Corporate risk – how big is too big?

Corporate risk is a tricky subject. Too little risk and the competitors will be steaming ahead. Too much risk and it scares the shareholders (and the accountants!) – unless of course it all plays out perfectly … in which case you’re the hero (for today at least)!

A certain amount of risk is essential for organisation to break new ground, put together more creative teams and stay ahead in their sector.

I recently worked with an Managing Director client where the foyer of his house (where he also has an office) was bigger than the total meterage of my own home. I was hired by the company to support this MD’s high performance as of one of the most valuable leaders in the organisation. He is super-bright, inspired, motivated and people at all levels of the company like to be in his company.

Normally my conversations with directors are quick-paced, colourful in exploring the possibilities, clear about what a best way forward would be and what ultimate outcomes would benefit the most people. This MD was known for forging forward with fresh ideas and smart hires. He’d had super-positive results in his past 2 companies. On a scale of 1-10 I’d say he was an 8.5 when it came to risk and he had a highly developed sense of this market sector, his clients needs, what the next generation of products & services was going to look like.

Here’s the top 3 things I think are worth knowing about risk having coached this MD and other leaders like him:

  • Measurement makes risk less risky: if you know the skill set of your teams, the value of your service, and the needs of your clients; if you have a deep sense of your brand, a handle on company finances and cash flow, and a sense of what you’d be willing to lose in order to gain, then the decisions that others may perceive as risky may instead feel exciting to you.
  • Discomfort can be motivating: stretching your leaders to get new systems, new schedules and new numbers out of their teams may well increase tension (and perhaps even a reaction from comfort-zone lovers), but it’s worth it if the alternative is sameness and the stretch ultimately keeps a company thriving, employing talent (who are supporting families) and increasing their client service.
  • Change & expansion cultures are healthy: all future-embracing companies would be smart to actively skill up their managers and directors to systemise the present, then invest in asking ‘so what could be next’? ‘What does more look like’? ‘How can we further meet the needs of our clients and customers’?

We’ve all heard the ‘no risk no reward’ line. It makes sense more so in today’s fast-paced markets than ever.

Or I can leave you to ponder Albert Einstein’s take on risk; he said: “A ship is always safe at shore – but that’s not what it’s built for”.

Leadership development – can I do it myself

Numerous times in my 12 years of coaching and leadership development I've been asked by clients whether I think they'd have got to the conclusion they reach by themselves. I almost alway say 'yes'. When an answer needs to be found and layers of assumptions need to be let go to find it, that process will inevitably happen. Conversations will set you thinking, choices will present themselves, learning opportunities will occur, people will leave your team, others will join and gradually the vision you were holding will get closer and closer.

So what's the point in investing time and money with an executive coach if you're going to get there anyway? The answer is clarity and speed! Everyone learns a methodology of thinking and of working that comes to them with the education they've had and the experiences they've accumulated. Successful corporate leaders recognise that the process of acquiring more knowledge and refining what they know is ongoing (sometimes on a daily basis because change can happen so fast). A committment to lifelong learning inevitably sets the super-achievers apart from the pack.

Along with the specific wisdom you acquire you also collect specific assumptions and habits. They may have served you well last year or in your previous role, however today those tools might be the exact thing that's going to slow you down on your journey to achieving the big goal.

I had the priviledge very recently of talking with on of the UKs top masters squash players. He has national and international events coming up over the next 6 months and was talking about his training program. It included daily gym work for stamina, court work for accuracy, and sparring with other equally-levelled opponents for reactions and maintaining match fitness.

'Who's your coach?' I asked. 'I don't have one right now' he replied. (What?!!). We then had the discussion about all the training he was investing in right now and how it was great for sustaining fitness and perhaps even slightly improving his game over the next 4 months. However, alone he'd quickly reach a plateau and cease to be stretched by his sparring partners. When the World Masters arrive he'd absolutely want to bring his 'A' game and he'd be more likely to do that by working now with a coach. A trained, experienced eye to observe his game from the outside, making small (or perhaps significant) changes and partnering him in defining and achieving some stretch goals delivering the best competitive advantage when the tournament season comes round.

As much as this makes sense in sport, it makes the same sense in business. Directors, CEOs and team leaders can fast-track their growth and their 'business muscle' by partnering with a great executive coach. This coach isn't going to run your business day-to-day, nor will they put in the hours that are required to reach your ulimate vision. What they will do is to ask you some excellent questions, challenge some subtle assumptions, push you to stretch your comfort zone. 

