We all have tales about feeling frustrated as unhappy customers, and the question for me is how to go beyond whining and moaning – and then defecting to another vendor – to offering advice to the offending supplier so they can restore our confidence and fix the issue. Hopefully not just on a one-off basis for us, but systemically. Sometimes the issue has to do with the attitude and behaviour of the people, sometimes it’s a policy problem, and just as frequently it’s a systems one.

I’ve written before about good and bad experiences of mine, and here today are some more stories, the first of which I was told about by a friend who, knowing I write on this topic, cried on my shoulder about his miserable experience at a coast hotel. Like me, he also consults on customer-friendliness, and that makes us the more frustrated when we are not treated well, knowing how much better things could be – for the benefit of both parties.

The hotel in question is one where he’d been staying several times a year for over 25 years with his family, from when he was a young child. On the last day of each stay his father would book and pay for their next one, reserving the same rooms. He would always be offered a very generous discount as an appreciation for his long-term loyalty… until this year when the family stayed at the hotel without their father, who had recently passed away. They came to honour his legacy and to bring back the many good memories of their times together here.

This time the attitude of the management had transformed from displaying warm and generous hospitality to being mean and unresponsive. When my friend was offered but a notional discount as he went to pay the bill he asked to see the General Manager (GM), certain that at least some of the earlier generosity would be restored.

But the GM proved to be cold and tense, clearly not interested in the decades-long history of the family’s connection with this hotel, and defensive about the meanness, which he justified thanks to the economic hard times.

Reluctantly he offered a small further discount, but for only some of the days, leaving my friend feeling he’d never want to go there again. Never mind that he’s been sharing his tale of woe with me and so many others since then. As he had been with the top person at the hotel there was no one further to whom to escalate, so that was it – a sad lose-lose ending to the story.

My second tale of woe has to do with DStv, who out of the blue sent me a mail confirming that my password had been successfully changed. I replied, stating I hadn’t sought a change, and another mail came immediately, seeking my personal details so they could deal with my case. I sent these, only to receive yet another one asking for further information, including about the country of registration of my decoder. “Why not with the first mail?” I asked, expressing my frustration. A third mail arrived, informing me that as my decoder is registered in Kenya they can’t deal with it from South Africa, so I must get in touch with Multichoice here, whose contacts they provided.

I called them, and after pressing the right buttons on my phone, to confirm I wanted to speak in English, had “other” queries to pursue etc., a friendly agent listened empathetically to my case. I told her, as I do to such front-line operatives, that I was talking “through” and not “to” her, requesting that she refer my complaints upwards, which she promised to do. Let’s see.

This is the problem with so many automated customer-response systems – like the NTSA one whose portal I accessed to obtain my new car registration number plate, when it informed me that my effort had failed, without explaining why. Again, fortunately when I called them a very friendly agent helped me.

Online banking systems are in my (and others’) experience often the most complex and challenging to manoeuvre through, leading me to wonder if the staff of these – and other – organisations ever go through the experiences we do. It’s why in an earlier article I wrote about coaching the radiologist who was so disconnected from my discomfort while lying on his MRI that he should spend a similar time there understanding why patients find it hard to remain still for so long.

My conclusion is to encourage you to go beyond being the disgruntled customer to becoming the helpful consultant, sharing your bad experience and also suggesting how things could improve – as I did with Multichoice, with NTSA, with my bank and with others. As for my friend’s hotel, you know who you are!

I was recently invited by professional advisory firm Ronalds East Africa to be one of the keynote speakers at their training event for Chief Finance Officers (CFOs) and other leaders of the finance function. My session was about advising the participants on how to interact effectively at the board level.

There was quite a spectrum in the room, from senior finance folk who regularly attended board and board committee meetings, to younger, more junior ones. Some of the CFOs were executive directors on their boards, with a regular seat at the top table, while others were only invited to contribute on specific items.

