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Why dissent is your best cure for groupthink (review)

troublemakerThis review first ran in the April 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business

By Charlan Nemeth

Basic Books


Come up with a great idea at work and you’re showered with awards and accolades.

But what do you get for killing a dumb idea that’s a fan favourite with colleagues or a pet project of the boss?

Don’t count on winning employee of the month honours. You’ll likely lose friends, make some enemies and get branded a malcontent. You’ll be reminded why it’s important to go along to get along and may even be told to make amends for hurt feelings and bruised egos.

Also expect fewer invitations to join project teams, committees and task forces which can definitely count as a big plus.

Or maybe none of that will happen because you work for a leader who values troublemakers like you and applauds your courage, conviction and candor. You say what the rest of us are thinking. You may be a pain but you’re the preventative cure for groupthink.

Groupthink is how otherwise smart people make stupid decisions. These teams have bought into the illusion of their invulnerability and unanimity. They practice self-censorship, discuss only the information they have in common and put the screws to dissenters.

Teams that are suffering from groupthink are often in error but never in doubt, says Charlan Nemeth, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of In Defense of Troublemakers.

“The pressure to reach consensus and especially the suppression of dissent are precisely the ways to get convergent thinking – a narrowing of the range of information and options by viewing the issue from a single perspective instead of exploring multiple perspectives,” says Nemeth.

Dissent is the cure for groupthink. “Dissent, while often annoying, is precisely the challenge that we need to reassess our own views and make better choices. It helps us consider alternatives and generate creative solutions. Dissent is a liberator. Genuine dissent and debate not only make us think but make us think well. We become free to know what we know.”

Don’t confuse troublemakers with devil’s advocates. Troublemakers believe what they’re saying and their conviction has the power to privately change hearts and minds.

Devil’s advocates are playing a part free of authentic dissent. This can fool teams into believing they’ve had vigorous debate. And rather than provoking a team to make a smarter decision, research shows devil’s advocates can actually reinforce initial thinking and polarize the group’s position.

“For too many years, I have watched the pumped-up moral superiority by people who believe that they have considered all sides of an issue – and have no patience for any challenge to the position they have decided,” says Nemeth.

It’s up to leaders to defend troublemakers and actively solicit a diversity of perspectives. Hiring people who will look at issues from different points of view is key. “Diversity might provide a range of views, but to have value, those views need to be expressed – perhaps even welcomed in a debate between views. For this to happen, however, there must be a leader who actually welcomes differences in viewpoint.”

Going against majority opinion and saying aloud what others may be thinking can be career-limiting in organizations that value cohesion and harmony above all else. Yet troublemakers play an essential role in breaking the power of consensus and stimulating independent thinking.

To borrow a line from General George Patton, if everyone is thinking alike than somebody isn’t thinking.

“Confronted by dissent, we are less likely to rush to judgment, whether as individuals or in groups,” says Nemeth. “We are more likely to consider the pros and the cons of a position. Dissent, by and large, helps us make better decisions and come up with more creative solutions. Dissent makes us more open to learning, to growing and to changing.”

@jayrobb is a troublemaker who serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Five ways to tell better stories that win hearts, change minds & get results

storytellingThis review first ran in the April 14th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results

By Rob Biesenbach

Eastlawn Media


A father and son are on vacation.

They’re walking on the beach when they find hundreds of stranded starfish baking in the sun.

The boy picks up a starfish and puts it back in the ocean.

The dad tells his son there are too many starfish to save. “We’ll be here forever,” says the dad.

“Relax dad,” says the boy. “I’m just saving one starfish so CEOs and motivational speakers can repeat this story over and over again whenever they need to drive home the point about how one person can make a difference. Now let’s go have breakfast.”

We all know that telling stories is better than inflicting death by PowerPoint on an audience. We’re hardwired for storytelling.

But don’t be lazy and recycle whatever comes up when you Google search “stories to inspire an audience.”

Skip the often-told starfish story and instead follow Rob Biesenbach’s advice for telling more compelling tales.

“A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle,” says Biesenbach.

To tell a great story that sticks with your audience, ask yourself five questions:

Is the character in your story real and relatable? We don’t care about processes and programs, says Biesenbach. We care about people. “Your character is the heart of the story. Bring your stories down to the human level. If a problem exists it must surely affect actual people.” Tell us about someone like us who’s in a similar situation and facing the same kind of challenge. Share a personal story or introduce us to one of your customers, clients, patients or students.

