Overheard on a Train: the Wisdom of Youth

The three young men were sitting diagonally across from us in the train, heading for the city last Saturday morning.

They were typical Aussi teenagers for this part of town: origins mixed, decorated in tattoos, mostly loud, out to have fun and utterly absorbed in themselves . Impossible to avoid their conversation.

Suddenly there was a serious note to the hilarity : “My stepfather hates me. He calls me a Black B..! He reckons I can’t do anything.” The speaker sounded quietly resentful and there was a depth of sadness behind his words. His mother didn’t feature. His mates sympathised and I sensed they’d heard something similar before.

This story seemed to open up a new dimension to their conversation. The same kid began a story about a young woman, a family friend I think, who had been confronted with ‘marital infidelity’, to frame a bizarre situation as delicately as I can. She dealt with the situation by immediately leaping to her death from the bedroom window. “What do you reckon you’d do?” he asked in wonder.

His mates listened calmly, showing none of the horror I was feeling. Then one of the others told the story of someone he knew who had also taken her life, under far less dramatic circumstances.

The responses were interesting. ‘Why didn’t she talk to someone?” said the first speaker, leaning forward with concern. The other joined in with “Yeah, you can always find someone to help you” and “M’mm, she should have talked to someone”.

These kids could be in someone’s class, or perhaps in a workplace – it’s difficult to assess age. Whatever, it was sobering to glimpse the burdens they were carrying and to understand what they valued.

They value mates and someone to talk to when life gets tough. So there was more than a touch of bravado to their appearance and behaviour.

It didn’t take much to lift them back into the moment. Another train surged past, the driver’s door unusually open, and they were at the window howling with laughter and shooting pictures with a mad idea to report the driver.


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Thursday September 10 is R U OK? Day, This is the day that R U OK? is calling on Australia to take the global lead in suicide prevention.

How can we lead? By having regular meaningful conversations with people who might be struggling.

Leaders strive to bring out the best in people, in the interests of improving performance in the workplace.

Leadership coaches strive to help people see purpose in their work and feel a sense of achievement.

But how often do we take the lead, and the time, to stop and simply ask a colleague, R U OK? And then be prepared to listen. How often, in the busy-ness of work, do we pause and tune-in to how a colleague is actually feeling? Most of us display give-away signs when we are struggling. Let this day remind us all about the value of meaningful conversations, all year.

Did you know? About seven people take their own lives every day in Australia? And 65 000 people attempt suicide every year? Suicide is the biggest killer of Australians under 44 years and men account for around 75 per cent of all suicide deaths in Australia.

R U OK? Day encourages people to take the time to ask ‘Are you OK?’ and then listen. This is a way to support those struggling with issues such as loneliness, depression and isolation, and prevent suicidal thoughts. Prevention and intervention are better than crisis support and postvention.

Can we not all take the lead and stop to ask R U OK? And then listen. Not just today, but any day that our support appears to be needed.

R U OK? is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to inspire Australians to have regular, meaningful conversations throughout the year to help anyone who might be struggling with life. R U OK?Day is a national day of action, held on the second Thursday of September each year.

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Is Trust Essential to Leadership?

Trust and leadership seem to go hand-in-hand.

It does with politics anyway. Or should that read lack-of-trust? Almost every day we read about political scandals, in any country, where a politician or two, has destroyed the trust of the electorate, or the rate-payers, or the media at least.

Accepting a very public leadership role seems to mean assuming a huge responsibility: of maintaining the highest possible personal and professional standards of ethics, honesty, integrity, of being seen to be doing the right thing. The list could go on. There seems to be something quite absolute about leadership and trust at this level.

Do the same standards apply to the mere mortals amongst us who accept leadership roles in workplaces? Those who genuinely want to help build a better future? Is it really such a daunting responsibility?

I asked a group of trainee teachers what they wanted from a leader. Their listing was quick: respect for me, they listen, they do what they say they’ll do, confidentiality, they’re honest.

Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, well respected researchers in leadership, argue in their ‘bible’ for new leaders, Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, that to create trust you need four ingredients:

Competence: that you can do the job
Congruity: that you have integrity – what you say is what you do.
Your people feel you are on their side – ‘…in the heat of the battle, their leader will support them, defend them and come through with what they need to win’.
You care about your people – about the implications of your decisions and the results of your decisions.

Not so far different from the expectations of those students. We all know instinctively what we want from leaders.

As a leader, do they make sense? And do you have those ‘ingredients’ now? I think you probably do, even if some need ‘tweaking’ a bit.

Could you have the discussion with your staff?

Bennis, W & Goldsmith J. (2010) Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader. 4th ed. NY: Basic Books.

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Inspiring hope: Do you offer hope to your team?

In my last blog I quoted Michael Silver who argues that leaders need to use language that inspires hope and trust and I asked what those qualities meant for you.

