Posts

Influencing upwards for growth despite volatility

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.

Are you generating good customer experiences?

In a recent article about that wonderful book Influencers, I mentioned an example of influencing that reminded me of my hospital experience earlier this year.

A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, I wrote, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect. So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly, to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were: smiling; making eye contact; identifying yourself; letting people know what you are doing and why; and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Splendid. And yet I now have an update on this, emerging from a conversation I had with the CEO of Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital, Robert Nyarango, who introduced me to the book If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently, by Fred Lee, a former hospital executive.

On Googling the book, I came across a link to a TED talk on the subject by Mr Lee, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve encountered in a long time.

In the talk, he refers to the exact list of five positive behaviours displayed by the best carers as quoted in the book I’d read… insisting this is far from sufficient to generate the kind of “customer experience” that is possible – and that is offered by organisations like Disney at their Disneyworld sites. (No wonder they call those who visit them “guests” rather than “customers”.)

So what should carers do more than smile, make eye contact and so forth? Mr Lee takes the deliberately mild example of a nurse taking blood for testing, where the patient still may feel unduly anxious about the prospective pain and the complications that may arise.

Where there’s anxiety, he explains, the blood pressure rises and so the pain threshold falls.

We hear from Mr Lee about a study that related the lower pain levels felt by patients whose blood was taken by nurses who received only compliments from patients: the positive consequences of feeling psychologically comfortable with the person inserting the needle.

To distract from patients’ anxiety, carers make small talk, like asking if they live nearby, or getting them to talk about their family. Then, they mention how expert and experienced they are, displaying a reassuring combination of competence and confidence – this with a light touch.

Mr Lee quotes that famous line from W. Edwards Deming, about only managing what you measure, but he adds the far lesser-known additional thought from Deming that being satisfied cannot be measured or scripted, as it only comes from the heart – like wanting to deal with the person again.

The approach to patients by the former hospital executive was transformed by reading the 1999 bestseller The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who described this new way of thinking about connecting with customers and securing their loyalty through offering positive experiences beyond good service.

As I have been doing from time to time since my release from hospital earlier this year, I will again relate to my own customer experience while a patient. The gentleman taking my blood each day was a very jovial fellow, and of course, I wouldn’t have minded were it not that his visits were at 5 am.

He would enter my room with a loud greeting and switch on the light, shocking me into premature wakefulness. I would dread that daily pre-dawn knock on my door by the man I came to call my Dracula, and his high-energy entrances made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few days I requested him to tone down his whole performance, which happily he did.

Here I have been describing how to generate the best possible customer experiences in stressful hospital environments. But as you have been reading I hope you have extrapolated to your own situations.

You have your customer experiences, both positive and negative. But how do the customers of your organisation experience their interactions with your staff?

Do your people know how to put your customers at ease and make them feel good about having interacted with them? Can they hardly wait to deal with them again?

How to offer and receive feedback at workplace

In a recent coaching session, my client and I were discussing his initiative to improve the ways in which feedback was being given and received in his work environment.

As we shared how each of us approached doing so ourselves and how we encouraged others to offer and absorb suggestions, we emerged with a list of do’s and don’ts that he and I felt would be helpful to share with you here.

What makes us more or less receptive to feedback? It’s a mixture of, on the one hand, how it is offered and by whom, and on the other hand our openness to changing how we feel, how we think and how we behave. Are we into learning and growing by experimenting with new approaches?

Or are we so convinced of the rightness of our existing ways that there’s no need for listening to what others think? Maybe we feel so insecure about venturing beyond our comfort zones that we need to hold on to where we are, however good the idea that’s being offered?

However receptive we are to feedback, much of our reaction has to do with how it is offered. Too many do so in ways that make us feel we’ve been under-performing and that we are inadequate.

It comes across as criticism rather than as a way of improving a situation, thus making it harder for us to be anything other than defensive.

