your career and marriage.  As Stone and Heen point out, we swim in a sea of feedback. Some of it is expertly given from people we respect. And some of it sails in unsolicited from left field.  We can learn from all of it and use it to become even better version of ourselves.

Review: Steve Arneson’s What Your Boss Really Wants From You – 15 Insights to Improve Your Relationship

what your bossThis review first ran in the Dec. 22 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

What Your Boss Really Wants From You: 15 Insights to Improve Your Relationship

By Steve Arneson

Berrett-Koehler Publishers


Some of us are blessed to work for a great boss.

There are no surprises. Expectations are clear. Our boss wants us to give an honest day’s work. She counts on us to stay positive, be a team player, pitch innovative ideas and deliver outstanding results.  She also wants the best for us and finds ways to help us grow and succeed.

But maybe you’re cursed to report to an international man of mystery. His moods, motives and motivations are indecipherable. His expectations are vague. Maybe he’s insecure, a control freak, career focused or driven by a healthy ego.

The uncertainty leaves you a nervous wreck at work and miserable at home.  You’ve cast yourself as the victim. Your boss is the villain. And everything’s his fault. This is not a healthy way to spend your days.

If you’re keen to improve your most important work relationship in 2015, the onus is on you. Your boss won’t spend a minute thinking of you over the holidays. Vowing to make amends will not be his New Year’s resolution.

For the relationship to improve, you have to be the first to change. “The hard truth is that all of your efforts to improve, fix or convert your boss won’t work,” says Steve Arneson, a leadership coach and author of What Your Boss Wants. “The secret is changing your own approach to interacting with your boss. The transformation has to be one you undergo in your awareness, attitude and behaviors. This isn’t always easy, but it’s the only path that will get you to a better place with your boss.”

Start by studying your boss and getting answers to 10 questions. When and how is your boss most approachable? What is his preferred management style? What behaviors does he reward? What is he trying to accomplish in this role? What is he worried about? What is his reputation in the company? Whom does he respect? Where does he have influence? What is his relationship like with his boss? What is his primary motivation?

Here’s a key insight. Know what’s at the top of the immediate to-do list for your boss. Anticipate how you can help. If you can’t contribute, get out of the way and stay off his radar screen. “If you’re not involved with this priority, what he wants from you is to leave him alone,” says Arneson. “Pestering him to look at your presentation, or bugging him to get on his calendar is only going to annoy him.”

Now look at how your boss sees you. “You’ll have to put away your ego or biases to build an impartial view of how she really sees you.” Ask yourself five questions. What does your boss value about you? How vital are you to her mission? What does she think you need to improve? How does she represent you to others? And what is her history with you?

Once you’ve done your homework, it’s time to take responsibility for the relationship. The most important adjustment you’ll have to make is your attitude, says Arneson.  “You’ll never successfully change your behavior if you don’t first adjust your attitude. Adjusting your attitude starts with changing the way you view your boss.”

You need to rewrite the story so you’re no longer the victim who’s always right and your boss is the villain who’s forever wrong. You then need to start telling your revised story to everyone at work. “Your peers and direct reports need to hear you talk differently about the boss. They have to feel like you’re taking responsibility for the relationship. Replace sarcastic comments with benefit-of-the-doubt statements. Walk away from pity parties with colleagues, or better yet, turn them into productive brainstorming sessions about how to work with the boss more effectively.”

Your most important relationship at work is with your boss. For better or worse, she decides your fate. Quitting your job and starting over somewhere else is one option but you could find yourself working for a new boss who’s a lot like your old boss or even worse. Before jumping ship, it’s worth taking stock of the boss you have and taking the responsibility to build a stronger relationship in 2015.

Review: What Motivates Me – Put Your Passions to Work by Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton

what motivates meThis review first ran in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

What Motivates Me: Put Your Passions to Work

By Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

The CultureWorks Press


The results of my motivators assessment won’t surprise anyone who’s had the pleasure of my company.

According to the assessment, I dislike bureaucracy and red tape. I’m not always a faithful follower of processes and procedures.

Routine work leaves me bored. Being told how to do my job leaves me surly. Sticking with the status quo leaves me frustrated.

When given marching orders, I invariably ask why the work’s important and wonder if there’s a better way to get the job done.

I toss out an inexhaustible and sometimes exhausting volley of unconventional ideas from left field.

