Have You Met Your Six Serving Men?

“We don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are.”

This saying from The Talmud is a great reminder that we should guard against the effect that our filters can have on our perceptions of people, events, and the world in general.  Seeing things through our eyes could mean that we miss important signals and signs that might otherwise lead us to a different conclusion.

One of the best ways to ensure that we see things the way that they are, rather than as we are, or as we would like things to be, is through the power of questions.

Questioning skills are an especially powerful way to communicate and can reveal a wealth of information.  Think of all the problems that you face each day in managing and leading others.  Aren't you just looking for answers?  The right question can save a lot of time and can help you cut to the core of the problem.  Many years ago, I came across a short poem by Rudyard Kipling called 'The Elephant's Child'.  Part of that poem, which he wrote for his daughter, goes:


I keep six honest serving men,
They taught me all I knew,
Their names were
WHAT and WHY and WHEN,
And HOW and WHERE and WHO.

I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west,
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.

But different folk have different views,
I know a person small,
She keeps ten million serving men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends'em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes
One million "How"s, two million "Where"s,
And seven million "Why"s!

Those six words can be used in a myriad of situations.  If you are facilitating a group discussion, coaching someone, uncovering client needs, showing a genuine interest in someone, or improving your own knowledge base, Kipling's 'six serving-men' can provide the answer.

Consider the following:

  • What is the core issue that we need to address or focus on today?
  • Where is the best place to begin?
  • When can we expect to see some results?
  • What might success look like?  What can we look forward to?
  • How could we best approach this problem?
  • Why do we need to continue that process?
  • Who needs to be involved in the solution?
  • When should we start to change things?

...and I'm sure that you can think of many more.

In this simple example, you can see that you will start to see things through the eyes of others, rather than from your own perspective that could be limited, and limiting, in terms of potential outcomes.

Before long, people will recognise your ability to ask great questions and I am sure that you will see immediate and positive results in the output of your management and leadership style.  Like any other skill, asking great questions requires practice, but the great thing is, you can start immediately.

If you would like to join the CED tribe, you can sign up here for the CED newsletter where I will be discussing topics similar to this one in a little more depth.

All the best


MAYDAY! MAYDAY! Ahhh …. She’ll be right ....

I am grateful to my friend and colleague Dr Paul Hunter for mentioning the following incident that forms the basis for this blog.  Thanks Paul.

In October 1994, one hour after leaving Sydney, a 747 crew shut down their number one engine after noticing an oil leak.  The captain decided to return to Sydney.

On final approach, a landing gear alarm alerted the crew to a problem – the nose gear had not deployed.

The captain continued the approach thinking that there was a fault with the indicator and that there was no real problem.

The plane touched down and then settled on its nose.  Because there was no fire, the crew didn’t initiate an emergency evacuation.

How is your 747 travelling?  Is the team you lead showing warning signs of an imminent crash, and are those signs being heeded or ignored?  Is your crew exposed to appropriate drills and training, and is your aircraft on a regular maintenance schedule?

A senior executive that I recently worked with made public her belief in her own steady state by saying that she never received any complaints from anyone who reported to her.  A subsequent engagement survey revealed a significant majority of direct reports who were “afraid to speak up.”  An obvious alert that was ignored.  I’m sure we have all seen managers who question the veracity of data when it tells them a story they don’t want to hear, but will readily accept the data when it underpins their hubris and bears out the fact that they are an excellent manager/leader – at least in their own mind.

There are many managers and leaders whose 747s are sounding alerts but those warning signs are being ignored – “We might be experiencing a bit of turbulence, but we are still flying high!”  Those pilots are living on borrowed time and their crews will abandon them as soon as they find someone who cares.  The cynical LINO (leader in name only) who decides that they should suddenly start leading will oversee a passing-out parade as people remember how they were managed and led (or not, as the case may be) and take up opportunities elsewhere.  Responsible stewardship is not something that can be switched on and off depending on the prevailing conditions.

So what should the conscientious and responsible captains, managers and leaders be doing?

First, pay attention to warning signs like employee-initiated turnover.  At the extreme, it means that there is something not quite right about what we are doing as managers and leaders.  Remember the saying that "employees join organisations but leave managers"?  I coached a senior leader recently who left their manager 12 months before they left the building.  Another captain asleep at the wheel who didn’t see, or chose to ignore, the warning signs.

Second, avoid complacency.  High-performing crew members will always receive calls from headhunters and recruiters.  If those good performers aren't being well managed and led because the managers are becoming complacent about the need to work hard in managing and leading, what do you think those with options might decide to do?

Third, remember who you serve.  Just because you landed without a fire (survived another week without a catastrophe) doesn’t mean that you should not take care of your crew and passengers.  It is folly to congratulate yourself on simply surviving.  You should regularly reflect on the ‘what if’ and take the appropriate measures that will mitigate against an impending disaster.