Such people also tend to focus exclusively on feedback regarding what isn’t going well, while taking the positive for granted – like the exception reporting in appraisal interviews or school reports. (Your child might have done well in all subjects except one, but that’s the only one that receives a comment – “Must do better in mathematics.”)

At the other end of the spectrum, we also have those who restrict themselves to only offering positive feedback, perhaps worried that suggestions for improvement may give offence and only lead to pushback. Having said that, it’s usually good to start with acknowledging successes, along with celebrating the supportive strengths that enabled them.

This puts the recipient in a more relaxed and confident state of mind, and with heightened self-esteem, they can then more easily handle tougher inputs coming their way.

During our conversation, we talked about the benefits of role-playing and rehearsing feedback-offering sessions to develop more effective techniques that can lead to the desired impact. Much has to do with emotional intelligence, with choosing the right words and tone, including appropriate body language and maybe a light touch here and there.

This is how high-trust relationships are built, ones that allow for what would otherwise be difficult conversations, where the one offering feedback has a reputation for doing so only to see the recipient be at their best. Then, however inconvenient the input, it will be evaluated more constructively.

Soon after that coaching session, a friend of mine was complaining to me that her suggestions as a board member to management were rarely greeted positively. Why were they resistant to what she felt were helpful ideas?

What could she do differently, as the default blocked mindset she perceived has led to her being more reluctant to make her suggestions? As we talked we felt it would be good for her to go beyond offering suggestions informal meetings but to float them one-on-one in less formal settings, like over lunch with the CEO.

In such a setting, even before getting into the specifics, it would help to explore why her suggestions were rarely pursued. So I encouraged her to exchange offers and requests with the CEO and his colleagues in order to bridge the gap between them. “If you would do more/less of this, it would be easier for us to react positively,” the CEO might propose.

And my friend could offer to continue sharing her suggestions provided she felt more motivated to do so by not feeling she was speaking to an intrinsically unreceptive audience.

The ability to offer feedback in ways that make a difference is a valuable skill, whether with subordinates or peers, never mind with superiors, and perhaps most importantly of all within families. And being open to feedback from others is also something to cultivate, within organisations and from other stakeholders. Oh yes, and from coaches too.

Passage through Palestine in eyes of my grandfather

In my last article I explained why it’s a good idea to keep a journal. I’ve been doing so for quite some years, at least hoping that my grandchildren will find something of interest in what I have written about.

I say this aware that in the 1940s my grandfather Robert Bischoff kept a meticulously written record of how he and his wife, plus their two children – one of them my mother Gaby – left their lovely home in Bucharest, Romania, in January 1941.

They decided to depart as anti-Semitic Fascist dictator Ion Antonescu had seized power there, and German troops were already present in significant number.

My grandfather wrote his journal in Romanian, and many years ago I took it upon myself to translate it into English. His text filled 38 typed foolscap pages, with very long sentences strung together in paragraphs that were also unusually long.

While Romanian was the first language I spoke after I was born, I never studied it formally and from when I arrived in Britain at the age of three I switched to English.

But I was fluent enough to take on the task, even with no dictionary and no Internet to consult at the time. What a labour of love it was.

For long, my grandfather – like many others at the time – was hesitating over whether the Romanian scene would increasingly make life unbearable for Jewish families like theirs.

At first he was more with the optimists, but eventually the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the decision to emigrate was made.

He worked under great stress over many weeks to obtain the necessary paperwork for the departure, not least the transit visa for Turkey and the entry visa to their final destination Palestine (before it became Israel), and finally they were ready to leave.

They travelled by train from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanta; by boat from there to Istanbul; then on trains across Turkey and Syria; and next through Lebanon – by bus from Tripoli to Beirut and from there by car into Palestine, to Haifa and on to Tel Aviv, arriving on 19th January, eight days after leaving Bucharest.

The last entry in the journal is from November 1946, by which time Robert’s daughter Gaby had met and married my father Bruno, who had left Romania a few months after the Bischoff family, to rejoin Shell – for whom he had been working in Romania.