Is there sufficient conflict? If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama driving the narrative of your story. “Conflict arises from the tension between the character’s goal and the challenge facing her.”

Are the stakes high enough? Go big with the challenge. “For a story to work, there has to be something important at stake – a serious problem that cries out for action.”

Is there clear cause and effect? Tightly link the chain of events in your story. “Causality is more meaningful to us than mere coincidence.”

And is there an emotional core at the heart of your story? “Emotion fuels stories,” says Biesenbach. “When your audience feels something, they are more likely to do something.”

Once you’ve checked off these boxes, structure your story in three parts.

In the beginning, introduce us to your character.

In the middle of your story, set out your character’s challenge.

At the end of your story, bring things to a resolution.

“Think of your story as a Hollywood blockbuster. In the end, the enemy is vanquished, the boy gets the girl, justice is served. There’s a reason these movies are so popular: they give audiences what they want – a satisfactory conclusion.

“Your story should not be in the style of indie or art house cinema, where the characters don’t really change and problems go unresolved. The indie film may be truer to everyday life, but it’s not particularly satisfying for general audiences.”

Biesenbach’s written a practical guide to help anyone become a better, more focused storyteller. The stronger your stories, the better your odds of winning hearts, changing minds and getting results.

“Our stories help define who we are and what we stand for. They set us apart in a noisy, competitive world. And they help ensure we’re remembered. Don’t be intimated. Storytelling isn’t reserved for artists and poets and folksy cowboys huddled around the campfire.”

@jayrobb tells stories as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Do less & then obsess on what’s left plus six more ways to be a top performer (Review)

great at workThis review first ran in the March 31 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More

By Morten T. Hansen

Simon & Schuster


Here are four things I learned from 18 years of schooling that’ve paid dividends in my career.

In elementary school, I learned a hard lesson about plagiarism. I copied a poem that fooled my Grade 3 teacher into thinking I was the second coming of W.B. Yeats. It was only after reciting the poem to my class and at a school assembly that I confessed my sin. I knew better than to plagiarize my apology letter.

I graduated from high school knowing how to type 120 words a minute and also recognizing that I would never have a head for numbers no matter how hard I studied. My best would never be good enough.

In university, I figured out that you can achieve more by doing less. Not all essays, exams, projects and tests were created equal and I focused my efforts accordingly. It’s an approach that got me on the dean’s honor list, spared me from pulling all-nighters and never left me stressed or burned out.

Morten Hansen would add an important caveat to my lesson learned while attending the Harvard of the North. We should all do less but we must then obsess on whatever’s left.

“Picking a few priorities is only half the equation,” says Hansen, author of Great at Work. “The other half is the harsh requirement that you must obsess over your chosen area of focus to excel. Many people prioritize a few items at work, but they don’t obsess – they simply do less. That’s a mistake.”

Do less and then obsess is one of seven practices that Hansen says are the keys to working smarter and becoming a top performer. The practices were identified through a five-year research project that included studying 5,000 managers and employees.

The research shows that having the self-discipline to stick with doing exceptional work on a handful of priorities will give us the single greatest boost to our performance.

So shave away unnecessary tasks, priorities, committees, steps, metrics and procedures. “Ask how many tasks can I remove, given what I must do to excel? Remember: as few as you can, as many as you as must.”

Fend off distractions and temptations and ask your boss to stop adding to your to-do list. “The path to greatness isn’t pleasing your boss all the time. It’s saying ‘no’ so that you can apply intense effort to excel in a few chosen areas.”

Along with doing less and then obsessing on what’s left, Hansen lists six other performance-enhancing practices:

Redesign your work. “A good redesign delivers more value for the same amount of work done.” Evaluate value by measuring how much others benefit from your work.

Don’t just learn, loop. Learn as you work and seek out informal, rapid feedback. Try new approaches, learn from failure, be curious, don’t fool yourself into believing you know best and constantly experiment.

Match passion with purpose. “If you love what you do, you’ll show up with a certain amount of vigor. And if you also feel that you’re helping other people – that they need you and depend on your contributions – your motivation to excel becomes that much greater.”

Be a forceful champion. Top performers inspire others to lend a hand and have mastered the soft skills of advocacy, teamwork and collaboration.

