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Changing Culture

I found myself triggered bythe insights from these brief articles around insights on culture and changing it. There is so much here that connects to my own experience in this field. I am left with a question or perhaps it's a paradox.

We need everyone to recognise that how they behave and where they spend their time is part of living and creating culture. The focus and actions and intent of senior leaders; recognising their role is key and cannot be turned into a project plan is a vital part of their respnsibility - especially as organisation boundaries become more porous it becomes the thing that binds.

The paradox is the way we objectify "the culture" of a firm by framing it in this way.  We turn it into a thing which we can look at and talk about etc. Yet the culture is not a "thing" - it is the complex patterning of interactions between people (inside and at the edges of the organisation) and the underlying beliefs, mindsets and assumptions that underpin those interactions.

To objectify it as if it is somehow outside of us all leads back into the falsehood that we can take it out look at it and tinker with it in some way. What is important is our awareness of ourselves in relation to others (wherever we are in the system) and our ability to continually co-create the culture in who and how we are - rather than some linear thinking around cause and effect.

Chris Smith

Looking through the design lens at Organisation Development practice?

Wearing different designer specs gave a new lens and new language on Organisation Development (OD), at the Organisation Development Learning Value Network’s (ODLVN) meeting today hosted by Design Council, thanks to Joanna Fitzgerald and Ed Gardiner.

What do we mean by design?

From design of a tea cup to “pixel to city” – and how we can use some of learning in OD practice. Ed Gardiner from Warwick Business School who works with Design Challenges team shared 3 Design principles:

  1. People First
  2. Prototyping
  3. Visualisation

Like OD , design works within “the fog of uncertainty” – but  offers a structured process for creativity and innovation, Ed referred to the Double Diamond - not the beer – but Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver… with all the excitement of selection gateways to make the development journey clearer.

Lots of these sounds familiar in a different context:

  • Describing the process of setting out a vision – in terms of what is the problem that needs solving? e.g. impact on health/social issues in London
  • Explore, observational research- to help focus on the right area – e.g. chose early years as a cross cutting generational issue under 5s – Knee High challenge
  • Ask for innovative briefs/propositions from wide range of stakeholders
  • Offer small amounts of funding to get initial prototype of idea
  • A gate way process for selecting designs – is it Desirable? Viable? Functional?
  • Rapid prototyping to a next stage
  • Engaging a variety of stakeholders and sponsors in final decision process on what projects go forward

What is appealing: the start-up energy, making something happen rather than getting stuck in the treacle of organisational life, engaging diverse views and finding a way through dichotomy of “the either or” of a massive top down change process, which takes a long time and probably does not deliver and the too loose approach of starting a thousand fires/letting it emerge.

The “ah ha” moment for me was that this process can provide a new language and structure to release us from this bind by taking a design approach. We can encourage both small steps of practical prototyping and experiments around change, and the context of a longer term strategy, not just produce change transformation power points, which focus on 2-3 year outcomes, and rarely happen, often overtaken by next initiative or a short term crisis.

This type of social entrepreneurship approach engages people to get involved in challenges – participants saw parallels in work they are already doing: ways of engaging scientists in internal cross organisational communities of practices, or in strategy creation on breakthrough questions, which bring sponsors and experts together to create new ideas.

Could this describe the way you engage the organisation in a change transformation - offering small amounts of starter funding for ways to tackle challenges and letting participants choose the topics with a broad focus? Could you use in leadership development?

I saw a strong link to Theory U  in terms of a change process, where listening and deepening observation leads to  a creative shift… a moment of letting go of old frames and letting come something new- and then iterating and experimenting new ideas.

What may be a challenge: the control organisational leaders feel they need/internal power and politics within the organisational system that stifles innovation. How can we as OD practitioners challenge ourselves not to need too much control and to be the designer working alongside the client?

Fiona Ellis

Navigating networks and tribal boundaries without overloading

Who are my tribe or what tribes do I belong to?  How do I navigate the boundaries in organisations and help leaders do the same? How do todays’ leaders navigate these boundaries without being overloaded?

These questions arose from a stimulating OD LVN discussion recently, which interestingly did reflect back on our role of OD practitioners, as we applied the learning to ourselves. Applying this to myself I think an OD internal role or external consultant role naturally is a traveller across tribes and skilled at “having one foot in each camp” avoiding “going native”, aligning and yet not belonging fully. Having multiple citizenship or at least a passport into different worlds.


What is this challenge like for leaders?

Our discussion focused on challenges for those leading across boundaries and interfaces in global matrixed organisations, using the metaphor of tribes and reflecting on intertribal governance in Kenya, and the limits of human connection – the 150  connections  rule developed by Robin Dunbar (RSA - The magic number).

Ref Tribal Leadership: Leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organisation – Dave Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright


Is it possible to really belong to more than one tribe?

A cautious answer yes - for whilst tribe suggests deep connection, we can have this with a range of identities. Tribes in global organisations were seen in various ways- at the level of profession or function such as R&D, or engineering, loyalty to the original identity to the company you worked for 2 mergers previously, or levels of leadership across the organisation. Tribe is more than a team, and has as such has the hidden power of unconscious common assumptions / mind-set as well as common language and behaviour that ease communication and provide a useful shorthand.

We discussed what are the elements of developing leaders to be a bridge, rather than a barrier in terms of boundary spanning leadership as coined by CCL.

  • Focus on the mutual purpose or benefit when leading across an interface
  • Question your own assumptions and others – crossing tribal boundaries
  • Take a helicopter view that focuses on  purpose “what is this interface in service of ?”
  • Developing the ability to see others perspectives, step in their shoes, and empathise
  • Recognising the emotional triggers to protect your own tribe and loyalty and not be driven into reflex responses in conflict
  • Letting go of control
  • Being clear what you really need to pay attention to?


How is this affected by overload?