The knock-on effect of working with an experienced executive coach is that your clarity will grow, you'll have key conversations more suscinctly and confidently, you'll know who to draw closer to you and who to distance yourself from and instead of achieving your goals in a year or two's time, you'll notice them taking form in just a few short months. Leadership development is an ongoing investment in keeping key directors clear, motivated and action-orientated. If one of those leaders is you, the ultimate result is that your productivity soars and you achieve twice the success in half the time.

Leadership Development and Usain Bolt

I’ve been gripped with Olympic fever for the past 10 days. What an honour to watch the world’s elite athletes pitting their decades-honed talents against each other. And the physiques on show? … oh my! For me too, as far as getting athletes’ victory-against-all-odds stories to parallel into my leadership development coaching … there’s been gift after gift!

There are obviously the ‘she’s the girl next door but super-disciplined’ stories – like 800m swimmer Rebecca Adlington. Or the ‘parents as part of your success team’ tales – as with Tom Daley (and his late father). However, it was a BBC interview with Usain Bolt about 10 minutes after his 100m final, 9.63-second victory that something gold really stood out for me.

Bolt was asked about his preparation since the last Olympics and also whether his ‘slow start’ off the blocks was a worry. Bolt said ‘Too many people have been talking about the importance of a good start. Races aren’t won at the start – they’re won at the end. I know my business. I know what’s required. I know how to execute. I was never in doubt that I would win tonight. I remain number 1!’

This stood out miles for me – the confidence, the clarity, the ‘I know my business.’ And it got me thinking that as a world-number-one athlete Bolt has a skill set that even his coaches and advisers can’t teach him. As much as they know their science, statistics and disciplined training programs they’re not the race runners. There’s only one world’s fastest man and by definition he knows his business to a height, breadth, depth and detail that only he can –  and some of it comes straight from his soul and can’t be taught.

There are huge commonalities in what it takes to be a ‘world’s greatest’ at a sport – vision, discipline, success team (coaches, therapists, nutritionists, physios, sponsors), supportive family, pain tolerance, persistence and patience. There are also huge differences between the crafts of swimming, gymnastics and athletics, not to mention the differences between individual athletes themselves.

In leadership development, the parallels between sporting triumphs and professional excellence are many. The commonalities to drive a company, brand or team to victory also include vision, discipline, a success team, share-holder support, risk taking, persistence and patience. However, success in retail has it’s own refinements when compared to success in media. Likewise, the elite in corporate banking  have a knowledge base entirely different to a multi-billion pound, started-from-scratch entrepreneur.

The 5 rings of olympian-success for leadership, in my opinion, are:

  • learn from those who’ve gone before and those with specialist expertise. Read, train, be mentored, listen and apply. Knowledge sharing is fast-tracking.
  • keep a clear vision in your mind in every meeting, every conversation , every choice you make – when you’re convinced your convincing and we all need a fan base. If you’re not 100% clear, hire a coach and get clear.
  • determinedly invest the hours. Success is about building experience, refining skill sets and showing up for the next challenge. There’s no short cut, no magic want, no quick fix – so, no excuses, get on with it.
  • be kind to yourself. Every ‘failure’ is an opportunity to learn – and when we’re transparent about our oversights we realise that everyone’s been there, everyone’s got scars and stories … and that’s a good thing.
  • be patient and trust for the reward. I know you want to be CEO, or have your multiple-7-figure business right now. It’s coming. You’re closer today than yesterday. Relax about it and enjoy the journey.

Take a lesson in confidence and clarity from Bolt and remind yourself: ‘I know my business!’

A CEO’s legacy

Leaders define success in any number of ways – increasing turnover, launching innovative products, hiring world-class teams, going global, changing lives.

Some CEOs are credentialed and experienced to the hilt; others are risk takers and their own best PR machine. Some step in to lead a share-held company; others start from the ground up turning millions into billions in a single decade. Whatever their style and character, every CEO holds the intention that they leave a company and its people – employees and clients – healthier, happier and richer for them having been involved.

How do you train for leadership though? What are the lessons? Can anyone make it to the top of a medium or large company? Is it about qualifications, contacts, networking, character, good-fortune, divine-interventions? Who knows … in reality a heady mix of all of it probably.