Fight and unite. Don’t waste time in meetings where issues go unresolved and get put over to subsequent meetings. “When teams have a good fight in their meetings, team members debate the issues, consider alternatives, challenge one another, listen to minority views, scrutinize assumptions and enable every participant to speak up without fear of retribution.”

Avoid the two sins of under- and overcollaboration. “Some people talk too little across teams and departments, and some people talk too much.” Top performers carefully choose when to collaborate and when to go it alone.

We’ll all been told to work smarter, not harder. The trick is knowing how to do it. Hansen offers solid guidance backed by five years of research.

“You can become much better over time at working smart. Get started with small steps and keep at it, and someday you can win that gold medal in your line of work – and have a great life too.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

How to hit the reset button on your career (review of Mike Lewis’ When to Jump)

This review first ran in the March 17th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want

By Mike Lewis

Henry Holt and Company


What would you be doing for a living if fear wasn’t a factor?

Would you continue doing what you’re doing right now?

Or would you hit the reset button on your career?

Personally, I’d make the jump from PR pro to cab driver in Aruba. I’d shuttle tourists around the One Happy Island and review business books between fares.

Mike Lewis was 23 years old when he went from being a well-paid venture capitalist to a professional squash player. He traveled more than 200,000 miles to 50 countries on six continents on his way to becoming the world’s 112th best squash player.

Based on his own experience and in talking with others who’ve also changed careers, Lewis has mapped out a jump curve with four key milestones. While not an instruction manual, the jump curve can help you figure out when and how to make your move.

You start by listening to the little voice inside your head and telling people what it’s saying. “To keep a jump alive, it helps to tell someone,” says Lewis. On hearing his plans to play squash, one of Lewis’ friends told him that is plan was absolutely crazy. “But there’s a difference between crazy and stupid,” added his friend.

You reduce the risk of doing something stupid by making a plan. Lewis spent 18 months planning his jump. Planning is where you get serious about building a nest egg, getting in pre-jump practice and sewing a safety net. As one career-switcher told Lewis, a successful jump is less an impulsive leap off a diving board and more of a slow wade in from the shallow end.

“Following a dream is lofty and sounds admirable but real consequences follow,” says Lewis. Switching careers is hard work and sacrifices will need to be made.

Letting yourself be lucky is the third milestone on the jump curve. “Once you’ve started to plan, favourable coincidences begin to appear. You have to jump and believe that some good luck will come back to you.”

Finally, don’t waste time looking back. “The people you meet, the story you’ll have, the lessons you will have learned make it an experience worth pursuing, regardless of what happens.”

After achieving his dream of playing professional squash, Lewis went on to found a global community of people who’ve left one path to pursue something completely different. It doesn’t have to be you alone against the world, says Lewis. Many people have already done what you’re considering and they’re willing to lend a hand.

Among the career-changers profiled by Lewis in his book are a mechanical engineer who became a fitness entrepreneur, an advertising executive turned advocate for sexual assault survivors, a lawyer who’s now a firefighter and a former garbage collector who’s designing and making furniture.

Lewis cautions against making the jump if you have a family to support and debts to pay. This isn’t the ideal time to quit a money-making job for a dream that doesn’t come with a paycheque. “But that doesn’t mean you can never chase your dream; it means not just yet.”

You also don’t need a ton of money socked away to make a change.

“The ability to jump is not limited to those who have a college degree or a certain-sized bank account,” says Lewis. “Applying for an internal promotion at work, going back to school at night, teaching cooking classes on the weekends – big jump or small jump, very many of us have something we’ve longed to try doing. A jump is a jump. If you can’t do it now, write it down for later. And if you can do it now? Go.”

aruba love

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton, has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and would be happy to drive you and your family around Aruba.







12 Ways to Treat People Well (REVIEW)

treatThis review first ran in the March 10th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life

By Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard



There’s a public relations intern on our team at work who’s acing the airport test.

Imagine that you and a colleague from work are stranded at Pearson International. What’s it like waiting for your delayed flight? Is it enjoyable or exhausting? Is there a risk that only one of you will make it out alive?

You’d be in good company with our intern. She’s smart, upbeat, self-confident and unfailingly polite. There’s zero drama and she’s been blessed with both a sense of humour and the ability to carry a conversation.