In terms of overload one member shared Sean Connolly’s model of how leaders move through change

confused – busy – focused

which provided a refreshing simplicity and discussion of how increasingly people rarely get to focused before another change occurs, the change rollercoaster. This sparked conversation on how busyness is a defensive reaction  - we all make choices and a leader has control over his or her own diaries dependent on these choices  - yet culturally we can be swamped by the deluge of connections and expectations of a 24 /7 world, and the subliminal demand to be switched on.

So how can our awareness of being part of many tribes help us all manage overload and how we navigate the multiple boundaries in todays organisations?


Fiona Ellis


Organisational savvy

A Blog from Fiona Ellis

Fresh from one of our stimulating Learning Value Network meetings, where we explored “organisational savvy”,   I committed myself to blogging on the train home as a way of capturing some of the essence, as far as you can ever capture the lived experience of voicing possibilities and inquiries with a peer group – always much richer than reading something!

Some of the questions we danced our way around included:

What is this mysterious organisational savvy?

The link to political awareness, connotations of savoir” to know“, good and bad, what forms of knowing …how it connects to culture, is it more acceptable than politics as a word and how does it translate to non - English speakers?

Sharing stories brought this alive to me - of middle level leaders consciously developing their organisational savvy by experimenting with infiltrating cliques or how senior executives choose and time their messages to have an organisational impact successfully or not, or how often coaching is about working with a leaders dilemma of how much they want to join the club to get on around here…and how they are perceived to be savvy or not …

In an organisational context as an OD consultant, what are the ways to develop organisational savvy in the organisation? How much is this individual leader or organisational development ?

At an individual level, we shared examples of mentoring in identifying what are the underlying political issues, framing what questions to ask and scripting how to intervene.

I reflected on how often my leadership development work is coaching leaders how to “ go to the balcony” to quote Heifetz ‘s Adaptive Leadership and manage their own emotional reactions, and triggers, so they can be more savvy and the power of peer coaching to help leaders learn how others tackle real political situations.

By being organisationally savvy, on joining an organisation, leaders need sensitivity in reading the culture, and assessing what can be named, what level of disruption you might risk, a simple question at the right time.

If individuals need to be self-reflective to increase their savvy – ness, how can organisations learn about themselves? And what is role of OD?

One OD head described her approach was to pace, walk alongside the organisation but not to lose her independent “self “ and how to time the interventions so they name the perceived gaps, often the systemic cultural patterns, in a way that can be heard.

Do communities of practice across organisations increase an organisations ability to be savvy about itself?

Working on social network analysis is a very different way of increasing awareness of value of connecting and learning across boundaries, appealing to the scientific engineering mind, learning who has the brokerage or who really connects groups, often a marginal role.

Do organisations need outsiders to help them know themselves?

And how as internal OD can you be a traveller not a tourist when getting under the skin of the organisation…and really adding value

Nearly arrived home now … so having covered a fraction of a rich conversation I’ll let the questions mull ….



Show / Hide Comments

Danela Ezekiel, Bath Consultancy Group

I thoroughly enjoyed the diverse views at the LVN on organisational savvy. There is much written on the subject, even whole books dedicated. Browsing these revealed that they focus often on issues such as power plays, turf battles, deception, and sabotage blocking individuals' career progress which threaten companies' resources and results. A more positive lens to look through was discussed at the LVN. How do leaders and individuals make the choice of how much of their own identity they bring into their role using their judgmenet on what to say, to whom and when, how they say this and what actions they take. This probably has to do with powerful self-awarenss and self-knowledge , knowing how to be authentic as well as relevant to others, the organisational and country culture.

Organisational Learning; getting more from your coaching

What a fun day running a couple of open Webinars with my great colleague Nick Smith.  We were focused on gathering Organisational Learning from all the coaching conversations that happen across an organisation.  The offered our thoughts and ideas around what we mean by organisational learning; how you might do it and how you might use the data once you have it available.


Organisational Learning

My takeaways from the day were many.  Start point is just how powerful a tool this can be – to have some deep insight from experienced external coaches on the patterns and culture they see in the business.  We have a unique process that enables this to be gathered without infringing the confidentiality of the coaching conversation and which lifts it above the anecdote of discussions with just a few coaches.  When I was managing coaching in a business many years ago we had no thoughts of creating such a strategic use of our investment – learning for the business not just the individuals.  I now know how much I was missing; we have really developed a very powerful approach for increasing the value of coaching investment.


My second take-away is just the joy of working with others using an interactive medium across the web; exploring and sharing issues; offering ideas that others might find helpful.  We live in a world with a proliferation of communications and mechanisms for interaction; a world where the volume of data is almost overpowering.  At the same time it is so good to connect with people from different places and perspectives and generate some new thinking.  We can easily take these opportunities for granted.  Sometimes I have to pinch myself and wonder again at my ability to sit in my home office and engage with others around the world on stuff I love.  Even the sun was out to celebrate.

Chris Smith

Trust (in all its hues)

We frequently talk of trust in the context of teams and leadership with a conviction that this is a good thing and that we share a common understanding.  While we all have a sense of what we mean I find that as with many words we can have subtly different perspectives, so I thought I would explore my understanding.   I am prompted having read something recently which left me feeling unsatisfied but rather than comment on the thoughts of others I have deliberately chosen to offer my own perspective; which is exploratory rather than offering sharp conclusions.

I think there are at least 3 commonly held meanings for the word:

  1. Trust people to do things they have said they will do = reliability
  2. Trust people to be honest/exercise due care with things of value = honesty
  3. Trust people enough to expose something of ourselves to them; to make ourselves vulnerable = sensitivity.


This is about whether people deliver on their commitments – transactional trust.  This is partly about do they have the skills, knowledge etc. to do a good job, to a standard we are expecting.  I am having some work done on my house at the moment and I have to trust that the workman, plumbers, electricians etc. will do a good job using their professional skills.  I cannot readily judge the quality of their work as they do it; I am not there much of the time and even if I were I have limited expertise to judge – until it goes wrong!  To manage my risk I tried to find people to work with that I might rely on; through recommendation (trusting the word/judgement of someone else and/or looking for professional accreditations etc.).  In the military they set great store around defining roles and tasks and training people continuously so that when the pressure is high people know what to do and respond instinctively; each team member can rely on others to fulfil their roles.