In my world, reason trumps empathy.

When given the choice, I’ll work on my own rather than join a team.

And I have my moments when I’m overly controlling and suffering from an acute case of know-it-all-ism syndrome.

So what’s the upside to having people like me on the payroll?

Apparently, we can be the “lifeblood of innovation” in an organization.  We’re driven to constantly put new stuff out into the world. Ease up on the rigid rules, give us the time and space to discover and pursue ideas and odds are good that we’ll hit you some homeruns.

If these characteristics sound familiar, then welcome to the tribe called thinkers. We’re one of five workplace identities defined by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, authors of What Motivates Me: Putting Our Passions to Work and founders of a global training and consulting company that builds high-performance work cultures.

Along with thinkers, you’ll find achievers, builders, caregivers and the reward-driven at work.  Each identity has its own cluster of related motivators. For thinkers, our core motivators are autonomy, creativity, excitement, impact, learning and variety. For achievers, their motivators are challenge, excelling, ownership, pressure and problem solving.

The authors worked with a team of psychologists and behavioral scientists who identified 23 workplace motivators by mining a decade worth of workplace surveys completed by more than 850,000 people.

What’s the value in discovering our personal motivators? “When people’s jobs give them the opportunity to do more of the kinds of things that satisfy their key motivations, they are happier and more engaged in their work,” say Gostick and Elton. “Yet in so many instances, people know they aren’t completely content at work, but they just can’t seem to get clarity about what’s really dissatisfying or what would get them more engaged.”

Beware of playing to your strengths while ignoring your motivators. What you’re great at may not be what motivates and engages you. “Our greatest strengths may not align that well with what we’re motivated by. Many people find themselves going into a line of work more because they’re good at the fundamental skills it requires than because they are really drawn to the nature of the work itself.”

There’s also a big payoff for leaders when they better understand what motivates their team beyond mandatory fun days in the office and year-end bonuses. “One of the best and simplest ways for leaders to help their team members be more successful and accomplish more is to have them understand their motivations and do just a little sculpting of the nature of their jobs or tasks to better match duties with passions. This can uncover subtle changes that can lead to big increases in morale, engagement and results.”

That’s good news for anyone who’s dissatisfied, disengaged and stuck in a rut. You don’t have to quit your job, hit the reset button and start over in a new career. “Many of the happiest people we’ve spoken with didn’t find their bliss down a new path; they made course corrections on the path they were already on,” say Gostick and Elton.

The online motivators assessment takes about 20 minutes to complete. You’ll get a spot-on summary of what turns you on and off at work. The book then highlights the working conditions where you’ll thrive, offers strategies for tweaking your job and flags blind spots and potential conflicts that can derail your career.  What Motivates Me is highly recommended for anyone who’s wrestling with two age-old questions – what is it that motivates me and what can I do about it?

Review: Eric Dezenhall’s Glass Jaw – A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal

glass jawThis review was first published in the Nov. 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal

By Eric Dezenhall

Hachette Book Group


David doesn’t needs a slingshot to take down Goliath in 2014.

He only needs a Twitter account.

Thanks to social media, David and Goliath have traded places.

“Technology has made us more self-important, empowered and promiscuous in our ability to injure targets,” warns Eric Dezenhall, founder of one of America’s leading crisis management firms and author of Glass Jaw.

“Individuals and organizations that were once thought to be indestructible are, in fact, uniquely fragile in the face of reputational attacks from conventionally weaker adversaries,”

Attacks by social media’s bathrobe brigade can trigger coverage in mainstream media where scandal is Grade A clickbait guaranteed to deliver an audience.  Chasing the story is a new generation of journalists steeped in what Dezenhall calls “the traditions of celebrity-fueled career advancement.”

Prolonging the media coverage are pundits with their  play-by-play analysis on how the crisis is being mismanaged. “All parties involved gain from the perpetuation of hostilities, and consumers of news are not innocent bystanders.”

What we end up with is a reputation-shredding Fiasco Vortex. “The Fiasco Vortex is one part crisis and three parts farce, the farce encircling the crisis and whipping it into an exponentially destructive beast beyond mitigation,” says Dezenhall.