The skills of a good CEO include:

  • awareness – what attracts a customer to their brand and how do we provide more of that
  • advanced people skills – spotting talent and influencing and motivating with sincerity
  • a vision for the future of the organisation – its products & services, its people and its customers & clients

Exceptional skills would be:

  • servant leadership – a proactive empathy with each person involved in the business cycle and an full-time investment in empowering their greater expression personally & professionally
  • active life-long learning – where personal development is ongoing and equally sought out in times of challenge and of success
  • collaborative mindset – where it’s not about ‘more for us’ it’s about ‘more for all’ – where knowledge, resources and route-to-market are shared in order that financial and environmental benefits further reward the customer  as well as the companies’ involved

And those leaders who move forward the fastest and surest:

  • have an exceptional leadership team supporting the shared company vision
  • actively expand their ceiling of understanding – intellectually (where are the next technical and people innovations coming from), inspirationally (how do I manage this newest team dynamic to continue to sustain high performance in my directors), intuitively (how do we best respond to the rapidly changing market place, purchasing styles and global clientelle) – and put in place stimulus that keep them thinking at the edge of their comfort zones (mentors, executive coaches, what-if hubs, mastermind groups)
  • cultivate a culture of creativity, diversity, authenticity and integrity – which cascades from the CEO through the leadership team to the mangers, teams, collaborating companies and out to a market which responds in kind by repeatedly investing in the products and services of that brand.

More for all and less to none – that’s an overall winning CEO legacy!

Executives of the new world …

As a corporate coach, and particularly as an executive coach in London and other commercial-centric cities, I’m beginning to ask myself whether business change isn’t occurring faster that ever before in history.

What makes a leadership team, and by extension an entire company, equipped to manage such significant changes as:

  • outsourcing production to global hubs
  • launching new brands when the traditional ones are clearly in decline
  • embracing new business models without damaging present essential revenue streams
  • attracting talented staff who’ll contribute immensely whilst putting home-life first. They have no interested in working overtime or ‘mad’ hours
  • letting go of a company culture that thrived through the past 2 decades but will fold in the next one unless flexibility, meritocracy, transparency and diversity are fully embraced
  • keeping ahead of technological advancements, shifts in product delivery and customer sophistication

There are incredible opportunities opening up for small & medium businesses and for the corporate giants too. These are the strategies I’m noticing the front runners utilising:

  • Active investment in the personal & professional development of a company’s c-levels, directors and executives – it keeps them on form and permanently innovating – and when they’re convinced, they’re convincing
  • Do less – that is, get supremely focussed on the specific activities required to get results. Everything else is a non-priority
  • Keep alert: just because a product or promotion worked last year, there are no guarantees that the same results can be achieved by repeating it 12  months later. Re-review product, market and process, and tweak where necessary
  • Create a clear succession plan for top talent, and purposefully open doors for high performers to progress. Retaining great employees takes know how and active expectation management
  • Buy knowledge & expertise where they’re not already present within the organisation. An external provider is often exposed to a spectrum of examples that can’t be seen from within a culture

There will come a point where the speed of change reaches maximum velocity. At that time the heart of what individuals and tribes want will return to basics: simplicity, community & meaning. There are glimpses of those values already in expansion across the globe. We’re not there yet though, so to all you leaders sensing the stretch – breathe deeply, get resourced and enjoy the ride.

Coaching conscious leaders

It takes an aware and bold leader to continue to step into areas of discomfort as they stretch themselves in the name of personal & professional development. They know already the link between self development and higher results – and they make conscious decisions to commit the time and effort to the ongoing refinement of thoughts, words, actions, skills.

Most leaders I’ve worked with are:

  • Clear thinkers – the conversations they’re having in the moment have a ‘how is this contributing to the biggest future’ slant on them
  • Resilient – they don’t take knock-backs personally. They learn, adjust, get up and approach again from a different angle
  • Risk takers – the next steps are calculated and when the key people are in the position they’re going

Beyond this awareness are servant leaders who in addition:

  • Engage their heart – they consider the individuals, they go beyond ‘biggest future’ to ‘legacy’
  • Emit authenticity – they’re healthy, disciplined, inspired and conscious that ‘all of it’ (people, attitude, ethos, standards, respect …) contributes to ultimate success and results
  • Live accountably – there’s no blaming; just the highest personal standards of clarity, impeccable speech & motivation and they ‘be the change they want to see’

In a recent conversation I heard this: ‘most of the adults I work with use the same emotional  strategies they were using in their teens’. Thankfully that’s not my own experience with my clients, but I get what he meant in saying that.

