Lead Like the Great Conductors

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“Lead”? Conductors? Surely conductors are authoritarian, egotistical prima donnas, with complete command and control over their orchestra? Not so.

Imagine leading with complete authority, yet without making a sound. And sometimes without even moving your baton, as we will see. Your job is to create the environment in which people can be great, where they understand when to start and what to do, even when you leave it up to them. You are there to empower and bring out their full talent. They are engaged with each other as much as with you. In turn, you are fully engaged both with the team and with the task in hand. And the resulting performance affects others, sometimes profoundly.

How? And how can people with otherwise great technical skill fail utterly to achieve this kind of leadership? One skilled conductor was asked by every member of his orchestra to resign, in spite of his ability.

Put aside 20 minutes to watch this classic, entertaining TED talk by Itay Talgam. It will be the best investment of  time that you make all day. If you’re short of time, start 10 minutes in. If you’re REALLY short of time, just watch Leonard Bernstein’s leadership power (without baton!) at the very end.

Is Your Iceberg Melting?

Is your company like this iceberg, seemingly sound but in reality heading for potentially catastrophic failure? Do you want to learn how to shift from complacently sailing towards an inevitable doom, to finding a far more capable, inspiring and sustainable future?

Here’s a great read. John Kotter’s story about a colony of penguins that needs to make big changes can be read in half an hour or so. It includes all the classic challenges – fear of raising the problem, disbelief, resistance, cynicism, and more, balanced by the different kinds of leadership and solutions that can work.

What a great way for true leaders to pick up ideas and inspiration when trying to save or change your organisation! Read it, grab some inspiration and get to work …

Click the image to get your own copy.

Thanks to Jacques-Olivier Perche, Head of Professional Development for the ESF in Hong Kong for suggesting this one!

Business in China: The Haier Case Study

Zhang Ruimin 01Photo by Wang Jun Qd


In 1984 Zhang Ruimin stepped up and took over the leadership of the then state-owned appliance maker. Haier was close to bankruptcy. At one stage he had to borrow money to pay his staff. Now it is the world’s largest manufacturer of white goods, with revenue in 2013 of HK$224 billion (roughly AU$37 billion, or GBP19 billion).

Assumptions? China is a one-party communist state, and it has a reputation for discouraging people from thinking ‘out of the box’. Empowerment must be a dirty word. And leadership equates to authoritarian dictatorship.

So … how has Zhang achieved all this?

Let’s take one example, shared by Benjamin Robertson in the South China Morning Post. In 2014 the CEO and chairman warned his staff that 10,000 of its 70,000 strong workforce would lose their jobs. However, outgoing staff would be welcome back if they had a credible business plan. This is part of his long term strategy to turn the company into an ‘entrepreneurial platform’, which reminds me of Ricardo Semler’s radical strategies with Semco in Brazil (‘Maverick!‘ and ‘The Seven Day Weekend‘).

Employees, including senior executives, are expected to be part of product development teams, and pitch ideas to a committee which has the power to allocate start-up capital and resources. And former Haier staff can get company backing, using the Haier platform, while working for themselves. Zhang himself puts it this way: “We now have a lot of entrepreneurs at Haier who don’t work inside the company. Some aren’t interested in joining, preferring to stay outside in society, partner with the company, and use our platform for pioneering work. Those inside the company are also free to leave at any time, and still use the Haier platform for their work, though they would no longer actually work for the company. In the long run, there won’t be any company employees to speak of—only the Haier platform.” [strategy+business, Nov 2014]

Zhang also has a strong focus on quality. Staff still talk about how he handed out sledgehammers so that 76 faulty fridges could be pulped. 

Prof Bill Fischer of IMD Business School in Switzerland  wrote ‘Reinventing Giants‘, an analysis of Haier’s growth. He reports that “The thing we learned from Haier is that if you don’t have strong self-confident leaders at the top, you can never unleash the voices from below, because an unconfident leader is suspicious, threatened by people from below”.

So empowerment, engagement and entrepreneurship are clearly all core values in the company.

Fortune magazine ranks Zhang 22nd in its global list of people for energising their followers and making the world better. Meanwhile he is flattening this huge company to eliminate unnecessary chains of management and to speed up decision making. Decentralisation has gone to the extent that there are now 2,800 “counties”, each with 7 employees or less.

Art Kleiner, editor-in-chief of strategy+business magazine: “Every part of the organization has its own P&L, makes autonomous decisions (including which other parts of Haier to work with), and can reach out independently to customers, potential employees, and collaborators. R&D projects now often reach beyond Haier’s walls to include academics, independent designers, and even competitors. Zhang sees this as a natural evolution for all major companies, particularly those focused on business innovation in the Internet age.” And Haier aims to lead the world in making all of this work.

Zhang Ruimin has built a company without borders, a company without internal or external barriers, where change is now normal.

End users, other companies and even competitors are brought into the product development process. Haier’s expertise is openly shared: Alibaba spent HK$2.8 billion getting Haier to help build out its logistics network.