I asked them if they held responsibilities beyond financial management, and one lady told me she was the finance and administration manager – a not uncommon combination. (To me “administration” has always sounded rather old-fashioned and bureaucratic, and I suggested they think of a more contemporary term).

Elsewhere I have seen CFOs also oversee functions such as strategy and performance, risk and compliance, investments, mergers and acquisitions, and ICT. For obvious reasons, those whose portfolios are broadest are the ones most likely to climb further up the managerial ladder, I emphasised.

In my session I asked a series of questions, first about their alignment with the CEO. Did they work together as a close team, with mutual trust and respect? And then about management’s relationship with the board – individually and as a team. “Do you look forward to engaging with your directors, or do you dread the interactions?” I posed, before also asking if the directors looked forward to engaging with them.

Not very positive responses here, accompanied by several statements admitting that they only speak if asked to do so.

So, what holds them back? Why do so many CFOs underperform when they appear in the boardroom? My first point was that too many heads of departments, including CFOs, feel intimidated when in the presence of directors, and these feelings are reflected in their behaviour. It’s why they keep their contributions as short as possible, they don’t project their voice, and avoid eye-contact.

Others, however, are over-confident, perhaps being expert at spouting the numbers, despite lacking either the holistic organisational perspective or communication skills. They are inadequately prepared, not having translated their overcrowded spreadsheets into easy-to-absorb graphics; not having been coached in how to communicate for this level of engagement; and not having been through rehearsals to the meetings.

My next slide asked “Are you just Dr No?” Here I had them probe the extent to which the image they felt they should portray had them play too much of a stern-parent role, exception-reporting on the over-spenders and the under-deliverers… while remaining silent when the numbers looked good. Alongside this, many of their tribe enjoy being the most risk-averse in the room, displaying consistent worst-case pessimism and merely focusing on why any new initiative will not succeed, and in any case is unaffordable.

“Are you just book-balancers, number-crunchers, cost-minimisers?” I asked provocatively. “Or do you also see yourselves as advisers, consultants and coaches to your colleagues – including directors?” And how good were they at managing relationships, I inquired, whether internally with other functions, departments and locations, and between levels; or externally with investors, bankers, auditors and others?

To help them here I delved into my favourite topic of emotional intelligence, explaining how those with high EQ interact in ways that result in win-win outcomes, where everyone feels adequately satisfied and so owns the plans and commit to their implementation.

Whether in their technical financial skills or their non-technical skills of 360-degree relationship building, they need not only to be competent, I stated, but to match that with a healthy mix of confidence and humility, making others feel comfortable when interacting with them.

It is by expanding their comfort zone through developing new and broader skills that their circle of influence would expand. Their constructive, helpful voice will be listened to more, and those around them will see their potential for both higher cross-functional and boardroom responsibilities.

Last December I wrote in this column about the importance of adopting a systems approach to corporate social responsibility, aligning and integrating it not only with the Sustainable Development Goals and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) issues but also with the overall organisational strategy. (This is despite concerns that neither the SDGs nor ESG incorporate a systems approach!)

More recently, I facilitated a workshop for the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) that wished to identify the linkages between the objectives in the five-year strategic plan it developed.

Good for them, as this systems-thinking approach is such a minority sport among strategy developers. Yes, they identify key objectives, along with the performance indicators, the who’s-got-to-do-what-by-when, the budgets, the risks and so on, but it’s rare that they worry about cause-and-effect relationships between the objectives.

APHRC is one of the few that apply a systems approach to how they operate. During our workshop, they identified linkages like those that will create more synergy between research teams; ensure deeper collaboration between their researchers and their advocacy and communications people; and accelerate the development of multi-disciplinary talents – within individuals and collectively.

The framework adopted for their plan was the Balanced Scorecard, first with the linkages between its four standard pillars of products, services and customers; our people; systems and processes; and financial sustainability.

The whole reason for the development of the Balanced Scorecard was to show how the “lead” factors in the first three pillars impact each other and the consequential “lag” factor in the fourth pillar, the financial one.Equally evident is that unless funds are available to invest in the lead factors nothing will happen. And so on.