Transactional trust is not just about skills though; in a lot of work in businesses it is about whether others make the time; share a sense of priorities and follow through on their commitments.   This is about will rather than skill and is generally much more important to us in our daily work. 


The second area of trust is about people being honest and dealing fairly with things of value.  In some recent work with a large bank one of the issues that emerged is their ability to trust their staff with the considerable responsibilities placed upon them.  As an industry it has suffered countless examples where people have betrayed the trust of their employers, customers and indeed society at large.  Responsible employers put in place systems and processes to make it hard for people to be dishonest/corrupt, but no system is fool proof.  The very best barrier to dishonest behaviour is hiring and motivating honest people.  What is interesting about some of the challenges in banking is how a culture can prevail which shifts the standard for what most would consider ethical behaviour.  Theft and deceit may be easy to identify as a breach of trust but if some things are accepted as quite usual in an industry then it takes a very strong person, with high personal integrity to stand against this, especially if they lose out on business as a result. 



The third is about the ability for people to be themselves, to share issues and challenges and build a collaborative environment where they can feel safe and supported as well as challenged; so that they give their best to their work and offer others help when needed.

This is perhaps the most relevant to team work.  Often team building and coaching activities include elements of sharing things about oneself in and out of work.  We use things like life lines or psychometric instruments to offer each person a deeper perspective on themselves, what motivates triggers and energise them.  For this to work well we have to trust the others in the team; that they will respect the insights shared and draw on it for the benefit of the team and its team members.  You trust people not to share inappropriately with others outside of the team.

You may also trust people to share feedback which is helpful and constructive (but not just positive).  You need to trust their motives; that is for your own development and the good of the team; that they have good intent.  Trusting that others have good intent is important for working together, especially when you are working virtually.  It is easy to experience a comment in an email or a reported action by someone else in the team and to draw conclusions that are negative about them.  Building a level of familiarity and personal insight helps us to manage the trigger-reaction and respond with inquiry more than anger or irritation.

So what is emerging?

The first two areas of trust identified are pre-conditions for effective working in any business/organisation.  They are the bedrock for getting things done over time.  It seems to me that the third is more important for effective team working; for closer working and collaboration within teams and perhaps at their boundaries. 

The word carries multiple uses (in the English language at least); which makes me wonder if there is something behind this; something common across the uses.  It seems to me that this is about not being let down; not being disappointed by the outcome offered by someone or something.  I may trust someone to deliver something to an appropriate standard as agreed with me.  The more significant the service the more I will look for re-assurance and ways to mitigate risks (eg getting it in writing, legal contracts).  If I give people responsibility for assets I expect them to be accountable, to deal with them honestly.  If they do not I will be disappointed but the bigger the responsibility or the less well I know someone the more likely I am to hedge the risks.  If I share something of myself, my life, my inner thoughts then I trust someone else with things that are precious to me.  If they share that inappropriately then they are letting me down.   I will share things guardedly; there are many things I might share easily and a few that I will keep to myself and a very few others, if anyone.   We have layers of trust linked to levels of risk aversion.

So trust is not an absolute;” I do or I do not trust them”.  It is relative, “I trust them this much; I trust them with this but not with that”.  Of course it can be earned and lost depending on how well people respond to things we trust them with.  For some, once a trust is broken it can never be restored but this will depend on the nature of the breach and the significance of what was entrusted.  My colleague, Peter, uses an expression about “trusting enough to put our mistrust on the table” e.g. I trust you to deliver on your work commitments but I would not trust you enough to tell you about my inner fears or anxieties.  This can be helpful in team development work.  We can share the areas and levels of mistrust – what I am willing to share and what I am not; what I rely on you to do and where I am concerned.  You need to work with specific examples rather than become stuck in the generic.

The final interesting thing for me in this reflection is that a lot of trust is about expectations; what might I expect or want from you.  Of course the expectations are mine not yours, though I might share them and we might agree something together.  Many others will go without saying; they will be taken as read e.g. trust that you will not steal things.  Either we verbally or formally contract to establish a shared set of expectations or we make some assumptions about them.  This is why we trust people more readily if they seem like us; have a shared background and upbringing because it is likely that we will make similar assumptions about what is acceptable, what is normal.  If we are less familiar with people’s backgrounds we are more likely to make the expectations explicit; though of course the value of sharing this is in itself variable by culture and context. 

I can see why books have been written on the topic – as I pick at strands I keep finding new routes to follow and explore.

Chris Smith

OD and Leadership Development for 10 year olds

When my boys were much younger they sometimes asked me what I do for a living.  Other kids had Dads who did things they could relate to – they were doctors or made things or at least worked for a company brand they knew.  I would be working from home some of the time and travelling other times; often overseas.  Sometimes I might turn up to watch them in a sports match, others I was endlessly stuck on the phone.  I might be in London for the day and all I did was have meetings with people.  I found it hard to explain what I do – leadership development and change consultancy are not easy concepts to make real to a ten year-old.  Teaching is the most obvious parallel but is very wide of the mark both for what we do and how we do it. 

After some consideration I decided that the essence of what we do is help people to have better quality conversations in their work.  The context of that help may vary; whether through one-to-one coaching, in teams, through leadership development programmes or as they work through a change challenge. 

Of course there is a huge amount that lies within any one conversation (by which I mean interaction – it includes email/social media etc).  There are the words that are said, the tone and body language, the quality of listening and questioning that people use.  These are some of the skills of dialogue and a great deal can be done to improve the quality of engagement by working on these basic skills so that people use them to better effect.  I saw the film, “The King’s Speech”, last night and at the start of working together to tackle his stammer Bertie and Elizabeth say they see the problem as one of “mechanics” and they just want the speech therapist, Lionel Logue to work on these mechanics.  Of course it makes a difference but it is not enough to really shift Bertie’s ability to speak without a stutter.  There was a need to go deeper and understand what created the behaviour in the first place.  The parallel holds for our work – it is much more than the ability to use language effectively; helpful though this is.