To continue the metaphor, the responsible captain will still have to do all the 'right' things and work as hard as they can at the job of managing and leading.  In fact, you should be working harder now than ever before so that your crew/organisation is ready to take advantage of 'early bird' opportunities.  Think how many organisations are going to take months to pick up speed because they have been in a holding pattern instead of forging ahead with a well constructed flight-plan.

This provides challenges every day and no leader can afford to take ‘time out’ while the economy tanks or their 747 crash lands.  If they did, and even if their crews chose not to move on, they would still have to deal with poor morale, low productivity, and a toxic work environment.  Given such a climate, it is not the sort of situation that can be turned around in a matter of weeks or months.  That usually takes years, and would probably have to be done by someone else because, by then, those captains should have been grounded and asked to leave.

If you would like to join the CED tribe, you can sign up here for the CED newsletter where I will be discussing topics similar to this one in a little more depth.

All the best


Get Curious About Those Swans!

And so the corporate mishaps and misdemeanours of our corporate leaders continue unabated, it seems.  Every day brings another report of someone appearing in the sort of spotlight that they would prefer to avoid.  And just as persistent are the comments from observers that: "When you look at it, you could have seen it coming."  But why didn’t we see it coming?  If it was so obvious, was it a case of: “someone else will raise the alarm?”

In a lot of cases, if not most, it isn’t a huge event that creates the corporate catastrophe – it is more likely to have been a ‘death by a thousand cuts’.  By themselves, each of these tiny events don’t amount to much.  But, in total, they can destroy a corporate culture, an individual’s integrity and reputation, and a company’s financial, commercial and moral base.

Nasim Taleb's book, The Black Swan, has been around for quite a while but Taleb's thesis still resonates.  He describes a ‘Black Swan’ event as something that satisfies three criteria – it was retrospectively (although not prospectively) predictable (“We could have seen this coming”), it has extreme impact (News of the World, Lehman’s, etc., etc.), and it is rare (nothing in our past experience would have indicated its possibility).

I was recently privvy to a series of issues that led to a hugely impactful corporate event.  This event satisfied two of Taleb's three criteria but fails on the issue of rarity – unfortunately, these sorts of events are happening with disturbing regularity.  When the players looked back, it was easy to see all the small things that added up to the final denouement. 

The reason that it happened can be likened to each individual walking into, and out of, an organisation with many doors.  When I go through my door/look through my filters, I see a few small, seemingly insignificant and unacceptable events.  While they are worrying, by themselves they certainly wouldn’t cause the organisation to fail.  You walk in your door/look through your filters, see other small worrying signs, and reach the same conclusion.  Someone else walks through another door, and so on, and so on.

What we need to do, of course, is to compare notes and then the picture becomes very serious.  We begin to join the dots and the isolated events are now seen as endemic and epidemic across the organisation.  Now, this can happen at an organisational level, within a business unit or division, and in a team.  We need to stop and ask ourselves: “If I am seeing these things, who else that is exposed to this environment is seeing the same, or similar, things?”  Only when we get curious about testing our observations on a broader palette do we start to see the big picture.

Some might accuse us of being paranoid.  If ignored, we could also have been accused of being derelict in our duty, or asleep at the wheel.  I think I’d rather be paranoid when I see the damage that can be caused.  We need to ask the right question, as Taleb suggests.  Rather than asking: “is there any sign of fraud or mismanagement?” (a question that can be answered with a cursory examination) perhaps we should be asking: “Is there a sign of no fraud and no mismanagement?” (a question that demands a thorough and comprehensive review).

If you would like to join the CED tribe, you can sign up here for the CED newsletter where I will be discussing topics similar to this one in a little more depth.

All the best


The Paradox of Promotion

How often do we recruit someone because they are recognised as a great manager or leader?  Isn't this what they will spend most of their time doing?  Yes, technical 'know-how' is very important, in fact, it is critical in establishing credibility and staying on top of the job.  But those other, less tangible aspects are also vital and cannot be taken for granted.

Graduation through the management ranks, is often seen as a mark of an individual's progress in an organisation and should be an acknowledgement of that person's ability to contribute to the performance of the organisation.  However, this is not always the case.  Think about one's life cycle within an organisation.

We are usually recruited to a company, primarily on the basis of some technical knowledge that we have.  This is generally the case at more junior levels, but at more senior levels one would hope that our ability to manage and lead is also a primary focus of the recruitment strategy.  If not, we are heading for potential problems in the long run.  Let's take a look.

The recruit comes to the organisation with some technical ability, or at least the potential to develop that ability.  This is usually reflected in the course they have chosen at university. More senior recruits are usually attractive because they are recognised as leaders in their technical fields.