Similar cause-and-effect relationships exist between individual objectives within and between the pillars, and the way to identify these is by developing a “strategy map”, a hierarchy of how objectives impact one another.

So, we placed financial sustainability at the base, with products and customers at the top and the other two in between.

Then alongside each of the four-pillar headings, the team placed the objective statements that had been identified within them.

Now the fun began: they drew arrows to map out the relationships between objectives. Then, whenever I and my colleagues lead this exercise we are amazed not only by the number of arrows that are drawn but also by the variety of directions of the arrows – sometimes both ways, as I mentioned above.

The consequences of defining these linkages are profound. For they show where collaboration must take place, and why silos are counter-productive.

Having representatives from all parts of APHRC in the room participate in the development of the strategy map was vital, as then everyone understood how and why these linkages are important. They own the linkages they authored, and are motivated to work together.

Collaboration becomes the norm, the culture of the organisation, “the way we do things around here”. Involving external key stakeholders is also important.

The spirit of collaboration is also embedded as a key element in APHRC’s performance management system, from the overall through to the individual level.

It is this mindset that is identified as systems thinking, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page – the opposite of those blindfolded folk around the elephant, each describing the part of the animal that they are touching.

Where this leaves the organisation’s leadership also becomes clear. They must be like orchestral conductors, bringing their players together as they help each section of the orchestra, each member, to contribute to the harmonious whole.

No gaps or clashes, with musical conversations between the players that appeal to the ear.

To help us appreciate the power of systems thinking is to appreciate how the brain relies on endless linkages between the cells to help us to navigate and to learn and adapt.

Are there elements that suffer as unsupported “orphans”? Are there under-used and uncoordinated enablers? Link, link, link.

In my last article, I wrote about minute-taking, and it led me to think about that other vital skill that is even more significant in making meetings work well or otherwise: how they are chaired.

And just like some minute-takers write too much and some write too little, so some who chair meetings talk too much or too little. Of course, it’s not just the quantity of talking, but the quality.

You and I have been in meetings where the chair has added great value – indeed saved them from confusion and indecision, time-wasting and excessive protocol… and hence from frustration and boredom.

We have been in others where the one meant to be leading everyone else and bringing them together has lacked the skills to fulfil their role. Others are somewhere in between.

How does a chair perform at meetings we look forward to attending? First, there is the preparation prior to the meeting, not only ensuring that the purpose and agenda are clear and agreed upon but consulting one-on-one to understand participants’ positions and lay the ground for good progress within the meeting.

Plus coaching weaker participants on how to contribute more effectively and with greater impact. Reviewing how meetings unfolded is also important.Within the meeting, the chair must nurture a culture of keeping time, so that they begin and end when they should, with the agenda covered and the most significant topics allocated appropriate space, and the overall purpose achieved.

The chair is responsible for this time and agenda management, and ideally with a light touch rather than a big stick.

The skill of managing meetings is, however, not merely the mechanical one of clock-watching and directing the verbal traffic, agenda item by agenda item.

Chairs must go beyond the purely “efficient” to knit a smooth flow that everyone follows easily, and generate a lively pace that keeps the energy and the engagement high.

They must generate conversations that build momentum within and between topics, acknowledging and linking contributions.

The chair must also be sensitive to the balance of contributions, so that no more senior or more naturally vocal members dominate, and no more junior or otherwise humble ones are left silent.

They themselves should not rush to express their views but introduce the topic and seek inputs from others before making their contribution and summarising the situation, with the proposed way ahead.

The term I like for chairpersons is that they are “facilitators”. Or, as we express it in my consulting firm, for everyone “to have a good time doing good things”.

The way the chair behaves should generate a feeling of psychological safety, where the participants are comfortable expressing their opinions openly and without fear.

The chair must at the right times seek ways of building consensus through encouraging a spirit of give-and-take, guiding those who disagree on negotiating to win-win outcomes.