She’d earn high marks from Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard, authors of Treating People Well. Both worked in the White House as social secretaries and special advisors to the president. Berman served George W. and Laura Bush while Bernard oversaw events, announcements, visits and dinners for Barack and Michelle Obama.

Berman and Bernard’s primary job was to treat people well. “So much of success, however you define it, hangs on how well we treat others from all walks of life,” say the authors. “Insisting on your importance rarely works. Everyone is important and everyone deserves to be treated well.”

Based on their experiences in the White House, Berman and Bernard have identified 12 practices that are the cornerstones for treating people well. These practices include:

Carry yourself with quiet confidence. “A confident person inspires trust – one of the most important components of all strong relationships.” Maintain a positive attitude, be prepared for whatever comes next and reassure others to help build their confidence.

Use self-deprecating humour and charm as the great equalizers. “Like humour, charm is a crucial social skill that bridges differences of opinion and smooths the path to understanding.” Berman and Bernard say that just one charming person can change the dynamics in a room or an entire organization.

Be consistent. “When your behavior reflects your words and promises, people know what to expect and they appreciate and remember you for it. There is no trust without consistency.”

Listen first and talk later. According to Berman and Bernard, we will live in a world of constant communication with lackluster listening. “When you listen quietly to another person, you’re sending a powerful message: that his or her words are more important to you than anything else.”

Radiate calm in a crisis. “When you remain serene, you’re communicating that you have the situation under control and there’s nothing to worry about.” Build trust by staying composed, avoiding drama, finding common ground and maintaining perspective while everyone else is losing their heads.

Handle conflict diplomatically. “People who treat others well don’t stonewall or criticize; instead, they collaborate, seize opportunities and try to create a better result for everyone concerned.”

Give the gift of loyalty. It’s the key ingredient to achieving success and fulfillment in life, say the authors. Practice discretion, stay steadfast in your loyalty and go above and beyond for others with no expectation of anything in return.

And keep smiling while working with difficult people. “The battles they seek and the conflicts they create aren’t really with you but with themselves. Remembering that makes it easier to view them with some level of compassion. And continuing to treat such a person with equanimity, despite the abuse he or she hands out, is a reflection of your own good character and integrity.”

We get to make a choice every day. We can choose to treat people well, poorly or with indifference. “If you’re optimistic enough to accept that treating people with kindness and respect will make them likely to do the same, then you’re already on the right path,” say Berman and Bernard.

So if you’re looking to hire a soon-to-be freshly minted PR grad who’s far along that path and will treat people well on behalf of you and your organization, I’d be more than happy to make an introduction.

Alana and Andrew Podcast

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: That’s What She Said – What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together by Joanne Lipman

she saidThis review first ran in the Feb. 24 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together

By Joanne Lipman

William Morrow


I can’t afford to wait 170 years.

That’s how long the World Economic Forum predicts it will take women and men to reach economic parity worldwide.

But I need the gap closed by the time my daughter’s done school and launches her career.

Parents want what’s best for our kids. We also want what’s right. And gender equality is a fundamental human right. My daughter deserves the same opportunities that will be afforded to my son.

To close the gap between women and men, all of us dads, husbands, brothers and sons need to man up.

So what’s stopping us? Journalist Joanne Lipman says there’s real fear of how both our male and female colleagues will respond if we join the fight. “Plenty of other men would be happy to join the conversation,” says Lipman, author of That’s What She Said. “They’re just terrified of saying something wrong.”

A non-profit focused on working women asked men what would undermine their support for gender equality. “A stunning 74 per cent cited fear – fear of loss of status, fear of other men’s disapproval, and most telling of all, fear of making a mistake. Men are walking around on eggshells.”

Yet Lipman says women will only solve 50 per cent of the problem if they just talk amongst themselves.

“We need men to join the conversation, to be our partners. And as for the men, most of them aren’t anywhere near villains. They don’t need beating up with a two-by-four. They’d like to see an equitable workplace, they just can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do about it.”

So here are some of Lipman’s suggestions on what men can do to help level the gender playing field at work.

Interrupt the interrupters. Don’t allow your male co-workers to interrupt and talk over female colleagues.

Diversify the interviewers, not just the applicants. It’s not enough to bring in female job applicants, says Lipman. “If the interviewers aren’t diverse – if, say, all the interviewers are white men – they are less likely to see her as a ‘cultural fit’ while she may also feel so uncomfortable that she rejects the job even if offered.”