Where there used to be complete secrecy pending patents, now there is a greater value placed on collaboration to mutual benefit. Haier has a slogan “Forever honest” which means that there is now a culture of transparency.

Zhang again: “Those inside Haier, especially managers, understand that it’s crucial that we adapt to the evolving needs of users and the changing market environment. A few people who have gone from Haier to work for other companies have written to me telling me that the biggest difference between Haier and their new company is Haier’s transparent interpersonal relations. They say that this is unheard of at other companies”.

I contend that resilience is THE competitive advantage for the future, and Haier is a prime example. If you want help with building a resilient organisation staffed by resilient people, get in touch!

Every success,


The Progress Principle! Catalysts, Inhibitors, Nourishers and Toxins

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I have come across a fascinating piece of research in Harvard Business Review from May 2011, by Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer [“The Power of Small Wins”]. Based on 12,000 daily diary responses, they show with crystal clarity how performance and progress are closely tied to the level of engagement people feel on a day to day basis.

“This is the progress principle made visible: If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it’s a good bet that he or she made some progress”. I would add that team leaders need to actively help people to recognise that progress. How often do you go home, having worked your butt off, yet feel that you haven’t made any real progress? Wouldn’t it be great to have a boss who took a few minutes to help us to see the importance of what we were doing?

Catalysts are ‘actions that directly support work, including help from a person or group’ such as ‘setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing sufficient resources and time, helping with the work, openly learning from problems and successes, and allowing a free exchange of ideas’.

Nourishers are ‘ acts of interpersonal support, such as respect and recognition, encouragement, emotional comfort, and opportunities for affiliation’.

Each has an opposite: Inhibitors, ‘actions that fail to support or actively hinder work’, and  toxins, ‘discouraging or undermining events’ such as disrespect, discouragement, disregard for emotions, and interpersonal conflict.

toxic   Whereas catalysts and inhibitors are directed at the project, nourishers and toxins are directed at the person. Like setbacks, inhibiting and toxic events are rare on days when people feel great and report making progress.

Even otherwise excellent managers can slip into becoming toxic and inhibiting, notably when overwhelmed by pressure or situations when they may take it out on subordinates. It can take a long, long time to recover the lost ground.

Instead, we need to develop behaviours, systems and routines that build catalysts and nourishment, while eliminating inhibitors and toxins.

One key message is that we need to recognise the significance of minor milestones and achievements. Even solving a minor problem should be a source of satisfaction, motivation and energy. On the other hand, minor setbacks can be even more dispiriting, so they need to be minimised or turned around – overcoming them is itself an opportunity to reinforce the sense of progress.

In this way people develop a greater sense of being involved in meaningful work on a day to day basis, which in turn reinforces the whole progress cycle.

Your Challenge: At the end of each workday, take a few minutes to list any catalysts, inhibitors, nourishers and toxins that have occurred during the day. Then decide on at least one action you will take the next day to eliminate the negatives and/or build the positives. Now go home with a sense of satisfaction, looking forward to making an even better impact as a leader tomorrow.

Do Leaders Lack Emotional Intelligence?

Today I want to share a fascinating piece of research by Dr. Travis Bradberry, the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

It shows that average levels of emotional intelligence (EI) drop off the further above middle management that people are. However, the kicker is that at every level, the most successful leaders are those with the highest EI!

It seems that selection panels increasingly fail to value genuine leadership skills the higher up the organisation you go, in favour of the simple, short term, bottom line metrics.

So should you hide your ability to empathise, understand, connect, and inspire others? Or should companies shake up their selection processes and criteria and start making better decisions about who to appoint?

Read more at the following link, where Travis also shares some suggestions on how to boost your performance and outshine the competition, at whatever level you currently find yourself . Highly recommended reading.

Why Leaders Lack Emotional Intelligence

The Danger of Sham Empowerment

How often have you been given a job to do – then got frustrated because the organisation just won’t let you do it the way you know would work best?

Typically, when we delegate a task to someone (or a team), we simply give them responsibility for getting it done. It feels to them that they are being trusted to represent you and your organisation. However, we don’t give them any real clout or authority to shift resources, so that they can make it happen whatever happens. They discover this when they try to use strategies that you wouldn’t use, or when the resources simply aren’t coming through and they can’t do anything about that. Then the ‘power’ turns out to be an illusion.

Instead, we need to do the reverse: give them real authority, but retain responsibility for success or failure. This rarely happens in practice. Too often we give a tokenistic, superficial, false level of empowerment which allows us to stay in control but which achieves nothing.

If I’m still responsible for your performance, I’m going to be motivated to keep in touch with how you’re doing, and will coach and mentor you (not instruct you) so that you do a great job. After all, I’m accountable to my client/boss for this, not you. And you have authority to act, so I don’t need to step in and direct or do things to make it happen.

When people feel empowered and that turns out to be a sham, typically they react by doing one or more of these things:

  • They Get Out 
  • They Get Safe 
  • They Get Even.