His journey was infinitely more precarious, in a small and flimsy yacht that for over 52 days took him and his fellow crew members to Cyprus and from where he managed to transfer to Palestine. (My father, as captain of the boat, kept its log – also in Romanian – so I have the full details of his adventure too… a story for another day.)

Robert found my father to be “a courageous young man and sure of himself”, and he was happy to see him marry his daughter. Now let me jump to March 1945, when I was born.

“I had the feeling that this would be an exceptional child, from all points of view,” my grandfather enthused.

“This feeling, and our exaggerated sentimentalism, make us see in him all that can be most beautiful in life. I could speak in detail about him, and there would be many pages to fill. If I were to do it I would have to devote a chapter separate from all the others, though sincerely speaking, I don’t even know if I would be able to put in writing what I feel in reality.”

He wrote about so much else in his journal, about the threat of a German invasion following the arrival of its army in Alexandria and the withdrawal of the British from Egypt – making him wonder if they should perhaps have remained in Romania; about the fragmented nature of local politics, with so many political parties – as is the case in Israel today; and about the poor state of education and nutrition.

Reading the journals again – thanks to my grandchildren having developed an interest in the holocaust – makes me wish I would have engaged more with both my parents and grandparents about their earlier lives. So you know how this is going to end: do so while yours are still around.

Awesome how hospitals have managed Covid-19

From time to time in our lives we are doomed to spend days and nights incarcerated in a hospital, as medical teams take care of what ails us while they set us onto the road to recovery.

Over the years I have had the dubious privilege of observing at close quarters how complex and interwoven it all is, operating 24/7 and with the very lives of patients often at stake.

And all this before Covid!

I immediately come to Covid, as I was one of those who caught the debilitating virus some weeks ago and so I have been at the Aga Khan Hospital for a long time. (Personal reflections for another day.)

There, at close quarters, I have observed so much high quality teamwork displayed by their extraordinary frontline care workers, who amazed me by their apparent assumption that they are just doing their demanding jobs like any other collection of professionals.

Top hospitality

It’s obvious that running a hospital – certainly for inpatients – includes everything needed to manage a hotel, requiring all aspects of gracious hospitality while ensuring the high capacity utilisation that will make the entity financially sustainable. And then there’s that transformative extra: healthcare.

Those who manage hospitals must worry about catering and cleaning; security and waste management (big time).

The stocks of medicines and equipment must be available and up to date, with the labs and the testing centres fully equipped and competent to serve the medical teams.

Plus there are the usual back-office support functions: finance, audit, HR, ICT, legal, transport… not to mention dealing with medical insurers and other stakeholders.

The more I think about it the more I wonder how they manage, the more in awe I am, the more I find it hard to imagine who would wish to take on such extraordinary challenges, ones that incur such risk and require such knowledge, learning, expertise, discipline, stamina, resilience, emotional stability, judgement and goodwill.

I have occasionally acted as a consultant to hospitals, helping their people work effectively with each other in these challenging environments.

What I learned was that, at least as much as in other organisations, in hospitals there are very distinct sub-cultures.

Casual observation

For obvious reasons the doctors are highly influential, and traditionally the senior ones who ruled the roost were known for being insufficiently respectful or helpful to their juniors, who in turn were unhappy about the extent to which their typically more up-to-date knowledge was taken advantage of.

Then there’s the critical relationship between doctors and nurses: how flat is this pyramid, how big are the power gaps here?

My casual observation as a patient at Aga Khan Hospital is that for much of the time it works remarkably smoothly, with excellent delegation, empowerment and teamwork.

People are constantly learning about the latest developments in their fields; most are good at consulting with each other; and so their respective roles and relationships are clear.

Having said that, some of the nursing staff are inevitably bolder, more pro-active and solution-oriented than others (bearing in mind too how stretched everyone is because of Covid).