Stop dishing compliments that belittle your female colleagues. “Would you say it to man? If not, you probably should not say it to a woman, either.”

Quit making decisions for women who are raising children. Do they want to travel, relocate or take on extra hours? “Don’t assume. Ask her. Even if she declines, present the next opportunity, and the one after that.”

Give women raises and promotions before they ask or think they’re ready for it. Research shows men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise and a bigger job. “Make sure qualified women are in the mix, whether they have put up their hands or not. Be prepared to twist a few arms.”

And start respecting women by eliminating slights large and small. Researchers have found that men get more respect than women even if they hold the exact same position. The subtle digs and lack of respect are wearying, difficult to fight and the steady drumbeat can be debilitating, says Lipman.

“For real change to happen, if we are to transform a culture that has long been molded by and for men, it will take individuals, one at a time, taking a stand, reaching across the gender divide. The wins will come from the accumulation of small, everyday interactions of both women and men. When men and women both reach across the gender divide, we actually will have a shot at closing the gap.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review – The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

This review first ran in the Feb. 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

culture codeThe Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

By Daniel Coyle

Bantam Books


You and I are probably smarter than a bunch of kindergarten kids.

But don’t bank on us working smarter than them..

Engineer and designer Peter Skillman ran a competition where business students in university squared off against kids in kindergarten.

The four-member teams had to beat the clock and build a tower using  uncooked spaghetti, tape and string with a marshmallow on top.

Unlike the business students, the kids didn’t strategize, analyze or do blue-sky thinking. No roles and responsibilities were assigned. No team charters were drafted. They didn’t worry about who was in charge, what the rules were or whether it was okay to criticize.

Instead, they acted like a bunch of five-year-olds and got right to work.

“Their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together,” says Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code and an advisor to the Cleveland Indians.

Here’s what you would you have seen if you watched the little kids outperform the big kids.

“They are not competing for status,” says Coyle. “They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes which guides them toward effective solutions.”

In dozens of trials, the kindergarten kids built spaghetti towers that didn’t topple and averaged 26 inches tall. The business students either ran out of time or came up short with towers averaging less than 10 inches.

“The kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.”

Because you can’t hire an army of five-year-olds, focus instead on creating a culture where groups in your organization will thrive.

As a leader, you create a high-performance culture by continually and consistently doing three things:

  • Building safety. “When you ask people inside highly successful groups to describe their relationship with one another, they all tend to choose the same word. This word is not friends or team or tribe. The word they use is family.” In a highly successful group, you’re constantly reminded that you belong and you feel psychologically safe.
  • Sharing vulnerability. Instead of covering up weaknesses or pretending you have all the answers, ask for help. Being vulnerable leads to co-operation and trust. Highly successful groups don’t shy away from asking tough questions and giving hard feedback. “These groups seem to intentionally create awkward, painful interactions that look like the opposite of smooth cooperation. The fascinating thing is, however, these awkward, painful interactions generate the highly cohesive, trusting behavior necessary for smooth cooperation.”
  • Establishing purpose. “High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal.” These organizations are not at all subtle in spelling out and constantly reminding everyone about here’s where we are and here’s where we want to go.

Coyle profiles eight high-performing groups and leaders who create the right conditions for teams to work smarter together.  He also offers practical ideas for building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing purpose.

“While a successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not,” says Coyle. “Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.


5 Ways to Derail Your Career & 2 Questions to Keep it on Track (review)

right stuffThis review was first published in the Jan. 29 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Right and Wrong Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade

By Carter Cast

Public Affairs


A lousy annual performance review is a gift that few of us will ever get in our careers.

Most of us work for bosses who shy away from tough conversations, believe only in accentuating the positive or dismiss reviews as a time-wasting unnecessary evil.

They do us no favours. What’s left unsaid in performance reviews will eventually trip us up. Our blind spots will get us fired, demoted or passed over for promotion.

“Sooner or later, unaddressed developmental needs will limit the career progress of good people,” says Carter Cast, author of The Right and Wrong Stuff, a professor at Northwestern University and a former executive with Walmart, Blue Nile, Electronic Arts and PepsiCo.