With my boys the notion of better quality conversations was only half the explanation.  Their obvious question was, “Why do people need help talking to each other?”  Why indeed!

The answer lies in the complex weave of patterns that lead two or more people to the point of the conversation (interaction) – what lies behind them in their own lives, the assumptions and values they hold, the memories that are triggered, the neurological patterns that are playing out.  These are the psychological dimensions, the underlying concerns about safety and social positioning; feelings and identity.  This interacts with the organisational (systemic) context, the patterns of behaving and thinking within the culture of the organisation that are framing this particular meeting point.  These will also influence how and when and why conversations are being held anyway; which do people give time to and which not.  Part of the systemic pattern is the context of business and economic drivers, the financial, market and regulatory forces that set the frame in which people are meeting and working.

Working through this blend of forces is the art and science of what we do for a living.  The shift we help people make will vary.  It might include different ways to think about and frame things, increasing their willingness to be open, deepening their understanding of the underlying values or assumptions that motivate their behaviour or an improved appreciation for the perspective of others.  The outcome is that the people we work with will find different ways of engaging and talking to others.  This in turn leads to better quality working between people in a business and at the interface with customers, suppliers and stakeholders.  These improvements lead to positive outcomes at a business level. 

The tools for intervention are numerous and yet are focused in one – which is the consultant or the consulting team themselves and their ability to interact with others.  To make a difference you have to engage with and enter the flow of activity and dialogue within the organisation; matching enough to be accepted and mismatching enough to help create change.  This is what makes it enormous fun as well as hugely challenging and fascinating.  My definition of a good day is pretty simple.  Have I made a difference to someone I have been working with; helping them to think, feel and act differently in the work that they are doing?  If it is with a team or a group of people then even better.

My boys are at University now and I like to think they have a better understanding of what I do for a living because they have a greater appreciation for the complexities of human interaction.  I suspect they still just call me a “consultant” and I know they wish I worked somewhere that made things and where I might bring home some useful free samples.

NB a couple of colleagues have recently written a book which explores in more depth the nexus of influences playing out in human interaction – looking at it through the leadership lens.  It is called “Touchpoint Leadership: Creating Collaborative Energy across Teams and Organizations” by Hilary Lines and Jacqueline Scholes-Rhodes (Kogan Page 2013).

Chris Smith

photo credit: ashraful kadir via photopin cc

Motivation and Engagement

An issue which has recurred in many recent discussions is what motivates and engages people in organisations. It arose through meetings with clients and some conversations within our own business as well. This is a complex area with many dimensions and I thought I would free-wheel around the territory a bit offering some of my perspectives and experiences.

One of my first observations is that engagement is an emotional process and we are all animated by different things which may change through our lives. I think this is obvious but I still find many people who seem to work on the assumption that what motivates them must be universally true and expect others to respond in a similar way. As people we have a great deal in common, such as needs for security, recognition, autonomy etc. but my experience is the way we respond and the value we attach to these does vary quite considerably.

As a simple illustration, the importance of different perspectives came home to me many years ago when I was doing a performance appraisal for someone in a team I managed. Being a development-minded person I offered lots of clear and succinct feedback against her objectives and job role. As a business we had moved away from a numeric rating system because of the challenges of skewed distributions and inconsistent application. I wholly agreed with this believing it is much better to have a clear conversation with specific feedback. She listened patiently and then said it was all very well but she needed to know whether she was valued as highly as others, at least against a common benchmark if not through direct comparisons. She felt a ratings scale offered her this clarity, relative to others and against previous years. Personally I have little interest in ratings but for her it was an essential part of understanding how she was regarded in the business. The lesson has stayed with me – for her not having a rating was demotivating; while for me it has limited motivational impact.

So perhaps I should declare my own biases. What motivates me is:

  • Purpose; which I summarise as making a positive difference in the world through my work with clients and elsewhere; if I am not making a difference I am in the wrong place;
  • The quality of relationships I have with the people I encounter through my work, my colleagues and clients but it is also important that I have time for my social and family life
  • Autonomy; the ability to set my own course and make things happen with others. Nothing disengages me faster than someone telling me I must do something; though these days I try to respond with curiosity rather than irritation or resentment (it can be hard!);
  • Development or growth; I need to feel I am progressing and learning more about myself, stretching into new experiences. Standing still is moving backwards.

No mention of money here but of course this always arises when one discusses motivation. I do need to feel fairly remunerated for what I do but it is never a motivator in itself (it’s a hygiene factor). I have always been bemused by the endless hours companies devote to create intricate financial incentive schemes to motivate people. There are many doubts about the value and impact of such schemes. For a succinct and powerful summary of the issues I recommend Daniel Pink’s contribution to the wonderful series of “animates” issued by the RSA at:

He draws on research evidence that suggests that for anything but the simplest tasks financial incentives do not encourage better performance. In large, complex organisations with global matrices there is little that is simple. He focuses instead on the role of autonomy, mastery and making a contribution – which I can readily align with my own motivators. This might be why his propositions appeal to me! Bonus and incentive schemes do serve a different organisational purpose, which is to relate the amount that is paid out to the financial performance of the company; the better the returns the more you can afford to distribute. Companies are usually not quite so honest about this benefit of variable pay and get caught-up in the language of incentives, which I think just confuses things.

Identifying with the organisation with which you work is important to most people. I have worked with some who are truly passionate about their business, its brand and all it stands for. My experience of most people in larger organisations is that the commitment is less than that. For it to be strong the organisation brand proposition needs to work well for the people employed as well as its customers or clients. This is all about purpose and values; do I believe in and commit to something this business stands for. It might be some mix of the intrinsic worth in what the business does, the care it takes of its customers, the quality of its work, the way it treats its people etc. The brand specialists do a lot to work on the emotional engagement of customers with a brand; creating the character to which we relate. This should be at least as important to its employees because the organisation can be important to their own sense of identity.