Some years ago I explained in a column that how we interact relates to suggestions and described the different ways of contributing.

The first category is seeking suggestions from others – the role played by a leader. Then comes making a suggestion, and also building on a suggestion that someone else had made.

Next – the negative category – we might either criticise a suggestion, ignore it or replace it. Finally, there’s just remaining silent.

Are you one of the many who listen not to build on someone else’s suggestion, but to criticise or replace others’ ideas, to only find flaws, to start each sentence with a “but”?

And if you are chairing a meeting, do you encourage others to build on the positive – the result of open listening – rather than listening just to show faults?

As in all aspects of leadership, chairing meetings requires both technical and non-technical skills.

At the technical level, the chair must understand the essence of the subject matter, and manage purpose, agenda and time.

And at the non-technical level, they must ooze emotional intelligence, knowing how to get the best out of everyone so they reach good decisions that they own and leave the meeting happy they had been part of it – with much thanks to how the chair played their role of co-ordinator, conductor, integrator, aligner.

Writing minutes of meetings offer interesting challenges. They must be neither too long nor unduly brief, just capturing the objective essence of what happened.

We usually don’t need to know who said what, for they are not transcripts, but we must record who is to follow up on what and by when. Sounds quite straightforward, yes?

Not necessarily. For instance, when I am the chairman of a board or of a board committee I often find I need to offer guidance to the minute-taker.

They will be very formally trained legal people, with equally formal company secretarial qualifications… all absolutely necessary.

However, what I often see is that they have been taught to be so focused on being technically compliant with good governance, applying standard structures and styles, that they can miss out on the spirit of a meeting.

Sure, they record who was present and who gave their apologies, tell us we confirmed the minutes of the previous meeting, identify the decisions we took, show the date of the next meeting… all those obvious elements.

But what about when someone praises an individual or a group, for instance?

In my experience, too many stiff-upper-lip minute-takers feel that’s too frivolous, too human, to include.

Chances are they even switch off listening, convinced it’s not part of their job to record other than hard facts and figures, decisions and actions.

Forget the soft stuff, keep to the point. This is not story-telling, they would protest. We are not there to entertain or to educate, just to inform.

No smiling, no frowning, we are mere dispassionate observers seeking compliance with our professional best practice.

And yet, and yet…surely it’s OK where appropriate to switch from being a robotic technical recorder to becoming a more relaxed and informal reporter – or “rapporteur”, as recorders of other events such as conferences and workshops are called.

So particularly when I am chairman of a meeting I observe when the minute-taker is and is not writing or keying in what is being discussed.

If I feel they have not been doing so and in my view, they should, I will prompt them to ensure they do.

I also encourage them that when they are uncertain as to how to record something, they should feel free to seek guidance from the rest of us during the meeting.

And if I sense that what has just been handled is not so obvious as to how to write it up, I will ask them to share how they propose to, so they and we can feel relaxed that all is well.

It’s vital that minutes be written and circulated as soon after a meeting as possible, and not only so that those actioned with follow-ups can be reminded to get going with their obligations in good time, but so we still remember clearly enough what happened at the meeting and can confirm the accuracy of the minutes.

It’s good too to circulate a draft in advance, at least to the chairperson, who then can act as a quality controller.

I like it when minute-takers key straight into their laptops during meetings rather than write on paper and transcribe their notes later, as it’s then more likely their product can be shared promptly.

And here’s another thought: as some do, have two columns on the right-hand side of the page, one for the “By whom” and one for the “By when”.

Plus, if by the following meeting the action has not been fulfilled and should have been, add a revised “By when” date – identified as having been updated.

On one board where I presently sit there’s a good practice I’d like to share with you: just before the next board meeting the minutes of the previous meeting are again circulated, but now with one-liner updates under each of the actions agreed at that earlier meeting, shown in a different colour and telling us whether the intended action has or had not been fulfilled, or if is in progress. Very helpful.