If you don’t intend to give real authority to your people, the message is clear: Don’t Pretend That You Are Empowering Them. It’s better to be honest and authentic as people then know where they stand, even if they don’t like it much. If you effectively lie about this, sooner or later you will break their trust and the results will probably be highly damaging, and lasting.

Trust is an essential feature of resilient, sustainable organisations. It takes a lot to build trust, and it can be destroyed in a heartbeat.

Empowerment? Don’t do it if you don’t mean it. Check out my previous post on the 5 features of empowering delegation

Every success, Hugh

Spending $8 Million to Successfully Solve a $20 Problem

This is a great illustration of something I’ve seen all too often. We have people with practical intelligence and great problem solving abilities right under our noses. But we underestimate them, fail to give them opportunities to engage with and solve problems, and waste the talent at our disposal. To our cost. In this case, nearly $8 Million.

Read the story “There Is A Moral To This Story That Only Engineers Will Fully Understand” here:


Found at http://buff.ly/VxgkdN


Executive Edge – Empower, Don’t De-Skill When Delegating

Use the following as a checklist to empower not de-skill when delegating work or responsibility to others

  • Point out the benefits to the individual and how task accomplishment also benefits the organisation
  • Set a realistic challenge for the individual – not an impossible task (for them)!
  • Delegate authority to the team member for making decisions within set limits – deadlines, timeframes, level of initiative, etc.
  • Ask the person how they would tackle the task
  • Ask yourself if their method will achieve the objective
  • If you think it will work, let them do it their way, they will be more committed to their plan
  • Provide advice only if you see a flaw – even then, point out the flaw and let them try to solve it
  • Encourage the team member to suggest the checkpoints and milestones
  • Check how the individual feels about the task – and listen carefully, you must work together to deal with any concerns.

Genuine empowerment always involves 5 elements: 

  1. A ‘Can – Do’ Attitude. Have you done everything you can to fuel this kind of self belief in the team member(s) you are delegating to?
  2. The Ability to Choose – assuming that there is more than one way to do the task, they must be able to make their own decision on which is best, using their own judgement.
  3.  Influence over Outcomes. If it’s going to turn out one way no matter what they do, neither of the above elements means a thing.
  4. A Sense of Meaning. If they don’t care how it turns out, there’s no real acceptance of the power you are offering them.
  5. Trust. If they don’t trust you, and if the organisation or team don’t trust them, they will play it safe. In other words, they will not really believe, they will not have a real choice, and they will feel that they are being set up for a fall. How about making them feel that if they stuff up, the whole team (or at least you) cares and will own the outcomes of failure?


Finding it Hard to Delegate? 3 Reasons …

The lack of courage to delegate properly, and of knowledge of how to do it, is one of the most general causes of failure in organisations” – Lester Urwick in 1944. Yes, 1944 – that’s 70 years ago! We’ve been finding this difficult forever. It’s a fact: It is hard to delegate.

What Stops Us? 3 Reasons …

1. Our assumptions about our people. We tell ourselves that they lack competence, interest, or motivation. They are already overloaded, right? They are slow learners and it will take to long to get them up to speed.

2. Our own insecurities. If we let go of work, won’t we lose recognition, power, position or even our job? If we give away our special skills and knowledge, won’t others abuse that and overtake us in the career ladder, or leave and take it to a competitor? What happens if they stuff it up and I’m held responsible?

3. Our need for control. Maybe you feel a need to be in charge, to direct and govern others and think that if you loosen control that will lead to confusion, frustration and failure.

Why Do We Need to Delegate? 3 Reasons …

1. It enables us to focus on more important things. Do you really have time to think things through and generate brilliant new strategies? To build teamwork, improve communication and decision making procedures? I thought not.

2. It’s a brilliant way of developing people. Don’t we all learn best by doing? Maybe the reason your people are ‘slow learners’ is that you aren’t giving them a chance to step up and try new tasks, skills and strategies.

3. It is highly motivational. Of course the reverse is also true – poorly done, delegating can also be a major de-motivator.

Today’s Challenge: 

Which of the 3 blocks to delegating most apply in your case? Decide to get over yourself and actually share something from your workload with someone. Make time to build their understanding and confidence around the task. And when you’ve done that, do the same with something every day this week!

Look out for more in this series on delegating – I’ll be sharing tips and principles that will transform the capacity of your organisation to perform.

Every success, Hugh

Being a “Bitch”

I’ve never, to my  knowledge, been described as a bitch. It just doesn’t come into anyone’s mind. Why? Well, I’m the classic white, middle aged, straight bloke. I do certainly get pigeon-holed, and people do make certain assumptions about me – but there’s nothing as damning as this particular word.

Is there a word that conveys the same meaning for a man as the word ‘bitch’ does for a woman? The same managerial behaviour is often described as a woman being ‘a bitch’, while a man is apparently just being ‘the boss’. It seems all too common for similar behaviour by different people to be perceived through different lenses. And with significant implications. Or there’s cow, versus bull – “You’re a cow!” is very different from “You’re a bull!”

Here’s a fuller article about this from Business Review Weekly.

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