Companies that focus their messages on increasing shareholder value are likely to get a transactional response from their people but limited engagement. Of course it matters if any business is to survive and thrive but unless employees have a significant shareholding it will not offer much sense of purpose – sometimes not even then. Most people do not look at or get very excited about financial performance. Often people do not understand the detail. They want a general sense that the business is doing well. We all like to be associated with success and it can increase the sense of security, which is vital to many. But even if all the data on performance is available, most do not actively read and understand it – they want to hear some headline, confirmatory messages. They may also be swayed by the doubters, those who look for the holes in the numbers.

Above all I think that local factors are most significant for people to feel engaged and connected. This often focuses on their relationships with people immediately around them. Is there a sense of community? Do they feel included? Are there opportunities to do something which makes them feel good about themselves? For many (but not all) are there opportunities to grow and develop? Much of this can be influenced by their local manager and is less to do with the wider corporation. I am afraid many senior leaders have an exaggerated view on their significance to the lives of people in a business (as do many politicians to society as a whole). It is not that they cannot have an impact – this mainly comes from the tone and culture they help to create. But they do not have a very direct relationship with most employees and are generally seen to come and go like the seasons, with limited impact on the daily working lives of people down through a business.

I am sure there is more to be said and much rich research on the topic. I am clear about what works for me and know this is not the same for everyone. I also believe one should value the generic research but also look in depth at your own key populations or individual team members. As often in life, context is all important.


Chris Smith

photo credit: jvleis via photopin cc

Shadow Consultancy

In preparing for the next step in a process of team coaching last week I contacted a colleague to ask them to give me some “shadow consultancy”. An hour of telephone discussion was invaluable in helping me to consider what was happening in the team and its wider system and crucially how I might engage with them in the next phases of the work. This has long been a part of our professional practice and has been seen as important to high quality organisation development for a number of years. What I have noticed is that we are using it with increasing frequency, especially when our consultants are working with the challenges of executive team coaching. So I thought it might be valuable to share a little on what this involves and how we use it. It would be great to hear the experiences of others who have used the approach.

Shadow consultancy is a process for helping the consultant or consulting team to explore the client system in which they are working; their relationship with it and the shifts required in them in order to achieve the shifts needed in the client system. The consultant(s) will discuss the client situation; what has happened, what they have noticed and observed, the people, the purpose of the work and so on. If there are a team of consultants involved they will also explore what is happening between them; in their relationships as well as with the clients. This discussion is facilitated by one or more consultants who are outside the client system and not involved in the work; the shadow consultant(s). The discussion may be focused on a particular theme or question and the shadow may spend much time listening, questioning and reflecting on what they have heard and noticed.

The benefits of the process are numerous. It is about surfacing issues, feelings and assumptions that are held by the consultant(s) and/or in the client system. This makes it possible to work with them as part of the consulting process. It can include a better insight on any parallel process which may be playing out ie in what ways are the consultant(s) taking on board and acting out patterns from the client system? It can help to explore these and re-frame how the consultant is approaching the work. What might they need to do differently to help create the change needed in the client? The focus is around what is the shift here and now that will help when the consultant(s) engages with the client.

This is not just a process of professional peer review, with one expert checking or critiquing the work of another. Nor is it about having another pair of ears, eyes or brain to look at some plans or ideas and suggest a better way forward. It is helping the coach/consultant to see what they are not yet seeing and connect what is not yet connected. Sometimes an action plan may arise. Sometimes it may be more about a different feeling or awareness that the consultant can use when working with the client. In this sense it is much closer to systemic coaching supervision and indeed many of the tools and processes are common between them.

In my case the shadow time helped me to think about what had been happening in the team since I had last worked with them. Crucially for me was something about how I re-engaged with the team, having been out of the loop for a while. How would I show-up and work with them; how would I re-contract. One of the patterns that became clear is that the team itself need to spend time doing this as they meet episodically. It also became clear that I had some unprocessed feelings arising from a completely different piece of work that I had recently completed. Without recognising this source of anxiety I might have unwittingly taken it into the next phase with the team I was focused on. The process offered some time and space to rehearse and prepare some ways to re-engage with the team, leaving me refreshed and energised to tackle the work at my best.

I have also found it enormously valuable to act as a shadow consultant to colleagues. It is a great way to learn something about the way they are approaching their work and the issues and pressures they are experiencing. Listening and reflecting back to them; questioning and challenging their assumptions can be a powerful way to raise one’s own awareness. What do I take for granted and notice? How does this differ from their approach? My own patterns in working become clearer in helping others with their work. I think we are using the approach more frequently as we continue to grow our work in team coaching because of the complexity and dynamics that one works with; considering what plays out within the team, between team members and the consultant, between teams and other stakeholders and into the system more broadly. All in the context of competing needs and an overall purpose for the team and the system. Holding this in mind and working with it over time is stretching and it is invaluable to spend some time with a shadow consultant.

The process is invisible to the client but can add enormous value to the outcomes achieved with them because it steps up the effectiveness of the consultant(s) they work with. So if you hear a consultant talking about their shadow it is not with a sense of fear but one of empowerment, bringing into focus that which is not quite in sight.

Let me know if you have similar or different experiences of working with your shadow.