In other than board, board committee meetings, AGMs and additional official events, ones that are less formal and do not require the legal/secretarial skills of a minute-taker I often suggest it should be a revolving function, giving more people the opportunity to develop this important skill and to become more sensitive to other minute-takers in future. (I also suggest the chairing could revolve, for similar reasons.)

So, there being no further business, I declare this article closed. Date of next column: a fortnight from now, on chairing meetings. Please confirm attendance.

When I was in hospital for several weeks with Covid in 2021 I experienced the whole spectrum of service quality, from the outstanding to the adequate and occasionally down to the unacceptably poor, and I wrote something about it in this column – including referring to that wonderful book, If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently.

Unfortunately last year I went through another challenging time with my health, but it allowed me to gather more case studies on how customer care works or doesn’t work in a hospital environment… which leads me to share this story with you today.

I lay quietly in my room as I awaited the summons for my lung scan, and on time Samuel the porter arrived with his wheelchair. What a gentle carer he was.

Once at the radiology department I hardly waited at all before being ushered into the scanning room. Great. Except that now the radiologist had to go and get the dye to inject into me.

It took forever, the very antithesis of just-in-time Kaizen, very challenging for me as I sat in my uncomfortable wheelchair.

Finally the radiologist returned and injected his dye into my arm before placing me on the scanning machine.

Now it was the usual, being told to put my arms above my head, against the plastic support, and my knees over another plastic support, where both felt increasingly awkward as the 20 minutes went by… a long long time for motionlessness, never mind with persistent and increasing discomfort.

The machine twisted round doing its thing, and I endured it all in silence… till it pressed down on my right arm to the extent that I worried it would crush it.

I adjusted somehow, but then the same thing happened with the left arm, but worse. So I shouted out, and fortunately he heard me.

“Oh, you should put your arms by your side now,” he informed me casually. Otherwise nothing from him, as he was totally focused on the technical aspects of his job.

To help me pass the time I began thinking about how this radiologist approaches his job and decided to have a word with him after we were done to share my perceptions.

To my surprise, after all the silence, right before the end he did mention that this was the final session and that it would take two minutes.

When we were done he called in Samuel, but I asked him to leave us for a while. “What’s your name?” I asked the scan man – as he had not introduced himself when I arrived, or said anything beyond the instructional.

“Amos Makau,” he replied (that’s what I’ll call him here). “Amos, would you mind if I give you some feedback about how I have found your interactions with me?” I continued, and as he readily agreed I launched into a coaching session on how to go beyond being a mere technician to being a carer with empathy and compassion for his patient – like Samuel (not his real name either) was.

“You need to talk with us, encourage and support us, recognise how hard and uncomfortable it is to lie there still for so long and so uncomfortably,” I explained, and I then asked him if he had ever experienced what we are being asked to. He had not.

“You should,” I suggested, “then you’ll understand so much better what we endure and how we need to be handled delicately.”

I did all this in a friendly way, not complaining, not hammering him, but offering him a new insight into what happens repeatedly in that room each day and how he can transform the way he interacts.

Amos got it, and he and I developed an excellent rapport. He told me he’d “work on” what I had suggested, leading me to urge him to just move in one go from not showing empathy and compassion to doing so.

We then called Samuel, who took me back to my room… where I told him he was not a porter but an angel.

OK, so that’s an example from the healthcare environment. But as I concluded in my earlier article, the lessons are for elsewhere too.

How many techies, accountants, engineers, you name it, overwhelm their clients with their jargon while remaining oblivious to the extent to which it is being absorbed, never mind comfortably?

How many coaches inhibit the talent they’re meant to be nurturing by not putting themselves in their shoes? So many questions, always the same answer: empathy and compassion.

My colleague Frank Kretzschmar and I recently hosted another of our leaders’ circles, where participants tell personal stories around a theme we select.

Regular readers of this column may remember articles I have written about earlier such events, including one titled Now more than ever: sustainable living with heart and mind and another, Holding on to optimism – we can set an example.

This latest one invited us to balance the positive and the negative, through our theme of Good world, bad world… and my way in it.