All too often a leader is consumed by tasks and timelines and I wonder how often they take the time to stop and reflect on how they inspire hope and trust in their staff.

Let’s start with hope. What does it mean to inspire hope?

Hope means optimism – possibility, sense of purpose, confidence that:
• the goals are worth striving for and can be achieved
• work has real purpose and will make a difference
• there is a better future ahead

At a personal level hope means that people feel ‘I am capable of making it happen’ and feel valued for the part they are playing in achieving those goals. Snyder’s Hope Theory argues that hopeful people are able to set goals, find pathways to achieve them and feel capable of achieving those goals.

Inspiring that level of hope in others means you need to be optimistic yourself: clear and confident about where you are going and why. Above all, you need to remember always your convictions and commitment as their leader.

• You need to speak confidently, passionately about that future.
• You can minimise the reactions of nay-sayers from the start, by   acknowledging their concerns while quietly insisting on a positive approach.
• You can share small wins along the path and encourage others to do the same.
• You need to acknowledge people for the contributions they are making – thanking them for their efforts. There are numerous ways of doing this, depending upon the situation: a simple ‘thank you’ for something done, public acknowledgements, team celebrations.
• Show people you care: take an interest in them personally, remember the little details and ask about them later.

In most workplaces today people seem always to be burdened by workloads, driven by deadlines. We spend so much of our lives at work that having a sense of purpose and feeling valued surely makes that time worthwhile. This is your responsibility as a leader.

Any doubts you have should be shared amongst colleagues in your leadership team. Sharing your misgivings or self-doubt with team members will only impact their confidence – in the project and in you.

Wearing my hat as a sessional academic, I once had a leader who was clearly so disenchanted with her role and her place in the organisation we both worked for, that had she stayed longer, I suspect she might have lost us all. She had been forced to facilitate some unfair, even irrational decisions, that had financial impacts on sessional academics and we appreciated her empathic support. However, as her disaffection increased, her personal criticisms of our management grew more public, which didn’t bode well for departmental solidarity. Then suddenly she resigned.

How could she have handled her role differently? She obviously felt out of place in that organisation, and although she was supportive of her staff, it was not helpful to us that she would be critical of management or the systems, because her comments destroyed our optimism: that classes are small, our students are good and generally appreciate the work we do. As a staff we cope with the frustrations and absurdities with humour. Our leader seemed instead to burn with resentment that she could not make any changes. I can appreciate her frustrations; but it didn’t help us.

Further reading on Hope Theory
• Snyder, C.R., Rand,K.L. & Sigmon, D.R. Hope Theory
Snyder’s Hope Theory. Cultivating aspiration in your life.

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I’m now a leader. What does that really mean?

Do you recognise when you are being a leader at work? Do you recognise when you are being a manager?

Clarifying the distinctions between the two roles often arises when I’m working with workplace leaders. Especially with managers new to the role, or team leaders lower down in the organisation’s hierarchy who have not been privy to the discussions and decisions that they then have to make happen.

Manager or leader? Defining the differences is an early focus of management training courses. In reality, the two roles are closely integrated and whatever their title, a manager or team leader needs to be both. All of the time.

For that reason I suspect it’s worth revisiting the distinctions. ‘Leading’ is identified as one of the four roles of a manager: planning, organising, leading and controlling. A traditional definition of management is the planning, organising, leading and controlling of human and other resources to achieve organisational goals effectively and efficiently.

It’s fairly easy to identify what we do in planning, organising and controlling activities within our areas of responsibility. It’s also very easy to focus on these tasks, when they can be all-consuming of time and energy.

It’s far less easy define what we need to do to be a leader. And, just as importantly, how we can behave like a leader at all times – instead of just at staff meetings or in passing on announcements from the boss.

Consider these definitions of leadership:

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. Warren G. Bennis
The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant. Peter Drucker

..leadership is not about pointing out what is wrong and how to fix it, but rather the ability to engage others in what is possible, and with an authentic voice, ask who will care. I believe we need a language of leadership that inspires hope and trust. Michael Silver

• Are you clear about the vision for your organisation?
• What does it mean for you? For your team?
• What do you do to convey that vision and make it a reality for your  team?
• How do you bring out the strengths of your team members?
• What do you do now to engage your team? What more could you do?
• What does hope and trust mean for you?

These are questions worth exploring – in conversations with your coach, and in your leadership team meetings. It’s probably never too late to revisit the reasons for decisions made – clarifying assumptions, plugging holes in understanding, exploring different perspectives and building collaboration and trust in the group.

Finally, listen to what Simon Sinek says about leadership: You have to know why you do what you do. If you don’t know why… how will anyone else? You have to have clarity of why.

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How to get a job at Google – leadership skills first.