So what’s an individual or organization to do? Dezenhall cautions against public relations firms peddling crisis management cure-alls  that can prolong the pain and even inflict irreparable harm. “I believe the cookie cutter counsel about crisis management is what’s wrong with the whole enterprise. The development of cures begins with getting the diagnosis right rather than promoting superficial salves and palliatives.”

Dezenhall calls foul on eight crisis management clichés.  Getting ahead of the story comes in at number one. Believing that your act of full disclosure “will be greeted with prim appreciation as opposed to being used as a weapon against the principal” is a dangerous and naive assumption. “The next time you hear someone recommend getting ahead of the story, ask them how and play out each scenario associated with that recommendation with respect to human nature and the Fiasco Vortex.”

Dezenhall also questions the perceived wisdom of responding immediately to a crisis, telling your side of the story, educating stakeholders and changing the conversation.  While Twitter may have gotten you into a crisis, don’t bank on it getting you out. “When it comes to crisis management, social media is of marginal value and often a disaster.”

Unfortunately, there’s no proven gameplan for escaping the Fiasco Vortex. “The new crisis management road map is that there is no road map because there is no road, at least not yet. The road is being built, destroyed and rebuilt every minute.”  What worked for one organization may not work for yours. What worked 25 years ago won’t work today thanks to a technology-driven change in the conductivity of controversy. “Crisis management is an improvisational art, not laboratory science. And sometimes the improvisation works; other times it doesn’t.”

From experience, Dezenhall says organizations that stand the best shot at surviving a crisis have a battle-hardened leadership team at the helm who’ve weathered controversy before, are committed to resolving the crisis at hand, possess a clear-eyed view of their organization’s shortcomings  and have a credible counter-narrative. An unfettered budget also helps.”The realistic objective of crisis management is to endure controversy, not escape it.”

Think of a crisis as an iceberg, says Dezenhall. What you see above the waterline are the much-hyped PR and communications tactics of crisis management, the majority of which are of no value whatsoever. “What remains unseen is often more important than what is seen, and the best damage control efforts are often resolved discreetly. Most crises that are successfully resolved are resolved due to business and operational considerations.”  Smart organizations keep these considerations quiet. You won’t find their tactics laid out in case studies and showcased at conferences.

This isn’t your book if you’re looking for how to manage a crisis in 10 easy steps or need reassurance that a crisis is an opportunity.  But if you want to survive your darkest days and emerge with your battered reputation still intact, Dezenhall’s brutally honest facts of life memoir is required reading.

Review: Jeff Sutherland’s Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

scrumThis review first ran in the Oct. 27 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

By Jeff Sutherland

Crown Business


Put away the Gantt chart, put up a white board and pick up a pack of Post-it Notes for your next project.

Write do, doing and done on your white board. Transfer your project’s to-do list onto the Post-it Notes.

Recruit three to nine colleagues to serve on a team that’s self-directed and cross-functional.  Moving the Post-it Notes from do to done as fast as possible is your team’s goal.

Pick a product owner and Scrum master. The product owner has the vision for what your team’s going to accomplish while the Scrum master eliminates anything that bogs down your team.

Break your project into an equal series of sprints that last anywhere from a week to a month.

Review, demo and test what your team has accomplished at the end of each sprint.  Extend an open invitation for anyone in your organization to pay a visit and check out your work.

And kick off every day with a 15 minute stand-up meeting where your team looks at what they did yesterday, what you’re doing today and what obstacles are still in your way.

Author Jeff Sutherland calls this framework for team performance Scrum. “The term comes from the game of rugby and it refers to the way a team works together to move the ball down the field,” says Sutherland. “Careful alignment, unity of purpose and clarity of goal come together.”

Sutherland is a West Point-educated fighter pilot and biometrics expert who’s worked as a VP of engineering and chief technology officer at 11 technology companies.  He co-created Scrum to help companies get software out the door ahead of schedule and on budget.

While Scrum is making inroads beyond tech firms, many organizations still rely on Gantt charts.  Invented by Henry Gantt around 1910 and first used in World War I, these project management charts resemble cascading waterfalls and map out all the steps and hand-offs in a project from beginning to end.

Gantt charts warm the hearts of managers who want control and predictability with their projects.  But Sutherland’s not a fan.

“The problem is that the rosy scenario never actually unfolds. All that effort poured into planning, trying to restrict change, trying to know the unknowable is wasted. Every project involves discovery of problems and bursts of inspiration. Trying to restrict human endeavour of any scope to colour-coded charts and graphs is foolish and doomed to failure.”