Career derailment is in the cards for up to 80 per cent of us, warns Cast. Based on his research, a lack of self-awareness and difficulty in working with others are the leading causes of career derailment. He says that careers stall more from having the wrong stuff than from lacking the right stuff.

“It is often hubris – not lack of talent – that causes people on the rise to fall. Prior to failing, people who derail where successful and considered talented up-and-comers. Derailment often afflicts talented managers who are either unaware of a debilitating weakness or interpersonal blind spot or arrogant enough to believe that development feedback doesn’t apply to them.”

We’re headed for the fall if any of Cast’s five archetypes sound all too familiar:

Captain Fantastics lose friends and make enemies thanks to unbridled egos, an inability to listen and an “I-me-mine” mantra.

The solo flier is a strong individual contributor who fails to realize that you can’t build or lead a team by micromanaging or doing all the work yourself.

Version 1.0 is comfortable with routine and resistant to change. “Their attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will not serve them well over time and eventually their dinosaur-like tendencies may lead to extinction,” says

One-trick ponies consistently do one thing really well. But this overspecialization makes them one-dimensional and unpromotable. And what they’ve been good at in the past may not be what the organization needs them to start doing now or in the future.

Unfocused whirling dervishes overcommit and underdeliver, with weak planning and organizational skills to implement any of the creative ideas “spewing out of their brains like a hyperactive geyser.”

Avoiding career derailment is a DIY project, says Cast. “Most bosses are too worried about their own hide to take the time to worry about yours. There’s one person out there who really wants to help you get ahead – there’s one person who’s truly interested in your success and well-being – you.”

Start shoring up your weaknesses by asking two questions. Do I have the right strengths in my current position relative to people doing similar work? And do I have the right strengths around which to build my career in the future?

Now take the initiative for your professional and personal development. Be aware of your weaknesses. Seek out challenging assignments that will build your strengths. Routinely solicit honest feedback and act on what you hear. Build and maintain positive relationships with others. Recruit mentors and create a learning circle to share ideas, perspectives and lessons learned with industry peers outside your organization.

If you’re a boss, make developing others a genuine priority and adopt Cast’s three-strike rule. Hold three meetings with an underperforming employee.

Have the tough but necessary conversation in your first meeting and come up with a game plan to improve performance. Measure improvement or the lack of it in your second meeting. In your third meeting, either congratulate the employee for getting their career back on the track or wish them well in their future endeavours.

“All too often companies ignore the topic of derailment until it’s too late, but their employees cannot afford to do so,” says Cast. “Of course it’s important to focus on developing your strengths, but towering strengths cannot overcome debilitating weaknesses. We all need to understand and mitigate our career-limiting vulnerabilities.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Impromptu – Leading in the Moment by Judith Humphrey

impromptuThis review ran in the Jan. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Impromptu: Leading in the Moment

By Judith Humphrey



Something remarkable happened at work.

We went to a town hall meeting and a conversation broke out.

Here’s how it happened.

Senior leaders stepped out from behind the lectern, left the stage and went into the audience.

They didn’t have prepared remarks or PowerPoint slides. They hadn’t gone to a dress rehearsal and some had no idea they were about to be called on.

Senior leaders started off by giving spontaneous answers to real questions that staff had written on cue cards at the start of the town hall.

This in turn prompted other staff to put up their hands and ask even more questions.

The conversation continued for more than 90 minutes. The town hall ended with a round of applause. Senior leaders were grateful for the questions. Staff appreciated the authentic, candid, off the cuff answers.

The town hall was unlike any I had attended over my 25-year career with four organizations.

Judith Humphrey, author of Impromptu, says that leadership communications is undergoing a transformation. We’re moving from one-off formal speeches on the big stage to continuous impromptu speaking on smaller stages.

“More than ever, those who lead must find their authentic voice. Impromptu speaking provides a way to connect, inspire and lead in the 21st century world,” says Humphrey. “Scripted speeches, PowerPoint presentations, dog and pony shows, and marketing hype are being replaced by the conversations that leaders have every day with their followers. These conversations will change minds, hearts and organizations.”

Don’t confuse impromptu speaking with winging it. You won’t inspire others if you can’t stop talking and don’t make any sense.

You can mitigate this risk by using a four-part script template used by Humphrey’s leadership communications firm.

