Monday, September 19, 2005

Harry Potter and the One Minute Mentor*

Neville Longbottom is the Hogwarts student known for his clumsiness, forgetfulness and general lack of inspiration. He is teased mercilessly by some, and passively overlooked by others. Hogwarts is, of course, the famous School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, so there is lots of magic to trip up Neville.

However, one day Neville is told that Professor Sprout had said he was really good at Herbology. The effect of this feedback on Neville is a surge of pride and a soothing of the failure he had just experienced. No one had ever pointed out that there was indeed one thing that Neville was good at. He was far more familiar with his deficits.

Author J.K. Rowling beautifully depicts what Ken Blanchard taught us years ago in The One Minute Manager: "To help people reach their full potential, catch them doing something right". A synthesis of Rowling on magic, and Blanchard on leadership, illustrates the essence of mentoring. If not literally magical in its effect, mentoring nevertheless wields a powerful wand when it comes to evoking confidence and success. And it doesn't require a formalized, organizational commitment to a mentoring program in order for leaders to assume the wizardry role.

Harry Potter himself is often doubtful of having any real skills. He is not the best student, to say the least: his friend Hermione is. But when Harry is stumped by a challenge he fears he can't overcome, he is advised to play to his strengths. This nudge makes Harry think outside the box and realize his outstanding skill at his favourite sport, Quidditch. (Blanchard: "People who feel good about themselves, produce good results.") He then finds he can problem-solve his way through a risky scenario involving a dragon. And as we all know, there are personal dragons aplenty!

Professor Dumbledore and Hagrid, along with other skilled leaders at Hogwarts, provide mentoring to their students, although they don't name it as such. They use skills that dovetail with, yet aren't requisite in the role of teaching. Taking advantage of mentoring opportunities as they arise, their students develop confidence and emerge to risk their personal best. And when they achieve their personal best, so do the communities in which they live and work: whether their school, their cultural group (witches and wizards) or the larger world around them where the forces of good and evil are played out.

On the other end of the spectrum is Professor Snape - a teacher who misses those moments of mentoring. Long suspected to be a dark force, he earns the suspicion by behaving in ways of questionable integrity. He allows his antagonism for Harry Potter to grow into outright hatred. Manifesting the exact opposite of Ken Blanchard's advice, Snape never passes up a chance to criticize Harry. He penalizes without discrimination, shows favouritism, fails to collaborate, and generally manifests hostility.

In reading these engrossing stories, a few characteristics of mentoring emerge with the ring of common sense:

  • Catch people doing something right;
  • Support people's use of their strengths;
  • Instil pride, never shame.

And yet the obvious can be deceptive: the act of mentoring requires a leader agreeable to the task. What does it take to mentor? Hagrid and Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall all seem to genuinely like Harry, along with his friends Ron and Hermione. Perhaps it's easiest to mentor one who is perceived as talented and personable. But they take a compassionate stance with Neville as well. Do they understand what it's like to be the one without the natural talent, the late bloomer? Or perhaps as experienced teachers they know that the only way to cultivate a talent whether visible or not, is to assume its presence. If it were "Professor" Blanchard of Hogwarts, he might repeat his maxim: "Everyone is a potential winner. Some people are disguised as losers. Don't let their appearances fool you."

The "act" of mentoring as an informal yet integral aspect of leadership, can be adopted by any given leader who believes in its efficacy. Being a good mentor is founded on:

  • Emphasizing direction over advice (occasional words of wisdom also allowed!);
  • Being worthy of trust;
  • Letting people know they have an ally.

The mentor professors of Hogwarts earn the loyalty of their students. By virtue of how they treat them, not just what they teach them, they instil the highest values in their students; for like all wisdom, wizardry can be used to the highest good or it can be misused, abused, and distorted for personal power.

Snape reaps his rewards as well: his followers represent the darker side; they are the ones whose ethics are questionable, whose deeds are self-serving. Not only does Snape not inspire the best of his profession, he himself is caught in dark entanglements that fail to advance him.

Comparing the Snape approach with that of the other professors, it is evident that not only the students benefit from good mentoring, but Hogwarts the school does as well. There is a reciprocal relationship because there is a relationship between the mentor, the one mentored, and the organization within which mentoring happens. It is a relationship of investment.