Scrum is based on a simple idea, says Sutherland. “Whenever you start a project, why not regularly check in, see if what you’re doing is heading in the right direction and if it’s actually what people want? And question whether there are any ways to improve how you’re doing what you’re doing, any ways of doing it better and faster, and what might be keeping you from doing that.”

Real world examples from business, education and government show how Scrum helps teams get far more work done in much less time.  You’ll be inspired to scrap the Gantt chart and get a whiteboard.

Review: Ben Arment’s Dream Year – Make the leap from a job you hate to a life you love

book-coverThis review first ran in the Sept. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Dream Year: Make The Leap From a Job You Hate to a Life You Love

By Ben Arment

Portfolio Penguin


Sorry to disappoint but there’s no such thing as a dream job.

It doesn’t matter how much you make or what it says on your business card. You’re not living the dream if you’re doing a job.

If you’re not writing your own paycheque, you’re making someone else’s dream a reality.

From the first to our last day of school, most of us are conditioned to believe our personal value rests on what we can do for someone else, says author and entrepreneur Ben Arment. We hit the books and study hard to get a good job rather than create jobs.

“No one ever asks you what you can bring to the world but whether you can fill a position,” says Arment.

According to Arment, a job interview is all about convincing an employer that your square peg of talent fits into their round hole of a position.

“One of the remarkable outcomes of pursuing your dream is discovering what you were born to do – your great gift. It’s not to be a cog in someone else’s machine but to align what you do with who you are. When you figure this out, you’ll find more satisfaction and make a bigger contribution to the world than any job could provide.”

So what if you don’t know or can’t remember what you were born to do? Dreams have a history, says Arment who runs a coaching business that helps people rediscover their gifts and passions.

“Your dream existed long before you were aware of it. It was always there waiting for you. If you look back over the experiences of your life, I’ll bet you can see traces of it.”

Maybe you were the entrepreunerial kid who cut lawns in the summer and shoveled driveways in the winter. You were the budding artist who plastered the family refrigerator with art. You were the performer who shone on the stage or the director in the wings who made the show happen. You were the fledgling activist who donated your birthday money, joined the annual park clean-up and started a social justice club at school.

“Your dream is not about starting something new. It’s about rediscovering a passion that was abandoned in favour of societal expectations, false security, ill-conceived motives or more comfortable standards of living.”

Discovering your dream is about finding your sweet spot, where passion, demand, platform and giftedness converge.

With no passion, you’ll run out of steam. With no demand, there’s no one to buy what you’re selling.  With no platform, you can’t build an audience. And with no giftedness, what you’re selling won’t be worth buying.

Having an idea is only step one, says Arment. Everyone has ideas and many people will have the exact same idea as you.

The key is to reinvent your idea and shake up the industry you’re looking to join. “An idea model takes a concept and turns it on its head. It changes how people engage with the idea and challenges the practices of its industry. It creates an idea that is not only uncommon but also more compelling.”

You also need a financial model. A dream that doesn’t make money is a hobby. A dream that fails to bring in enough revenues to cover expenses quickly becomes a nightmare.

Dream Year is a must read if you’re thinking of opening a store on James North, a restaurant on Locke, a consulting business for local nonprofits or dreaming of hitting the speakers’ circuit and writing the next great Canadian novel. Arment will show how to rediscover your dream and do the heavy lifting required to make your big idea a reality within a year.

Review: Executive Presence – The Missing Link Between Merit & Success by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Executive Presence (1)This review was first published in the Aug. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett

HarperCollins Publishers


Put away your smartphone the next time someone’s in the boardroom making a presentation.

Not only is scrolling through emails, watching your Twitter feed and playing games bad manners. Your divided attention could also cost you a shot at the corner office or cut short your stay at the top.

More than 4,000 college-educated professionals were asked to identify what makes or breaks a bid to join the senior leadership ranks within their organizations.

Lose your smartphone or lose your executive presence was a recurring theme.

“Tuning out to consult your smartphone elicited some of the most heated discourse in our focus groups and interviews,” says Slyvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation and author of Executive Presence.