Chris Smith

photo credit: loop_oh via photopin cc

Leadership Soup

I have been taking with clients and colleagues this week about some current challenges in leadership development. One of the themes to emerge is the continuing drive in organisations to define what they mean by leadership and what they expect of their leaders. We work with a number of businesses who have put extensive effort into defining and developing the values that they would like everyone to behave in line with. They also identify a leadership model or frame that captures the important characteristics/behaviours that they want their leaders to exhibit. This is often linked to some strategic shift or initiative, a change in the business that requires a change in leadership behaviour. Frequently this is said to be about “driving” a “performance culture” and sometimes is linked to performance and reward schemes. Many businesses also define competence sets that are relevant for certain roles or levels in the business. Then they often layer in specific frameworks for evaluating talent and potential, with specialist 360 and/or other instruments to assess people against this. Of course the CEO will have their own homilies of leadership principles that helped get them where they are today and which they offer to groups when asked about their formula for leadership success. Finally of course there is the legacy left echoing in people’s minds and in the system more generally from past frameworks, values statements etc because these are re-invented every 3-5 years.

Pity the poor leaders in the business, having to eat this alphabet soup of behavioural guidance; expected to act as role models and evaluate others while living the current mantra about authentic leadership.

What is going on here? Whose needs are being served? How is it adding value to the health and success of organisations?

Of course each ingredient has its own flavour and can be appreciated and valued for its contribution. The different approaches are targeted at different needs and might work well in isolation. The trouble is that the combination too often produces a grey, sticky gruel that is either bland or obnoxious to taste. Many will pretend to eat when people are looking (performance reviews and training courses) but then set it aside and get on with the day job using whatever they happened to have picked up about working with people from childhood, school, early work years and the odd training course or book.

There are many great leaders in businesses who are self-reflective, willing to experiment and able to grow and develop their mindsets and behaviours. The smart ones recognise that the various tools, instruments and frameworks can be helpful lenses for looking at issues, people and situations; they can help to understand what is happening and frame responses that make a difference. They are part of the flow in organisations that can be harnessed and applied rather than fixed truths that should determine behaviour.

Having lived and worked in this soup for many years I find myself often coming back to some simple truths about what leadership is ie the relationship between leader, led and shared endeavour that I have written about before. For me, less is more and we should constantly be looking to reduce and focus rather than overcomplicate the messages and tools we are making available to our leaders and managers. At the same time there should be some rigour in their application and a consistency of follow-through.

The most important thing is to step into the shoes of a manager or leader and see the world through their eyes. Is this new recipe realistic, helpful and practical? Do they have the skills to use it effectively? Be very clear about the value and purpose of the latest model or frame and how it should it be used. This is not just about sending powerpoint decks and emails. People need to engage with the substance, truly understand the process and see its benefits for them before they might integrate it into their practice – which almost certainly requires dialogue. My encouragement is to never introduce something new without visibly killing what is old. It may be good to honour it and certainly to explain the purpose of the change but ensure people know it is past. I am also always wary of a universal theory of everything into which everything will be integrated; our brains will not be big enough and time is usually too limited in a complex and dynamic environment.

Leadership frameworks, values statements and performance management systems are all about trying to align direction and create some sense of what behaviours are valued in the hope of achieving success. At best they provide some reference points for guiding people in how they should behave, where they should focus etc. The real success of organisations comes through the clarity of purpose and the quality of relationships that people generate internally and externally, which is a continuing process. If you really want to drive performance focus on the processes for generating clear shared outcomes and the quality of feedback offered between people in working toward them.


Chris Smith

photo credit: Max Braun via photopin cc


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Fiona Ellis:

love the soup analogy …

Leadership Choices

I was working with a senior team in a global high tech company last week. They are a really good team of people, performing well but who wanted to take some time out of the daily deluge of activity to step back and connect at a deeper level. The anticipation is that by doing so they will notice some of the patterns they are in and find ways to collectively raise their game further. Unusually in my current flow of work the team were all based in the UK. Each has significant revenue/budget responsibilities and is leading teams themselves. A number of things struck me as we worked together and is familiar from my experience of work with similar teams over many years.

The first is the wall of daily activity that such senior executives are working through. Information, requests and demands on time arrive from many different directions, email, text, calls and meetings and informal face to face discussions. Of course this is hugely energising and the team members were certainly not complaining. They have stepped into such roles with enthusiasm and real commitment. They want to make things happen and work hard to enable others to deliver sales successes and generate change. They are all driven people, embracing and committing themselves to the volume of activity which they generate and in which they operate, passionate about their company and its value to the world.

At the same time this wall of demands could be draining for three reasons. It is ever-pressing; the annual cycle, with a sense of landing at the end of the year having gone over the line or fallen short on the numbers, was once followed by a mental pause before looking at the peak that needed to be climbed in the coming year. There is no sense of pause now – the pace continues unrelenting and work days and holidays merge into a continuing stream. As human beings we are part of a natural annual rhythm with seasons passing and in our education we become attuned to a pattern of terms and years passing. The modern corporation may make allowance for seasonal buying patterns but the volume of work demands on senior executives now seems to vary little.

A second source of drain is the focus of much of this activity. Work driven by customers, partners and growing your own team to deliver is seen to be really engaging and energising. Work which is about reporting and justifying performance upwards and across is often seen to be much more draining because it does not add value. This is especially true if it goes beyond a normal, established reporting pattern and into “micromanagement” from on high. In Oshry’s work on systems we learn of the anxiety of senior leaders, their felt need to be in control of the activity in their organisation, sucking-up responsibility rather than tending to the health of the system itself. I was left wondering how much better the business performance might be if the team were given the space and support to perform by more senior leaders, rather than feeling checked, monitored and a little untrusted.

The final reason for the volume of work being a drain is the difficult choices people were constantly managing around personal and work life. Generally the members of this particular team had made some very clear choices to protect what most mattered to them in their own lives and they felt supported by their business in working around this issue. Nevertheless sacrifices had to be made and the choices continuously revisited as events unfold.

A theme which emerges for me is around leadership as choices. Leaders have finite time, energy and capacity and need to make choices about how best to use these to achieve their purposes. How they respond to what is before them; where they chose to focus their energies and who they engage with to make things happen reflects what they really value. As a leader in my own business I am making a choice now – to capture my thoughts arising from my work and make them available to others, rather than to be talking to colleagues and clients. Of course by prioritising and organising we can try to cover a number of bases, ensuring that we touch what we can. Nevertheless recognising the choices we make and indeed framing our life and work as choices rather than feeling driven by events is important to achieving what matters to us and to others.