Effective partnerships

Some of the nurses are great at developing easy relationships with patients, and all are conscientious about carrying out tests, dispensing medicines and fulfilling their other technical functions.

But, partly based on their personality, partly on their expectation of the extent of their role (like going beyond the technical to include the interpersonal), what I found was that too often I was the one who initiated the brief conversations that led to easier and hence more effective partnerships between carer and patient.

Very understandably, expectations management is another challenge in hospitals (as it is with almost everyone in Kenya).

Life is so complicated, unpredictable and interlinked in hospitals that their challenges are unique.

Our heroes

I can comment as a patient that for much of the time it was hard to know when something was likely to happen, or the sequence. More communication would be helpful here.

All this I have been observing just as an idle patient, not knowing what I did not know, just experiencing what I was experiencing.

Inevitably though, my performance management hat remained permanently in place.

My bottom line? It is right for these healthcare workers, in whatever function and at whatever level, to be enthusiastically applauded and celebrated as our heroes.

Mr Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, and co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadedrship. [email protected]

Toastmasters and the art of effective speech delivery

I was recently invited to be the guest speaker at a Toastmasters event, and perhaps not surprisingly it was on the subject of public speaking. For those not familiar with Toastmasters Clubs — of which there are 16,800 in 142 countries around the world, with around 250,000 members — they develop them as communicators and leaders, and in doing so build their confidence.

Their meetings flow through structured agendas, comprising both prepared and impromptu speeches, with evaluations and feedback along the way.

The Tabletopics Master launched the proceedings by throwing a series of questions for members to answer through making brief unprepared speeches. The first question was “With whom would you like to trade lives for a day?” and the chosen one performed brilliantly, telling us why he’d swap with Lewis Hamilton. (I would have gone for Roger Federer.)

Later, as I opened my presentation I stated that as it was for Bernard Shaw, my inspiration came from the blank piece of paper before me — plus the deadline of this evening. I looked back over my history of public speaking, from my first ever performance during my Barmitzvah confirmation — whose opening line, I recall, was “I was born on the slopes of Mt Carmel”.

It was on entering the computer industry as a graduate trainee with ICL in 1967 that I was taught how to make business presentations. Here I was introduced to producing slides for overhead projectors, where my father too was an expert and from whom I also learned much. My maiden assignment? To generate interest in our spreadsheet software, PROSPER — Profit Rating, Simulation and Evaluation of Risk.

In 1972 I joined ICL’s Senior Executive Programme, where I ran IT strategy workshops, and this is where I learned to be a facilitator rather than a lecturer, posing questions to the “participants” rather than awaiting questions from an “audience”.

I arrived in Kenya in 1977 to take on my first real leadership position, as general manager of ICL’s Kenya subsidiary, and this gave me many chances to speak in public. I joined Rotary soon after, and here too opportunities for public speaking abounded. Many more arose, in other leadership roles.

I next talked about my time with the joint leadership programme between the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications and the Harvard Kennedy School, where I ran sessions on “The Voice of Leadership” — communicating about strategy, sharing visions and values, stimulating innovation, and managing conflicts and crises.

For this I assembled a case study from contributions at a President’s Round Table with Kenya Private Sector Alliance at the State House, highlighting those who performed well and those who did not, and listing the common do’s and don’ts.

I sensed that many of the weak ones had little idea that they were indeed so. Here I quoted Shaw again, saying “the single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place”, which led me to recommend good preparation — including rehearsing, with others critiquing and coaching; and seeking as many opportunities as possible to speak in public.

Malcolm Gladwell told us we must invest 10,000 hours before considering ourselves an expert in any field. It’s why I advise aspiring leaders to join organisations like Toastmasters and Rotary, and also professional and business organisations, so they can accelerate the accumulation of such hours.

My desire for the Toastmaster members was that they should look forward to their speaking engagements with excitement rather than anxiety. And yet with sufficient anxiety, to prevent complacency and hence under-preparing. I advocated incorporating storytelling — like I included at the beginning of my talk — and recommended communicating with a light touch, away from the heavy formality that’s all too common here in Kenya.