We asked those in our circle to share with us how they were dealing with the uncertainties and contradictions that emerge out of nowhere and confront us all, and to tell us whether they were able to remain positive in spite of the troubling global and local situations in which we live.

While those present were generally still doing fine, how were they touched by the desperate plight of so many people around them?

And to what extent were they going beyond empathy to compassionate action that was making a difference?

As always, before our meeting Frank and I searched for quotes to display around the room that could inspire our storytellers, and among those we chose for this theme was one from the Dalai Lama, who reassured us that “compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength”, and another from Barack Obama, who commented that “empathy is a quality of character that can change the world”.

Those we invited were not selected at random. Defying diversity and inclusivity, they did not include rabble-rousing politicians or criminal gang leaders or tenderpreneurs, ones who would have sneered at the very thought of worrying about the plight of others.

Rather, we heard from men and women who were concerned about building a better and more sustainable world – this while at the same time being realistic about the “bad” around us.

Taken together, should we be more optimistic or pessimistic about the direction in which we are heading?

The negative consequences of climate change and Covid, of the war in Ukraine and the increase in authoritarianism, of inflation and inequality, can easily lead us to be overwhelmingly gloomy, to conclude that the bad is outpacing the good, we heard from some.

But we were also reminded that much good is with us too – however underplayed by the media, which always emphasises the bad and the ugly.

Life expectancy has been rising in many countries, while global poverty has reduced, and there have been breakthroughs in treating cancer and other health issues.

“It’s a matter of perspective,” one participant suggested, adding that “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.

Much of how they were actualising their compassion was taking place quietly, and not least among the peace-builders in the room – for here success often depends on behind-the-scenes engagement.

Everyone was very realistic, accepting that even “doing small things in small ways” is fine, while they “did the right things in the right way” to make the world a better place.

They acknowledged that we all do what we can within our generation, while also being aware of its consequences for future ones.

Here we heard a brilliant quote from Thomas Jefferson, who told his people that “we will be soldiers, so that our sons can be farmers, so that their sons can be artists.”

Not gender-sensitive by today’s standards, but point made.

The subject of values kept cropping up, for it is the promotion of healthy ones that enables good people to thrive rather than evil ones.

And while this issue hovered over us throughout the afternoon, our time limits did not allow it to be aired fully.

In their closing reflections, several appreciated how they had been greatly encouraged by hearing the positive stories of those around them, leading them to feel more cheerful and optimistic than when they had arrived.

A few months ago I wrote a column about the benefits of writing a journal, including providing raw material for a possible future autobiography.

So, today, I want to follow up with an encouragement to you to get going on that autobiography – whether you have been keeping a journal or not.

And here I am not just appealing to older readers, as whatever your age it will help you with self-discovery, introspection and reflection. It can also act as therapy and self-counselling.

I have been keeping a detailed daily journal for quite a long time, conscious of these trapping memories for reference.

But I was not expecting to get going on my autobiography for several years given how busy I was… until I came down with some health issues and took a flight to London to be assessed at a hospital there.

I was confined to a stretcher throughout the flight, so I asked myself how I was going to spend all that time lying flat.

The thought occurred to me to reflect on the flow of my life, as a first go at developing the content and sequence of chapters for my autobiography.

It was, as it is called, the “initiating incident” to my writing, as since then in the hospital and now back home I have been hard at it, making excellent progress – although with a long way still to go.

I have also been an initiator for others to begin writing their stories. I’ve helped edit the autobiographies of some of my friends, and I was recently invited to contribute an introduction to the one by James Foster, written for his family.

Our life story can be more about personal, and emotional issues, to do with relationships between us and family and friends (Prince Harry!), or more about our professional life.

It all depends on what moves us and to whom we want to appeal. Is our goal to titillate with a “kiss-and-tell” series of revelations about intimate encounters, as some such stories reveal?

Not mine, and most likely not for most Business Daily readers. To amuse and entertain? To inspire and educate? Some combination thereof?