As one person receives guidance and the wisdom of those who have gone before, they are encouraged in their self-confidence and empowered to maximize their opportunities to succeed. Success for them of course, means success for their organization. Presuming the goals and values of the mentor and the organization are aligned, there are accrued benefits for both:

  • Enhanced trust and loyalty of employees;
  • Greater productivity and achievement of organizational objectives;
  • Growth of the next generation of leaders and creative thinkers.

Mentoring, then, is a much more mutual exchange than the word sometimes implies. While the young Neville Longbottom is in obvious need of bolstering from a mentor, his use of the mentoring experience allows a moral courage to emerge later that saves Harry Potter's life. How great is his potential to succeed, for himself, his friends and the Hogwarts School? We'll have to wait for book seven to see just how far he'll go!

* The title takes liberties with Ken Blanchard's management method as articulated in his many books including The One Minute Manager, co-authored with Spencer Johnson and first published in 1982.

Note: The true Harry Potter aficionado will know that Professor Moody made the mentoring comment to Neville, and yet was not who we thought he was. The Harry Potter series is replete with complex issues of identity and the nature of good and evil, and which are the stuff of another (lengthy) article. Let's not be waylaid from a useful metaphor!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Relationships At Work, That Work: How Team Culture is Co-Created

Philip doesn't like the new manager and complains privately to a colleague: "That Kim! She's too controlling. I feel micro-managed, not allowed to bring my own expertise to the table. She has an opinion about everything and what's more, I disagree with a lot of those opinions!"

The possibilities for a collaborative relationship have just plummeted, the productivity of the team has been eroded and the energy and pleasure of the work has just been squashed - not because the manager is (perhaps truly) wanting in leadership skills or because Philip's reactions to her aren't legitimate, but because she has now been left to her own devices. Instead of the position of manager, she's been promoted to a role of absolute power because hers is unmediated by the input of her colleagues.

In this scenario, Philip has an adverse and possibly adversarial reaction to Kim, but she walks away either blissfully unaware, or with a vague sense of unease, or perhaps even wondering why Philip is so prickly. In no case does she have what she needs in order to make this work for Philip and the rest of the team.

Leaders are increasingly turning their attention to the dynamics of effective working relationships and they are concurrently proving a basic tenet of quantum physics: that everything exists in relationship to everything else - or: everyone exists in relationship to everyone else. When it comes to interpersonal influence, there is no hierarchy: Philip equally impacts Kim, even if he's in the lower position of authority. Through his commitment and energy he co-creates the quality of their interaction. And certainly when his energy is actively withdrawn, he can wreak havoc.

He can do this by:
  • withholding feedback from Kim;
  • speaking his complaints to others;
  • criticizing, resisting or sabotaging her direction;
  • using undermining body language such as lack of eye contact, rolling his eyes, shrugging; and
  • generally abdicating responsibility for the working of the relationship.

And yet all these behaviours are natural human responses to feeling diminished, irritated at a lack of support, and frustrated by relational tension. If Philip is going to make a shift to greater responsibility, he will have to be convinced he's going to benefit. So, too, will the legions of colleagues who have shared this experience.

Nobody Wants to be a Bad Leader

Well, almost nobody. In Toxic Emotions at Work, Peter J. Frost lists seven sources of toxicity, only one of which involves intention. For the most part, people want to feel competent and would perform better as leaders if they only knew how. Kim may be lacking in awareness or emotional intelligence, but she may also believe she's doing what is required, may even be working hard at what she believes others want of her. Maybe she "ought to know better" but clearly she doesn't, and to let her get away with behaviours that are alienating others, helps her fail. Staying honest in the relationships and giving feedback appropriately contributes to the possibility of success. It is not without challenge to stay this course. Philip, for example, might want to say: "She's not worhty of this magnanimous response." But what is the option? The act of withdrawal does not create a neutral space - it creates a barren (at best) or even hostile environment.

Hostility Bites Back

If we assume intent on the leader's part, we have already moved into a hostile place. We are then reacting not to a particular behaviour or even style, but are ascribing values to an entire personality: "She doesn't care about anyone but herself" or the ubiquitous "she so doesn't get it". In refusing to lock into these assumptions, we diffuse the charged atmosphere and hold a space for a more collaborative, mutual relationship. Where there is space, there is possibility that the other will step into it. It may take time and require extended benefit of the doubt, or indeed it may never happen. But if you stand in Philip's place and ascribe intent and blame to the other, you will feel how his - and your - options are reduced to reacting to that intention. That robs you of your personal power. Whereas, when you are the one who has intention - that is, deciding consciously on what you want your input to be - you are out of reactive mode and free of the unpleasant toxicity of your own hostile reaction.