One of the professionals interviewed by Hewett’s team said she’s annoyed with fellow managers who stare at their smartphones and believe their time is more important than anyone else’s.  As the interview subject put it, “How can you trust a leader to keep his eye on the big picture if he can’t keep his eye off his iPhone?”

So how do you show the people in a position to promote you that you’re leadership material? And how do you convince everyone else to follow you?

You need to develop your executive presence. “No man or woman attains a top job, lands an extraordinary deal or develops a significant following without this heady combination of confidence, pose and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal,” says Hewlett. “ It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be.”

Based on her research, Hewlett says executive presence is built on the three pillars of gravitas, communication skills and appearance.

Of the three, gravitas is far and away the most important.  “Without it, you simply won’t be perceived as a leader, no matter what your title or level of authority, no matter how well you dress or speak. Gravitas is what signals to the world you’re made of the right stuff and can be entrusted with serious responsibility.”

According to senior leaders, the top aspects of gravitas include confidence and grace under fire, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, vision and charisma.  Hewlett says we want leaders who keep their promises, keep their cool and show compassion and courage in making the tough calls.

Top communication traits include superior speaking skills, the ability to read and command a room, forcefulness and assertiveness, a sense of humour and a gift for small talk. “It’s the conversation before the meeting that establishes whether or not you’re worth listening to in the meeting,” said a senior executive interviewed by Hewlett.

And when it comes to appearance, being polished and groomed tops the list.  “In interview after interview, senior leaders told me that failure to come through on the grooming front signals either poor judgment or lack of discipline. Neither is good.”

Anyone with corner office aspirations needs to read Hewlett’s book.  She says what most of us can’t or won’t say to our colleagues. She catalogues career-limiting blunders and offers career-advancing solutions. There are also chapters specifically for women, minorities and members of the LGBT community.

“Cracking the executive presence code will close the gap between merit and success, between where you are right now and where you could be if you unleashed your full potential and allowed it to fly and soar,” says Hewlett.

So if you want to unleash your full potential, put away your smartphone and give your next presenter your full and undivided attention.

Review: The Alliance – Managing Talent in the Networked Age by Hoffman, Casnocha and Yeh

alliance coverThis review first ran in the July 28th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age

By Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh

Harvard Business Review Press


Congratulations on your new job. We’re sorry to see you go.

Your coworkers throw an Irish wake. The boss says kind words. They give you a gift.

There are handshakes, hugs and promises to stay in touch.

But that doesn’t happen. It’s out of sight, out of mind.

And that’s too bad because not staying connected is a missed opportunity for you and your former employer, according to the authors of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.

Building a corporate alumni network is one of three big ideas for building employee loyalty pitched by LinkedIn cofounder and executive chairman Reid Hoffman, along with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh.

“A business without loyalty is a business without long-term thinking,” warn the authors. “A business without long-term thinking is a business that’s unable to invest in the future. And a business that isn’t investing in tomorrow’s opportunities and technologies is a company already in the process of dying.”

So how do you build employee loyalty when you can’t guarantee lifetime employment and the competition for top talent is fierce in Free Agent Nation?

One solution is to launch an alumni network for valued former employees.  A study out of the Netherlands founded that 15 per cent of surveyed companies had formal alumni networks and another 67 per cent of companies had ex-employees who wanted to stay connected and independently organized informal networks on their own time and dime.

Your alumni network can help you hire new employees by making referrals. You can stay connected with boomerang employees who discover the grass isn’t always greener.  Alumni can be a goldmine of business intelligence on everything from competitive information, emerging trends and best practices being adopted outside your organization. Alumni can steer business and customers your way.  And alumni can be enthusiastic and convincing brand ambassadors.

While alumni networks keep you connected with former employees, you can build an alliance with new hires by offering tours of duty. Recast careers in your organization as successive missions that develop an employee’s skills while also building trust and mutual investment. Most importantly, these tours tend to appeal to sought-after entrepreneurial talent who want to transform their careers and the organizations they work for. “Today, entrepreneurial thinking and doing are the most important capabilities companies need from their employees. As the competitive pace increases, it becomes more and more critical.”

A third way to build a strong alliance with loyal employees is to help them grow their professional networks outside your organization. As the authors point out, there are far more smart people outside your company than inside it. Your organization can’t afford to be inward looking so encourage your employees to connect with all the smart people they know and then share what they learn.