If you take 100% responsibility for evolving into the sort of person who can be, do, have and achieve the things you dream about, you can experience the freedom that goes with it; because then everything’s something you can do something about.

Coaching conscious leadership is tough head, heart & soul work. Persistence in strengthening those skill-sets though brings with it unparalleled results, extraordinary rewards and individuals who literally become beacons in their lifetime.

Say it like it is … the ‘whole’ truth

I can talk about leadership development and companies can hire me as an executive coach to encourage more advanced and successful leadership but I may as well be a lorry driver (a secret fantasy of mine since the Yorkie advert era) and they may as well torch their people-investment spend if we can’t talk about the truth. The WHOLE truth. Here’s some of what I’ve been processing with various executives this week:

  • We’re definitely committed to your part in the company’s succession planning – but we are making a round of redundancies and it’s unconfirmed as to who’s in that mix
  • We value your experience and your results are unparalleled – however, we can’t invest further in your team to free you up to do what only you can do
  • It’s just the culture of the company – the systems are established and can’t be changed. It’s too big a conversation over too long a period to take advantage of the opportunity that’s presenting itself right in this moment

Here’s why change takes SO long to put in place in some large corporates … because even the finest leaders find it challenging to support a concept that may result in them losing their job!

I’m not saying that leaders, MDs, board members and directors don’t have exceptionally valuable experience to offer to the corporate mix … in the majority of cases, of course they do! But if you keep telling the story that ‘the next stage of how this company can serve its clients (readers, listeners, customers, patients, subscribers) has to be designed to keep me in the picture’ you may be limiting your service to the company, making decisions from a place of fear and lack as opposed to freedom and abundance.

The truth will set you free means that:

  • when you sense something is right and purposeful – trust that you will be respected and rewarded by speaking it out and boldly enabling the most enlightened solutions to come to pass
  • you may have to learn to communicate at a much higher level – and trust that chaos and ‘pruning’ are part of the process of developing a healthier, more flexible, transparent and authentic way of doing future business
  • you stand up and take action with 100% integrity – even when speaking out the tough parts requires humility – and by doing so, in today’s world of corporate leadership you will set yourself apart

I leave you with some word from one of the biggest rule breakers and new thinkers of our recent corporate business heritage, Steve Jobs:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

When enough’s enough: business leaders going AWOL!

Absent Without Leave (AWOL) is a military term used when a soldier is absent from where he/she should be but without intent to desert.

I started this week with a list of ‘must do’s’ deadlined for the end of this month. Program development, video re-records, radio show interviews, updates from my team … all this amongst doing the one thing I love most in my business  – executive coaching with my amazing leadership, business owner and professionals clients!

I looked at the list on Monday morning, looked at the spaces in my schedule this week and you know what I did? – I scrumpled the list up tightly and binned it. ’I’m only going to do what I love this week’ I said.

So, in the gaps on Monday I finished reading ‘The Bond’ by Lynne McTaggart. In the gaps on Tuesday I started reading my first Marshall Goldsmith book (hmmm – me likey!). Wednesday followed pattern and was rounded off with an hours drive south to have supper with an inspiring friend I hadn’t seen in nearly a year.

On my drive back north through the Fife fields & farmland I just had this massive sense of gratefulness. The sun was shining on the half-harvested barley fields, I was tapping back into a sense of creativity that’s been the catalyst for up-levelling my business on more than one occasion over the past decade, and my calmness quotient was overflowing because I CAN go AWOL once in a while and everything won’t come crashing down around me.

But what if you don’t work for yourself and you’re not the boss? What if you’re in a corporate role, directing a team, with projects to complete and accountable for meeting targets and the company depends on your results? Is AWOL an option?

It’s a tough one to answer. In my 10 years of coaching executives I haven’t met a single professional who hasn’t at some point considered jumping ship or initiating an ‘extreme career change’. Some, have been on the edge of quitting, are disillusioned, or just down-right exhausted from a no-respite, limited-appreciation corporate culture.

Question is … where does the responsibility lie for the intellectual, emotional and spiritual health of a workforce? Is it with a business to ensure all it’s leaders remain engaged and motivated? Or with the individual to manage their ongoing career goals within their overall life expectations? A bit of both, however, my experience would encourage the latter – it can only be YOU who decides what works best for you and only you can know fully the elements of your life that impact your decision to stay, go or re-design your position.