My final thought arising from my work with this team is the power of stepping back, understanding each other more deeply and finding new ways to connect. Each might hit their individual business targets and deliver this year for the firm with limited time given to others. They worked together well enough, there were no petty rivalries or animosities, the team was doing OK. The reason we form teams is that collective capability can be so much more powerful than just a series of individuals. By deepening personal connections there is a greater willingness to share and explore leadership issues and business opportunities. The team can see the pattern of activity within their business and into their customers’ worlds much better than each might alone. Making the choice to spend more time together and looking across rather than down might well have helped them with what needs to happen next year and the year beyond. I do hope so.


Chris Smith

Leading Across Cultures

I am sitting in a hotel room in Beijing, having worked with an international group of leaders for the week. This prompts two thoughts. The first is the joy and privilege we have in working around the world with some wonderful people in great organisations. The second is a reminder of the opportunities and challenges which such companies offer people. The opportunities are about interesting work, personal growth and development, creating friendships around the world.

We work with people on some of their challenges; developing their capacity to lead in fast paced businesses, working with multi-national colleagues and connecting with each other across time zones. Globalisation has led to businesses with flat structures, often matrixed and requiring complex networks of interaction to keep them aligned, resilient and effective. This requires increasingly sophisticated leadership at all levels, with people able to influence, engage and inspire others. The problem is building effective relationships when people are at distance, have different cultures and where frequent changes in structure mean reporting lines are rarely in place as much as two years. We are creating environments that are stimulating but not well suited to the way human beings have traditionally related.

On the question of differing cultures I always remind people that it is important to recognise that there is much more which people have in common than there is difference created by culture. For instance a discussion today with some local Chinese managers revealed exactly the same concerns about how best to bring up children, providing childcare while working. Some of the options and solutions vary between societies but the needs are the same.

The second thing to both recognise and be wary of is the tendency to generalise and make sweeping assumptions based on cultural difference. The work of Fons Trompenaars and others is helpful in recognising differing assumptions/approaches to such things as time and respect for authority in differing cultures. These can certainly be helpful in raising awareness about difference. They can also lead to unhelpful generalisations which may be less relevant when working with a particular individual. What is most helpful is to stay open-minded and curious, noting and exploring differences rather than making judgements or jumping too quickly to conclusions. It is also important to notice your own assumptions born of your cultural context. It is always better to engage in dialogue and surface areas where you may be seeing the same circumstance through different lenses.

Finally there is the challenge of trying to do this when much of the interaction is done virtually. Email is a useful tool but is not very helpful when exploring such issues in building a relationship. Phone calls are better and social media can be invaluable for enabling a constant flow of more informal connections. If you really want to build a meaningful relationship and lead someone effectively there is no real substitute for meeting and getting to know each other; working on issues and opportunities through time. You do not need to be together all the time – just enough to make the intervening periods effective. Of course you can make things happen without this; businesses rely on transactional relationships as well. If you want to do more than this; to engage, align, connect and really shift performance, generate innovation or change what is happening in a business. Then you need leadership and leadership requires effective relationships.

So the focus of much leadership development has to be around how you can help people to do this more quickly and effectively than in the past. How to build the capacities of awareness and self-reflection; curiosity and openness; business focus and people focus. Growing the capacity to work effectively with others across cultures is essential for success. It is also the most enormous fun.


Chris Smith

Teams are not what they used to be; long live teaming...

Businesses are social systems that bring a wide variety of capabilities together to achieve one or more common purposes.  They require the orchestration of a host of objectives, activities, priorities, processes and capabilities which means people finding ways to connect and work together; hence teams.  The reality in many global organisations is that people are simultaneously members of multiple teams, from loose networks to tight groupings, forming to meet emerging needs and re-forming as these evolve.  Often these teams are formed of people who are scattered between different countries, time zones and cultures and are in a state of continuing flux, with changing membership and porous boundaries.

A challenge is that many of the expectations of teamwork that we carry within us are based in an era when people were co-located, generally worked with a small range of groups and were quite focused in what they were doing.  Moreover, as we know from the insights emerging from neuroscience, many of the basic needs that people have about living and working in social groups have not changed much from more primitive stages of our development.  We have needs for belonging, acceptance and trust, concerns about social status or respect, being treated fairly etc.  If these are not addressed we can feel threatened and behave in defensive ways.  It is harder to address these needs when people are distant, part of many groups that are forming and reforming and largely using e-media to connect rather than spending time together.  Much of the way we read social connectivity and positioning is based in body language.

In working with clients and reflecting on these issues over many years, 2 key thoughts have stayed with me.

Firstly the team is not an end in itself only needs to be good enough to achieve its purpose. The work of Katzenbach and Smith makes some helpful distinctions between high performing teams, working groups and leader-centric teams. To develop a “high performing team” with diverse capabilities, mutual accountability, shared commitment to a goal and high levels of trust and openness requires a considerable investment in building relationships. Not all activities where people come together require this level of investment to achieve their outcomes. It is valuable to recognise when we need to invest and when something less onerous will do. Too often we meet people who assume they need a high-performing team when this may not really be required. Of course team performance is in the eyes of its key stakeholders and the wider purpose it is in service of, rather than simply the team itself.

Unfortunately the very reason we have created so many groups who need to work together is that we are dealing with an increasingly uncertain and rapidly dynamic environment. These are the very circumstances where you would most want to create teams who do work very well together, with high levels of trust and familiarity, so that their collective energies are given to the complexity they are working with and able to act in an agile way.