“Your most driven employees are going to build their professional networks anyway. It’s up to you to encourage them to do so for their jobs.  So don’t treat tweeting on the job like an infraction – encourage it. Ask your employees to expense lunches with interesting people.”

Taken together, these three strategies help build an alliance that benefits both employers and employees. “The business world needs a new employment framework that facilitates mutual trust, mutual investment and mutual benefit. An ideal framework encourages employees to develop their personal networks and act entrepreneurially without becoming mercenary job-hoppers. It allows companies to be dynamic and demanding but discourages them from treating employees like disposable assets.

“We can’t restore the old model of lifetime employment but we can build a new type of loyalty that both recognizes economic realities and allows companies and employees to commit to each other.”

So at your next farewell party for the high performer you didn’t want to lose, make one of your gifts a lifetime membership in your organization’s alumni network. And then stay in touch.

Review: Moments of Impact – How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change by Ertel and Solomon

momentThis review first ran in the July 14th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change

By Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon

Simon & Schuster


Welcome to VUCA World.

It’s an amusement park for organizations where all the rides are thrilling, few are fun and most leave you nauseous and terrified. VUCA is military-speak for an environment marked by nonstop volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

In VUCA World, forces like technology change, social change and globalization converge and conspire to throw waves of adaptive challenges your way.  Adaptive challenges are messy, open-ended problems that are as tough as a $3 steak and pack enough punch to wreck organizations and ruin careers.

“When adaptive challenges appear, many organizations waste time and energy trying to argue with the future,” say authors Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon, who’ve spent 15 years helping leaders solve these kind of challenges. “They deny facts and pine for the past. But sooner or later, the future wins.”

Your CEO or senior executive team can’t solve an adaptive challenge on their own. With these wicked problems, it’s near impossible at the outset to say what the right question is, let alone figure out the answer.

You solve an adaptive challenge through collaboration. And you don’t get that collaboration through standard “salute and mute” meetings with overstuffed PowerPoint slide decks or brainstorming sessions where 100 ideas are tossed out by the usual suspects.

What you need is a strategic conversation. “Effective strategies don’t come from spreadsheets, slide shows or detailed agendas,” say authors. “Effective strategic choices come from great conversations where people combine their best ideas in new ways. They come from people sharing moments of insight so compelling that they demand action.

“If you want to make progress against adaptive challenges, you have to harness the best thinking and judgment of your best people – especially when they don’t agree.”

The best strategic conversations are carefully designed and built around five core principles.

  1. Declare the objective and define the purpose. Strategic conversations have only three purposes – building understanding, shaping choices or making decisions. Focus your conversation on only one purpose at a time.  And don’t jump to making decisions without first building understanding. Seems obvious but you’d be surprised how often this doesn’t happen.
  2. Identify participants and engage multiple perspectives. Assemble a dream team of the right people with the right perspectives, steer clear of groupthink and genuinely listen to what they have to say.
  3. Assemble content and frame the issues. Help your dream team see the same things at the same time to arrive at shared insights more quickly and effectively.
  4. Find a venue and set the scene. You won’t get open dialogue in a room set up for passive listening. “While it’s theoretically possible that a breakthrough idea could come out of a windowless conference room…we’ve never heard of it,” say the authors.
  5. Set the agenda and make it an experience. Take your team on an intellectual and emotional journey that delivers a powerful, shared experience to their heads and guts.

You ignore these principles at your peril. “Lots of strategic conversations turn out okay – neither home runs nor disasters,” say Ertel and Solomon. “But okay strategic conversations are not okay. They carry an immense price.”

Strategic conversations that miss the mark waste time and money. You demotivate the troops and leave them worrying that your senior leaders don’t have a game plan. There’s no follow-up or sense of urgency to change course. And you can find yourself saddled with some spectacularly awful, half-baked decisions that only make matters that much worse.

“Look closely at any organization that’s failed to seize an important opportunity or to respond to an adaptive challenge and you won’t find a bunch of clueless people. More likely, you’ll find good people struggling with too-timid experiments and unproductive strategic conversations.”

To design productive strategic conversations, the authors have included a 60-page starter kit that’s loaded with proven tools and tips. This is a must-read manual for anyone who’s wrestling with a work or community problem that’s as tough as a $3 steak and looking for a new and better way to strike up a conversation and find the best answer.