Do we see ourselves as uninhibitedly frank, and relaxed about revealing a “tell-all” account of our life? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, do we unduly need to always be uncritical and positive, not offending anyone by omitting delicate issues?

Somewhere in between, maybe. And how do we deal with negative episodes that risk us being sued for libel by the bad guys we have had to deal with? (They’re the most gripping stories!)

Next, how do we avoid appearing to be bragging? For that’s how life stories started, with the self-promotional Egyptian pharaohs of 3,000 years ago in their tombs… and how they continue today with characters like Trump.

If that’s the idea, then better have a biography written about us! While a memoir is not meant to be an extended sales brochure or CV – except for politicians as preludes to their campaigning – it’ll hopefully boost our self-esteem, with me as the hero of my story.

My suggestion is that you just start writing elements you can get going with easily and enjoyably, without inhibitions or worry at this stage about the quality of the writing.

Feel free to rant and rage; jot notes about topics; capture memories as they reveal themselves.

Initially, at least, you can be writing just for yourself, just for the grandchildren, or already for a wider audience.

And there can then be different versions for different audiences.

Ask yourself about your life’s shape. What is your story, told through a pattern of events, so you and then others get to know what your life means?

What do you believe in and why? What is your purpose in life? What were your triumphs and setbacks, crises and breakthroughs? What were your dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled; opportunities grasped and missed; moments of fun and hilarity?

Most importantly, why would anyone want to read what you have written? What will they learn from it and do differently as a result?

Who would want to publish your story and why? Who is your audience and who are you not interested in writing for?

Finally, talk to your previous generations for background before it’s too late – or you’ll regret not having done so.

A few weeks ago I was invited to run a workshop on negotiating skills for a group of senior engineers who sell capital goods for a well-known European multinational, and it took me back to the last century when I was an account manager offering large IT solutions using mainframe computers.

It reminded me of my library, where I knew I had some material on the subject. I found more books than I expected, including some which I don’t remember ever reading!

Undoubtedly the best known among them is Getting to Yes – Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, William Ury, together with Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project. The second edition, the one I have, was published in 1991, and I strongly recommend this classic.

Here’s the essence of the “principled” negotiating laid out there, which has you neither too soft nor too hard. If you are too soft you end up the exploited loser, while if you are too hard you fail to develop a relationship and are likely to restrict yourself to a one-off transaction, as the other party won’t wish to deal with you again.

(This was the case with Trump, during his time as a wheeler-dealer in the New York real estate business, as we learned in “his” book, The Art of the Deal.)

Principled negotiators are in between: reasonable and fair, aiming at mutual benefit. They build and preserve relationships, assuming the other party is a partner and not an opponent. Put briefly, it’s a win-win approach to interacting, the one I adopted right from when I launched into the capital goods marketing business in the late 1960s.

What kind of attitude makes for an effective negotiator? Here, let me turn to another of the books I pulled down from my shelf, The Negotiator – A Manual for Winners, by Royce Coffin. It was published in 1973, and I inherited it from my father, who in those days was a management consultant as I am now.

Coffin advises us to be self-confident and optimistic, so we can be relaxed, creative and bold. He then suggests not rushing at talks.

Rather, be patient, and take time to understand and to build trusting ties. And do so by being friendly and cheerful, and applying a light touch. If necessary, pause to review and reflect, and consult with others.

From The Negotiating Game – How to Get What You Want, by Chester Karrass (published in 1970, and also inherited from my father), I learned about the “negotiator trait clusters”.

First is task performance, involving planning, problem-solving, initiative, product knowledge, reliability and stamina. Next comes aggression (or, as I would prefer to call it, assertiveness). Here he identifies power exploitation, competitiveness, team leadership, persistence, risk-taking, courage and defensiveness.

To a softer trait now, socialising, meaning personal integrity, being open-minded, tactful, patient, compromising and trustworthy, plus displaying an acceptable appearance.