Which brings us to the second thought; this is about the importance of “teaming” ie the collective ability to create and recreate teams in response to change. Team development is a continuing process, not a one-off activity; it emerges in the context of new challenges and changing membership. In some environments, such as airline cabin crew, this might be done with very tight processes and role descriptions, so that everyone knows exactly what they need to be doing and can rely on others to do the same. By contrast, in our work with a major professional services firm we recognised they increasingly had to bring together cross-disciplinary expertise, across sectors and countries, to form teams to work on client projects. They may each be in a number of teams and they needed to come together, understand the client issues and tap into their varied expertise to generate tailored solutions. This meant there had to be a focus on building the capacity to form teams quickly and work together effectively, ie “teaming”. We recognised much the same need in the way we work together and like our client we are continually working at it – it is a journey not a destination.

There are of course many tools and techniques that are helpful but the real instrument for change is the individual and their ability to engage effectively with others as things emerge in the dynamic both within the team and with its stakeholders. The classic elements of emotional intelligence are vital; self awareness and awareness of others. Alongside this is the ability to take a systemic perspective, to see the patterns that are influencing yourself and other team members. It is about the ability to open the mind to what is happening, noticing your own reactions and then being prepared to have the direct conversation with others about what you see and feel. Of course it is not enough for any one person to have these capabilities; you need a culture which values and encourages such capacities in many of its people.

So our experience suggests teams are vital to get things done but we have created organisations that stretch them in ways not possible in the past. The only thing that can bridge the gap is the capacity of people to recognise the extent to which a team is needed and to forge teams quickly and effectively. To avoid repeating patterns of underperformance requires an investment in people and culture that encourages a focus on the quality of relationships.


Chris Smith

Leadership as Relationships

One of the things I notice through the media and in discussions with clients is an increasing focus on the need for more, better and deeper leadership. More people taking leadership throughout organisations and in society. Each leader being more effective and using more skill and also working with a greater sense of moral purpose and connection to the people around them and the world they inhabit. For many businesses this is because they are grappling with a massive need for change, in structures, processes and culture. In discussion with a client in a professional services firm yesterday we turned to the question of whether we are in a new “business as usual”. The challenges of recession and low growth are not a temporary phenomenon, from which we can recover and go back to where we were; they are likely to be with us for some years ahead. Redefining how to operate in this context, with tighter margins and a more agile strategy is a concern for many we work with.

Whether or not we believe low growth is the new norm we are certainly looking for a great deal from our leaders, both in business and the wider world. The context in which they are working is more complex, many firms have flattened structures and spread them thinly across the world, so that leaders at all levels are working at distance from those they are leading and collaborating with. The pace of activity seems frenetic for many; with too much to do in too little time.

When talking with clients about leadership and its development in the face of such challenges it is often helpful to step back and revisit what we actually mean by the word. When there are so many books, blogs and articles written and so many people have been through leadership development experiences you might think there is a shared understanding of what “leadership” is. I am not sure this is the case. In Bath Consultancy Group we see leadership as the relationship between 3 things; a leader; followers and a shared purpose or endeavour. For something to be described as “leadership” requires each of these to be in place. From this we can begin to explore further.

For instance, it means that leadership is not about formal accountabilities or job descriptions. It means that leadership is always in the moment. Are you stepping into leadership or not? Are people following? It means different people may take leadership at different times; it can pass between them in teams, across organisations and networks. It means we all move between leadership and followership at different times.

The relationship which on much leadership development seems to focus is between the leader and those they seek to lead. It is concerned with how well the leader understands and connects with others. This is partly the ground of emotional intelligence; the understanding of self and the ability to understand others. The focus is on raising self-awareness, often with 360 feedback; then developing the skills to improve connection; questioning and listening, to see the world as others see it; to build a committed relationship. But skills are not enough; trust and integrity are important; people recognise whether someone is truly interested in them and really sees their point of view. If the leader is not truly concerned about their followers it will always be difficult for them to engage their commitment rather than compliance.

The quality of the relationship between the leader and the shared endeavour is equally significant. Is this something they are just interested in or is it something they are truly committed to; with some passion and serious engagement? Leadership development may enable leaders to uncover their true passions and beliefs and help them better connect this to organisation purpose and outcomes. Often in business we see people who are placed into “leadership roles” who then try to find the purpose they want to work toward. In society we see many examples of leadership, where the process is reversed; people become leaders because of their depth of passion about something. The purpose or cause inspires people to take leadership and they learn more about how to lead while doing it. They aspire to beneficial outcomes rather than to leadership itself.

The extent of their own commitment can have a direct influence on the third relationship; that between the Followers and the Common Purpose/Endeavour. If a leader is truly committed to something, really passionate about making it happen, then this can become inspiring for others, helping them to connect with their own passion. The leader can also help to connect followers to purpose by articulating it; finding the words that resonate for others; giving expression to what they know and feel but had not found words for themselves. Logical argument is usually not enough in itself; as we know from neuroscience, we are so much more than rational, analytical beings. Commitment requires emotional engagement and the leader may provoke and energise followers through stories, through their own passion, through a view on how things might be different and better for them.

There are many and growing challenges in our world, in companies, societies and for us as a species. Leadership is certainly needed for us to tackle these challenges and perhaps a different quality and capacity for leadership than that which led us here. It is valuable to understand what we mean by leadership, recognising that it is not simply born but can be developed but also that it is a choice which we might all make.


Chris Smith


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Fiona Ellis:

Increasingly I find leaders are focusing on self awareness and managing their own unintentional responses in the moment which is at the heart of the leadership.


Rebecca Miskin:

I also increasingly believe leadership should include creating ‘emerging’ leaders – as specialisms grow in importance and technologies evolve, we need to rely on functional experts often ‘buried’ in organisational structures, formerly invisible to senior mgt.


Chris Smith:

I agree, flatter structures and networked organisations mean people need to be taking leadership at all levels in a business/organisation. Functional expertise needs to be combined with the ability to engage with others and create the shared agenda. This means senior leaders need to be facilitating, enabling and encouraging others to take their leadership. They also need to develop leadership capacities in people, setting expectations and recognising and responding to the contributions of others. Of course it also means people stepping forward and taking the opportunities; accepting it as part of their roles.