“Creating your script is an important aspect of impromptu speaking,” says Humphrey. “It will keep you from blathering on as so many people do. In every situation it’s important to collect your thoughts rather than spew out whatever comes in your head. With a clear and persuasive structure, you will influence and inspire your listeners. There is no more critical a skill for impromptu speaking than this ability to structure your thoughts.”

Humphrey’s template has you leading off with a grabber that connects you with your audience and builds rapport. “If you speak without reaching out to them and engaging them, it’s likely nobody will listen to you. Think of your grabber as a verbal handshake.”

You then deliver your key message. A good message is limited to one idea that’s communicated in a single, short sentence. Your message should engage the hearts and minds of your audience, carry your convictions and be positive.

You then make a compelling case for your key message with a handful of reinforcing proof points. “Stating your message is rarely sufficient. You need evidence that encourages listeners to buy into that point of view. So after presenting what you believe, share why you believe it.”

The script ends with you making a call to action to your audience. Be explicit. What do you want them to start, stop or continue doing?  Like the grabber at the start of the script, your call to action needs to engage your audience. “It gives legs to your message by transforming an idea into actionable steps. In doing so, it makes your script an act of motivational leadership.”

Humphrey shows how we can use her script templates to effectively communicate in a host of situations, from meetings, job interviews, toasts and tributes to elevator pitches, question and answer sessions and speeches.

“Few skills are more important today for leaders and aspiring leaders than the ability to speak well in impromptu situations,” says Humphrey. “The day when executives could deliver the big speech and then retreat to their offices is long gone. Constant, spontaneous interactions with colleagues, senior executives, clients and stakeholders has become the norm. The new world of leadership is full of conversation, collaboration and charisma. Make the most of these opportunities.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Five great ideas to carry over into your business or organization in 2018

Drawing from some of the best business books I read and reviewed last year for the Hamilton Spectator, here are five great ideas  to carry over into 2018.

no egoAdd an accountability filter to your 2018 employee engagement survey. Add questions that will let you separate out answers from two very different kinds of employees. Pay close attention to what high-accountable employees are telling you. They’re the high performers who’ll suggest ways to make your organization better for customers, clients, patients or students. Don’t waste time, money or effort in trying to shore up satisfaction scores of low-accountable employees who will only give you a list of demands on how to make their lives easier. “If we really want our engagement surveys to drive workplace results, then we need to be honest,” says Cy Wakeman, author of No Ego – How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement and Drive Big Results. “Not all employees contribute equally, and the feedback they offer isn’t equal either. Treating all feedback equally is crazy.” So too is holding managers accountable for driving up satisfaction scores among employees who contribute little or nothing to the organization.

egiHelp yourself by helping others first. Adopt what Ryan Holiday calls the canvas strategy. “Find canvasses for others to paint on,” says Holiday in Ego is the Enemy. “Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be respected, you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you’re glad when others get it instead of you – that was your aim after all. Let the others take the credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principle.” This is one way to keep your ego in check in 2018 and not allow a false sense of superiority to exceed the bounds of confidence and talent.

radicalStart practicing radical candor. Care personally and challenge directly in 2018. Find the courage to deliver difficult yet necessary feedback, make tough calls and set a high bar for results. At the same time, let people know that you care them. “When people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to accept and act on your praise and criticism,” says Kim Scott in Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. You do yourself and the people around you no favours when you put being liked ahead of saying and doing what needs to be said and done.

MomentsPick an event that your organization runs every year and shake up the status quo. Don’t settle for what Chip and Dan Heath call the soul-sucking force of reasonableness. Invest the time and extra money to create a stand-out experience in 2018 that everyone in the room will remember and everyone else will wish they had attended. “Moments matter,” say the Heaths in The Power of Moments“And what an opportunity we miss when we leave them to chance. Teachers can inspire, caregivers can comfort, service workers can delight, politicians can unite and managers can motivate. All it takes is a bit of insight and forethought. We can be the designers of moments that deliver elevation and insight and pride and connection.”

powerMake sure everyone in your organization has the same answers to two fundamental questions. What do we stand for? And what do we want to be known for? The answers will define your organization’s culture in 2018. Average organizations have mission statements. Great organizations have people who are on a mission. The difference comes down to culture. “Your most important job as a leader is to drive the culture,” says Jon Gordon in The Power of Positive Leadership. “You must create a positive culture that energizes and encourages people, fosters connected relationships and great teamwork, empowers and enables people to do their best work.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.