Vincent Traynor, Principal Lecturer, Sheffield Business School, independent executive coach and organisation consultant.
There is a single, unchallengeable principle underpinning my leadership development work, based upon 25 years’ experience as an executive coach, organisation consultant and academic.
Before any strategies are fleshed out, delivery plans laid or stakeholders engaged the most important questions relate, not to the future, but to the present: “Where are you right now? What is going on for you? How are you?”
This invitation to work on the present often takes people and teams by surprise. “But we know where we are,” they say, “that’s obvious, let’s get a move on!”
The fact is that the present is seldom obvious.
As individuals and human groups we frequently switch ourselves off to what’s going on around us, particularly in times of change and transition. We place thoughts, feelings and emotions that are really going on for us ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and we do this because we fear, irrationally, that we won’t be able to cope with what we might hear or see.
At the same time we often hold on to old fears and worries that, by any measure, have no bearing on the future. We also deny ourselves access to invaluable strengths, skills and experiences which we’ve, unconsciously, laid to the side.
We all do this irrational filtering and we do it often. And we’re undoubtedly doing it more often in these turbulent Covid-19 times.
This isn’t just my principle though, it is at the heart of how we at Sheffield Hallam University work with people and organisations, of all shapes and sizes, to cope, thrive and perform in ever-challenging operating environments.
For example, I recently led the Hallam component of a Growth Hub Scale Up programme for senior leaders of high-growth firms in Sheffield City Region where we placed the present, unashamedly, centre-stage in the day and half workshop agenda.
Yes, we examined change strategies, innovative thinking, employee engagement, organisational culture – the things you’d expect from a world-leading, applied university – but this future work was rooted deeply in the present.
Participant feedback was fabulous, by the way, 100% of participants stated that “My experience at Hallam is proving to be transformational in support of my Scale-Up ambitions.”
More importantly than feedback, though, were the positive shifts in the participants’ mindsets as well as their crucial insights around underlying problems and planned outcomes. They walked away with a deep sense of how they can better lead their organisations, from the solid base of where they really are at.
Many talked of now going away to have a long-overdue ‘honest conversation’ with a key colleague or to make a substantial change to their leadership style.
But what does it mean in practice to help someone stay ‘rooted in the present’?
It means helping participants get in touch with and stay connected to their true feelings about their organisational context and their leadership roles. It requires active listening, empathy, belief in the individual and their organisation and, ideally, an understanding of organisational dynamics.
At the heart of the matter is the question – “Can you own where you are (really) at and can you work with these new insights to improve your leadership role for your and your organisation’s benefit?
And here’s the immutable truth behind the unchallengeable principle: if you can get a deeper sense of where you are – where you really are – and really own this, then the way ahead is invariably clearer, the support available to you more obvious and the barriers more surmountable. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this process can be incredibly liberating. Siminovitch’s article, referenced below, talks of the magic in this approach and, for me, that’s not an exaggeration.
Before we part, I don’t want you to think I’m personally immune to this selective filtering.
I’ve learnt, over the years, that I have a strong perfectionist driver inside me which translates to the inner voice of “you are not doing this well enough and you’ll let people down”. My day-to-day blinkered perspective can have me working long hours on the fine detail.
A far more useful, and enjoyable, approach has me tuning into these present feelings, letting them pass by and be counter-balanced by my stronger, deep sense of competence and confidence.
You might be interested in learning more about this and other aspects of leadership development. As part of Sheffield Hallam University’s response to Covid-19, I am leading a series of innovation leadership webinars, workshops and senior team development programmes over the coming months. You can register your interest here
If you’d like some reading around this topic, a great introductory book is The Inner Game of Work by Timothy Gallwey. Dorothy Siminovitch’s article, is a deeper though more challenging read.