Now, as the recruit begins to achieve results through their ability to develop business, we do the worst thing possible - we promote them!  Now they are spending the majority of their time trying to cope with something for which they have not been trained, and little of their time on what made them attractive in the first place.  As the new manager/leader tries to get on top of the job, they are reluctant to ask for help.  After all, "isn't everyone supposed to know this stuff?"  "If I ask for help maybe someone will decide that I can't do the job."  "How can I suddenly be different to what I was yesterday?"  Hopefully, the real situation is not as extreme as this but I have seen many managers and leaders who are riding the bumps and can't work out why their lives are not running more smoothly.

I have generalised with the scenario that I have described but, if you look around, this paradox of attraction and promotion might be more widespread than you at first might think.

So what do you do if you are that manager?  What should you do if you know of someone in this situation?

I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that there is a problem, or a challenge.  Then do something about it.

If you are that manager, your development is your responsibility.  There are many people around you and in your network who can help.  It is often a comfort to speak with a colleague and find out that you are not alone.  Think about the following questions and then establish your development plan.

  • Am I a LINO - leader in name only?
  • If I owned this business, would I employ me as a leader/manager?  Why?  Why not?
  • What are my core values that will drive my behaviours?
  • What am I seeing, hearing or feeling that tells me I need to work on managing and leading?
  • If I am reflecting regularly on my performance, am I over-analysing, or am I being realistic in my assessment?
  • What aspect of my managing and leading am I doing well?  What part, or parts, need attention?
  • Of those aspects that require some action, what could be done to give me a quick return on my investment?
  • How do I learn best - talking with someone, reading a book, observing on the job, being coached or mentored, or through a workshop or other program.
  • What opportunities are there for me to develop my management and leadership capability?
  • What are my expectations in terms of what I expect to see and when?
  • When will I start to take some action, and what will be my first step?

If you know of someone in this situation and you are in a position to assist them, what a great gift you could give them by offering a helping hand or a sympathetic ear.  No-one has this part of organizational life mastered.  We all need a hand from time to time and we never get it 100% right all the time.


The Getting of Wisdom - Be Like Doug

I believe that the following is attributed to Brian O’Driscoll who said that: “Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing that you don’t put tomatoes in a fruit salad.”
In our work, we all know people of exceptional intelligence who do great things with spreadsheets, words, numbers, music, the arts and science.  Some of us also know people who others recognise as wise.  In my world, I don’t often see intellect and wisdom in equal parts and some of the wisest people that I know lead, what they would probably describe as, ordinary lives.  But it is this ‘ordinariness’ that sets them apart.  They don’t flaunt their special gift and, like the wise man, they “only take their watch out when they want to know the time.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about wisdom lately – mainly because it’s something that I recognise in others, and which I strive for, but feel as though I always have a way to go.  So how do we become wise?  When I think of the ‘wise’ people that I know – and I am lucky to know quite a few – they aren’t all old, or in a particular line of work, or of a particular gender.  The thing that I notice about these jewels in my life are that they are exceptionally generous.  Not in handing out material gifts or gratuitous advice on every little thing, but in just being there when they are needed, and listening.  They make the other person the most important person in the world at that moment.  I’ll bet you know someone like this.

Can we learn to be wise?  Is it something you practice or grow?  I have a view that we all have wisdom in us, if we care to access and cultivate it.  Rather than rushing to decisions, why not pause to consider circumstance and impact, make the difficult (but correct) choices and put people first.  And what if we got curious?  What if we thought about alternatives, rather than just the first solution that comes to us?  And, without being commercially naïve, what if we held people ‘large’ in decision-making?  What if we simply tried to be ‘wise’?
The wisest person I ever knew was my friend Doug.  I say “knew” because he died too young, but he left a lasting impression on me and I will never forget him.  Doug was a country boy who developed a successful contracting business, married a beautiful girl and surrounded himself with a loving family.  Whenever static built up in my life, I inevitably ended up at Doug’s place.  I never told him why, and I suppose he never knew, but that happens quite often with mentors, doesn’t it?  I always learned something when I was with Doug, usually about not taking things so seriously.  Doug never had a bad word to say about anyone as far as I knew and people made him laugh.  He was as authentic as one could be, and that was before authenticity was in vogue among the big city coaches.  Things always seemed less complicated, simpler, easier, more obvious whenever I was in Doug’s circle.  He spoke common sense, thought a lot about things, and was a keen observer of people and life in general.
If Doug’s traits are the genesis of wisdom, think of the managers and leaders that we could aspire to be.  Yep, it’s a never-ending fight to be the best, but wouldn’t it be great to make ‘wise’ decisions most of the time?  As Tennyson said: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”