Run the idea of employment as a Googler past most young tech-savvy people these days and they look wistful. Look at the youtube video adverts of life at Google yourself and envy youth lost forever.

There’s more to be learned from Google than the envious lifestyle. In an interview  (and below) with New York Time journalist Thomas Friedman, Lazlo Bock, the Talent Manager for Google, identifies the hiring attributes they look for in job candidates: ability to learn – quickly, ’emergent’ leadership, humility and collaboration.  Now these criteria have been defined, such is the power of Google, they will probably be adopted across other organisations and industries.

They are attributes to be aspired to by anyone in leadership; they are attributes any leader could be striving to develop amongst their own team members.


‘Emergent’ leadership is an interesting concept, one closely inter-related with the other attributes or skills. Traditional leadership he argues, looks for evidence of formal leadership positions held – in clubs or higher. What Google sees as critical to effective leadership is teamwork: the willingness to both step in and lead at the appropriate time and equally, to relinquish power and let someone else lead.

Brock links this skill with humility and a sense of ownership. Teamwork again. To recognise and accept the better ideas of others; to be willing to learn with and from others.

How can we develop these skills in our team members? It’s being ever vigilant: leading by example, having team discussions about the behaviour valued amongst team members, encouraging mutual respect, giving feedback to reinforce those behaviours.

How can we develop those skills in ourselves? It’s being ever vigilant – again: being quite clear about the kind of workplace relationships we value, taking the time to thank others for their contributions, making sure we hold  those difficult conversations we’d rather avoid, offering opportunities for others to grow, allowing time to reflect on our own behaviour.

Practicing reflection is a valuable skill for any leader to learn. One very practical way to start is writing a journal, using a simple action strategy to document what happened, why and what you will do next time. You might find this article useful: Read


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Dealing with a passive- aggressive team member

Fred habitually denied he’d received information from his team leader. Critical or not. Team meetings were usually uncomfortable because he never voiced an opinion. Unless it was a brief, negative throw-away line. He simply sat, silent and unreceptive.

Attempts to engage him in conversation founded on stony ground. Fred divulged little.

When tasks were shared out at the meeting and he didn’t respond, agreement was assumed; but, he never followed through. And when gently confronted around a deadline, denied any agreement had ever been made: he was a master at expressing total mystification. And blamed his team-leader. So she found herself taking on Fred’s responsibilities, covering for him at the last minute to avoid minor disasters – or worse.

Have you got a staff member like this? Fred is a passive-aggressor and his behavior is very difficult to deal with. His team leader in this case blamed herself and was doing everything she could to be especially friendly to Fred – to no avail. It was not her fault. In fact, Fred was probably chalking it up as a ‘win’ to him.

Wikipedia defines Passive-aggressive behavior as ‘the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, sarcasm, stubbornness, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible’.

I won’t explore the behaviour here; you can do that yourself through any number of reputable sources. I want to talk about how you, as a team leader, can handle that behaviour.

As a team-leader, you probably won’t be able to change Fred’s behaviour. The Fred’s of the workplace usually don’t leave undone the essential responsibilities of their jobs, so there will be little to pin down when it comes to judging their performance. You are probably stuck with him.

So protecting your self is your best option. And, making sure you look after your other staff so they aren’t burdened by Fred’s aggression. It’s probably mostly directed at you, the team-leader.

How can you protect yourself?

  • Make a conscious decision never to respond with anger to anything Fred says or does. Don’t take his behavior personally. Don’t let him ‘win’.
  • Team–meeting decisions and action plans must be framed carefully and decisively. While inspiring most of your staff might work – “Imagine what we could do…”. Fred will be unimpressed. Your requirements need to be framed confidently: “ Specifically, what I need from you is…” and “The reasons are…”. You need facts and figures.
  • Team-meeting decisions need to be made clear, and possibly public, so that Fred cannot claim that he didn’t know, that you didn’t email him. Can action plans be listed in the staff room?
  • Keep all records of your correspondence with Fred. If evidence is ever needed, you will have it.
  • Remember to check what is happening with Fred’s ‘agreed’ commitments, well before the deadline, so that you aren’t caught out.
  • Be unfailingly polite – and fair and determined.
  • In meetings, ask his opinion, and ignore silence. If his response is negative, you might say: “I’m sorry you feel like that”. And then: “What do you think we should do to avoid things like that happening again?” You may not change Fred, but your other staff members will respect you trying.
  • Be nice to yourself.

More ideas?
Leibling, Mike. (2005) How people tick. A guide to difficult people and how to handle them. Kogan Page.

Right words to say when dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour

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Delegating: coaching strategies to reduce your workload

Are you feeling over-worked? Are you looking to ease your load? One useful starting-point is to stop reflect on the times you’ve stepped-in to solve someone else’s problem?