When delivering a speech, we must not only engage with our script, but also with our audience. Except that in today’s virtual events reading the audience is much harder, never mind if their videos are switched off. So at least we must maintain eye contact with the camera — something that is all too uncommon.

How do you know if you have performed well, made an impact? By seeking feedback. To be asked to return and speak again is a good sign of having left a positive impression, and also to be invited by others who have heard you elsewhere or heard about your speaking.

I concluded by supposing that while some of the listeners had joined Toastmasters so as to go “from good to great”, others would have been among those who would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy. Either way, I said, they should feel good that they were learning by doing, getting better at getting better.

Social cohesion critical in these perilous times

I’m glad I’m not President Uhuru Kenyatta, nor CSs Mutahi Kagwe and Fred Matiang’i, nor Governor Hassan Joho and others who have the awesome responsibility of communicating with the rest of us in ways that get us to behave responsibly during the Covid-19 crisis. Like leaders everywhere in the world they must act neither too quickly nor too slowly, not too harshly and not too weakly. But what is the right speed? What is the right style?

It would be much easier if our people were as disciplined and well off as those of Singapore or South Korea, Germany or New Zealand. But we are who we are, with over ten million of us packed together in urban slums and living hand to mouth; and with so many others in remote rural and arid areas where there is limited access to the media, never mind the Internet.

The leaders I have mentioned would be doing well in the countries I have listed. But how much harder it is to be effective here, where even the middle class have been finding it hard to do and not do what is being called for.

We must sympathise with the frustrations of our rationally-driven leaders, who see that all they get is pushback and resentment when they tell us to wear masks and stay home and suchlike.

Whether due to intolerably cramped living conditions and poverty, or as a result of cultural norms of community togetherness, much of what we are seeing is a struggle between the stern admonitions of our leaders and the disconnected behaviour of our citizens.

Understandably, the government’s focus has been on organising our under-prepared healthcare system to cater for the sudden onset of the pandemic, while simultaneously worrying about the shattering effects on our economy. The added dilemma is that the greater concern there is for protecting lives, the greater the negative impact on livelihoods.

What we are beginning to see though is that alongside managing these “hard” issues, increased attention must be paid to the complementary “soft” emotional and behavioural ones. So should some leaders be playing “bad cop” while others play “good cop”? Should each leader be skilled enough to combine the two roles into one, knowing when and how to switch?

It is clear that the big stick of assertively managed lockdowns must be wielded, for merely enticing us with the reward of longer term health benefits if we do what we are being told is way beyond the time horizon of most. But if that’s not working, then what?

Surely we need not rely only on top-down tough messages from smart podiums. It is up to many more of us to communicate within our communities, from the family level upwards, each of us finding our own way to make a difference.

Leaders and people of influence from all sectors – religious, private sector, NGOs, academia, trade unions, musicians and other artists, sportspeople and of course the media – must contribute to passing both the tough and the empathetic messages, complementing and reinforcing what we are hearing from the top.

There is as great a need for this kind of “soft” engagement as there is for the distribution of food, Personal Protective Equipment and other essentials to the most vulnerable. Many are already acting with great generosity, in both the hard and the soft areas, and the more the merrier.

Let me briefly draw attention to the Social Cohesion Committee that has recently been formed by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), within whose mandate such an initiative falls naturally.

The NCIC Social Cohesion Committee (of which I am part) is developing new ways, with musicians and others, to pass messages that more people can respond to positively. It is also organising for psychosocial support to be made available to both the most vulnerable – children and others in emotional distress – and to doctors and nurses.

By listening as much as by telling we can begin bringing Kenyans together, so that the poor do not feel this Covid-19 threat merely threatens the urban rich. And it is by complementing the angry headteacher with the empathetic counsellor that we can avoid future social strife.
So please join this movement for social cohesion. Whoever you are, at whatever level.