Being an effective communicator is also key, with verbal clarity and good body language, focusing on listening, generating warm rapport, plus skills in debating, role-playing and coordinating.

A final duo: first self-worth, involving self-control, self-esteem and dignity, enabling one to gain the other party’s respect – and even to risk being disliked; and possessing high ethical standards. Plus gaining the boss’s respect, and being identified with a sufficiently senior organisational rank.

Last but not least, one’s thought processes: general practical intelligence, education, insight, analytical ability, decisiveness, negotiating experience, broad perspective, and clear thinking under stress.

The last publication I’ll refer to is my Summer 2008 edition of the Harvard Business Review, whose theme was Great Deal Making – The Art and Science of Negotiating, and rereading it vividly reminded me of the lessons I learned when I was in the game, ones I now share as a consultant.

I can’t resist ending by saying that I was recently with one of the workshop participants and I asked him if what we covered had made a difference. He confirmed it had with the recent signing of a major order.

In my consulting work, I engage with staff at all levels, from those who occupy the chairperson’s seat in the boardroom to those who work on the shop floor and in the fields. As I converse with them and study them I see a whole spectrum of diameters in their circles of influence — not necessarily related to their seniority.

Some chairs act merely as “traffic police”, guiding who should speak next while not adding significant value; while some of the very young and very junior can be making an impact on their environments that is way beyond what is expected.

Partly it is a function of how active and creative their minds are; much depends on their communication skills; and, a key component is confidence and boldness — the willingness to share what is on one’s mind, imagining that others will be interested in one’s thoughts and be keen to hear them.

We each develop our reputations, some for just quietly getting on with our tasks as narrowly defined in our job descriptions, others for restlessly and relentlessly championing new and better ways of doing things.

The latter may well be inconvenient disrupters, so here the challenge is to make one’s point in ways that others find possible to digest. And this brings me to the specific theme of this article: influencing upwards, often the most difficult direction in which to generate change.

Let me take you back to the time I was facilitating programmes on “Leadership for Influence” as a faculty member of the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications.

Among them was a series of events for groups of branch managers of a large nationwide organisation, where as I encouraged them to talk about their communications challenges the one that emerged time and again, and so strongly, was being listened to by their seniors.

What I heard was that theirs was a company where strategies and objectives were set at higher levels than theirs, and then communicated downwards. No one was interested in their voices, they felt. I found this quite puzzling, as it was their bosses who had brought me in to help them with their communications skills.

Within the workshops I had them write and perform short plays which began with a problem, either internally with a colleague or externally with a customer and reached a tipping point as a result of which the problem was resolved and a win-win solution emerged.

Many of their playlets featured a dissatisfied client, and I noted that without exception almost immediately on hearing their complaint the script had the client-facing staff take the complainant to their branch manager for them to resolve the issue.

Why were the scripts written this way? Were they not empowered to resolve issues themselves? Did their managers hold back from delegating authority? Did they not trust their people? Were they just timid, unwilling to make what would be perceived as the wrong decision? What could have led to the staff member holding back from such consistent instant escalation?

We discussed all this, and also the question of how the communication between the branch managers and their seniors could be improved. Yet when I proposed that as an output from their sessions with me the participants should seek such dialogue they were hesitant to do so.

Influencing upwards, they felt, was not something that would be appreciated. It was not in the organisational culture.

Through those who had hired me for the workshops, I did suggest that escalation and delegation management was a topic that needed airing, but I never got to know if anything was done as a result of my intervention.

How is it in your organisation? Do you actively seek the views of your juniors? Do you listen to their voices? Do you develop their competence and their confidence to make responsible judgments on behalf of the organisation — providing adequate guidelines and guardrails, and accepting that sometimes your decision might have been different?

Do you trust them to do the right thing? Or do you micro-manage them, making them feel they must delegate upwards, for fear of being hammered for taking a “wrong” approach?

The larger the organisation the more important this issue becomes. Those who will prosper in these uncertain and volatile times are the ones who encourage influencing upwards.