It happens at work and it happens at home. You trusted someone to do a job; they seemed willing; but suddenly the problem is back in your hands. And did you then decide: Next time it will be easier to do things myself”?

This is not to deny that the ultimate responsibility may well rest with you. You may need to know the job is done properly and on time. But there are better ways to achieve that without doing everything yourself.

There are numerous reasons for getting other people involved: like sharing the load, helping them to learn and grow, making them feel good so they are more committed to your workplace and you.

If you take back the responsibility for glitches that arise, you’ve just destroyed every one of those reasons. You might like to read The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey to see what it means always to have a monkey sitting on your shoulder.

So what is a respectful way to leave the monkey where it should be – firmly on the shoulders of the person who took on the job in the first place. A coaching approach works well – listening and asking some questions, followed by an action plan.

Obviously you want to know what the problem is; also how and why it happened, if that’s known. But there’s little point in looking to blame and you don’t need to do the leg work to discover the reasons.

Questions like “What’s the situation?” and “How are you feeling about it?” are reasonable openers.

You might ask next, to show your continuing trust and respect for their opinions: ‘What are the viable options?” and “Which one is your choice – and why?” and ‘What do you want to happen?”

Next to leave responsibility firmly and respectfully on their shoulders, and to gauge their commitment ask:
• “How willing are you to consider all the options?”
• “What are some of the steps you can take to make that happen?”
• “Would you need any assistance?” “Or extra resources?”

Lastly, as a coach we always look for an action plan, a timeline, and we extend our support, asking:
• “When can you start?”
• “What would need to happen first?”
• “Let’s touch base on a regular basis until you’ve got the issue solved; how about this time next week”.

This final question does more than extend your support of course. You need to know the job is done properly and this is a respectful, and supportive, way to follow-through.

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International Coaching Week

International Coaching Week runs May 19 to May 25

What do you know about the International Coach Federation (ICF)?

  • ICF members adhere to a Code of Ethics and must have completed at least 60 hours of coach-specific training to become a member
  • The ICF has the only independent, globally recognised credentialling system
  • An ICF Credentialled coach has completed stringent education and experience requirements and has demonstrated a strong commitment to excellence in coaching.
  • ICF Australasia is a Chapter of the ICF, giving Australasian coaches a voice within ICF Global.

Each year the ICF commissions  a global study on aspects of coaching, carried out independently by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Some findings:

  • 99% of clients are satisfied with the overall experience of coaching
  • Coaching provides a return on investment, according to 86% of companies
  • 70% of clients report improved  work performance from coaching
  • 70% of clients report positive impacts of coaching on relationships, communication and interpersonal skills
  • 80% of clients report positive impacts of coaching on self esteem/self-confidence

In 2010, Australia led the world with the first collaborative set of guidelines for coaching, published by Standards Australia in May 2011. Read about it here.

Are you interested in coaching? Would you like to discuss how coaching might be able to assist you personally, or your staff to build their leadership skill or transfer training into workplace outcomes?

Please ring Jennifer on 0425 726 340. I’m happy to answer your questions.

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Come Walk With Me – just 10,000 steps a day

Have you heard of the 10,000 steps-a-day? It was new to me, but try living with a husband newly committed to weight loss and good health and you can’t avoid learning about these things.

Why 10,000 steps a day? I always want to know why; I no longer want to put myself under duress if there’s little or no scientific evidence supporting the action. I’ll tell you about the Taliban Diet one of these days.

The 10,000 Steps-a-Day started in Japan in the 1960’s based on research led by Dr Yoshiro Hatano, which argued that if the average person took 3,500 to 5,000 steps per day, and then increased their steps to 10,000 steps per day, the result would be healthier, thinner people. He calculated that 10,000 steps a day would burn about 20% of our calorie intake. The Japanese adopted the practice with walking clubs and the business slogan 30 years ago; slowly the West appears to be embracing the practice – and so are we – with pedometers to measure and monitor progress.

The arguments for more exercise are convincing and walking seems to me to be a painless way to achieve exercise goals. Our lives and our work are largely are sedentary and there is numerous evidence about the emerging health problems associated with such inactivity.

In Australia, a clinical study conducted by the Body-Brain Performance Institute, in conjunction with Swinburne University’s Brain Sciences Institute,  showed a clear link between vigorous physical activity, increased brain function and reduced stress levels at work.

Still want more proof? This website lists research behind the practice.

In balance, Livescience argues that, while there have been some specific studies reporting health benefits, the general benefits of setting a goal for walking are worthwhile.

The value of setting goals has long been integral to coaching methods and I certainly need goals to aim for when it comes to exercise. I have only met the 10,000 steps goal 3-4 times in the past month, but I haven’t lost interest. Which is more than I can say about gym membership. Besides, for me it combines beautifully with mindfulness ‘training’.

Have I convinced you? Come walk with me!

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