Here’s what I also know to be true:

  • Getting clear about what you want – hours, pay, projects, team make up, opportunities to progress, increase or decrease in responsibilities, reporting lines, work-life balance – is the key to being able to communicate that over time to your business. If you don’t know, they can’t help you.
  • Negotiating regular professional changes inside your company – preferably while you’re calm enough to be factual and highlight the benefits on all sides – keeps you and your company fresh and constantly looking for a collaborative and positive future.
  • Extending flexibility as individually required within your team enhances their motivation to work and, by extension, your satisfaction because more is achieved in less time.

The lesson here: AWOL in corporate cultures is for extreme cases only. And WAY before you reach that stage … get thinking, get talking, get feeling; take responsibility, and take action … and get an independent professional involved. Executive coaches are here to support leaders each step until they’re entirely living their Personal & Professional Freedom!

Sporting links to Business Success

Since the beginning of 2011 I’ve been upping the stakes on the fitness front – more swimming, more tennis, more detoxing. And it’s great. I feel energised, positive and focussed to a much higher level than when I’m desk-bound all day.

Last week my swim partner and I changed the timing of our training session. We went from 6.30am (a proper discipline for me – especially when it’s still dark outside) to 12.15am. I had thought we would meet, as usual in the foyer of the swimming pool, however, I quickly realised that he’d arrived early and had just got started. By the time I joined him in the pool he was 16 lengths ahead! A significant lead when we were only doing 50 lengths total that day.

So, no time to delay, I jumped in and got started. My first 5 lengths were filled with thoughts of ‘got to swim faster, got to catch up’. And so I pushed myself and really felt the burn as I focussed on lapping him every 10 lengths instead of my usual every 14.

After about 10 minutes I began to think, ‘you know, I’m focussing on the wrong goal. It’s unreasonable to be referencing myself against a person who started 16 lengths ahead of me. I should be concentrating on my style, my breathing, completing my goal and achieving a personal best.’

And this got me thinking about business success. Sometimes the people whose businesses have been established longer and appear to run so effectively inspire me to move forward faster and to innovate. And sometimes, their persistent emails promoting their next teleclass, next program and next fool-proof system drive me to lose my sense of pride in my own achievements and my own game.

Experience is good, and knowledge is valuable, but it’s a positive and persistent attitude that will keep us driving our business success forward. It’s your journey, your vision and your race with your own expectations.

Me, I’ve resolved to remind myself often that my vision is unique to me and that a daily personal best is a pretty big victory.

Your CEO Legacy

There appears that there’s more transparency now of the activities, successes and challenges of the world’s blue chip and corporate leaders. Because of this there’s more demand than ever for CEO Executive Coaching (for which I’m grateful!); encouraging impressive innovation, considered risk taking and personal skills development that the rest of the company can model as well as put their faith in.

So what do companies, workforces and shareholders expect today from a great CEO? A simple answer would be ‘perfection’; much like the new generation of strategic husband hunters who are driven by the myth that somewhere a life-partner exists who is kind, considerate, masculine yet empathetic, genius yet approachable, impulsive yet comfortingly predictable; an uber-provider with a family focus, stunningly handsome and with aspirations only for wife and family.

So, let’s prod the CEO myth a bit then. Are we really looking for the complete package – experience, clarity, contacts, motivation, passion, business prowess, intelligence, inspiration, confidence, intuition, authenticity, honesty and approachability? It’s a huge list. And when I look at it like this it seems to me to be SO much to expect from a single person. And what if a leader has risen through the ranks because they have a natural ability to inspire those around them but they’re not the quickest decision maker? What if someone excels in intuitive marketing delivering consistent off-the-scale results but their contacts book is somewhat limited?

Here’s what’s evolving in my view of leadership (my opinion being formed through the increasingly in-demand CEO Coaching I’m delivering); company success increases when diversity is fully embraced.

CEOs and senior leadership teams who understand that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, will invest in their people. And organisations with a diverse representation of employees – across gender, age, race, faith groups, sexuality, ability and disability – can tap into the richness of their company culture to succeed on a global scale.

There are SO many right ways to lead a company to success – and the essence of that comes from the ability of the C-level leaders to inspire, motivate and empower. CEO Coaching expands upon what’s already inside that corporate leader. I know you’re hearing that line from me over and over and that’s because it’s important enough to be repeated … ‘go inside for your answers’. Do all the hard work there. It prompt efficiency, insight, inspired action taking, plus the ability to take your teams and your clients, readers, listeners, viewers and customers to heights never before imagined!

Win-win-win!