Becoming Your Own Coach

Is there any possibility that the size of Philip's outrage is an indication of his vulnerability? Perhaps he doubts his own skills and Kim triggers a defensive response in him. This can become an unconscious habit and one that requires self-observation to catch: when does it happen? Why? In becoming your own coach you can enhance your self-awareness and determine not to act out of place of vulnerability. Dramatic shifts can follow: instead of matching the other's poor behaviour, it becomes a springboard to your better behaviour; instead of looking for the model, you become the model. How the meeting goes becomes an act of co-creation because you ensure that who you are and what your values are and what your leadership style is, are all part of the mix.

Courage and Compassion

With increased self-awareness about his areas of competence as well as those insecurities he feels he needs to protect, Philip will be in a position of choice: to experience Kim's input as a threat or as a contribution; to be influenced to change or to hold to his course not out of defence, but out of conviction. The risk of seeing a relational disruption as solely initiated by the other, is to place all the blame on that other and thereby abdicate responsibility for the impact of our own vulnerabilities and reaction. It takes courage and self-compassion to work with one's own under-developed skill. Optimally, people are hired and promoted because they have the right skill set and experience for the position. But in their own makeup they may be no more confident or self-aware than their direct reports. A little compassion goes a long way with them, too.

Do Yourself a Supreme Favour

This culture or ethic of relationship "promotes" everyone to manager: manager of his or her working relationship. It models leadership skills up, down and sideways in the organization. And while the team is accruing complementary benefits, it is the individual who:

  • acquires agency over his or her own emotional life;
  • meets a challenge by growing self-knowledge and leadership skills;
  • minimizes the fallout from poor leadership (even if some machinations slip through!); and
  • contributes to a positive and collaborative team culture.

Kim may never become Philip's favourite manager. In fact, irritation and disappointment may be part of his on-going experience with her. But there's the silver lining: only part of his experience. The balance lies in the personal authority that returns energy to the productivity and pleasure of the work.

[As published in Your Workplace - June/July 2005]

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Finding the Glass Half Full: Reframing Ethics in Associations

What is stimulating new ethical awareness in our associations? Issues of ethics, accountability and governance are both front-page news and front-and-centre for corporations. Enraging for shareholders, frightening for CEO's, scandals are driving the building of new ethical parameters. If associations aren't putting out fires under the blazing scrutiny of the legal, financial and public watch, reactivity isn't fuelling change. Where, then, is the impetus for ethical growth?

Precisely because associations are not having to deal with public airings of their misdeeds, their energy and vision can be focused on building high functioning organizations. The difference is rather like tending to the sails in calm weather instead of once the storm is in full force. The job may - may - get done either way, but in relatively calm waters it is done without trauma and no one is lost overboard. In less chaos, the team can work more collaboratively and the task is energizing, not depleting.

Most, if not all, associations have codes of ethics in place and in the absence of particular drama may wonder "if it ain't broke, why fix it?" However the reason to continue building on these foundations lies in tremendous realizable value beyond the intent to forestall harm. The "glass half full" refers to these benefits:

  • greater clarity and vision in delivery of service;
  • enhanced relationships with all partners;
  • increased reputation and clout in one's industry or field;
  • accelerated individual motivation and team productivity;
  • a self-propelling energy that makes people want to be part of and respond to what they see.

On the continuum, we move from a place of clearly unethical behaviour at one end, to the neutrality of "no harm" in the centre. "The Rules" are drawn up and then forgotten until someone is "caught" doing something wrong. While they do have an important function, rules can sometimes relieve the individual of responsibility for their own consciousness and ownership about what constitutes good and appropriate relational interaction.

Since reluctance to own the impact of our behaviour is fortified by shame and defence, our ethical growth will be assisted by systems that don't unduly induce these natural human states. We reap the greater reward at the end of the continuum that seeks to intentionally build right relationship.

Ken Blanchard taught us an apparently simple lesson a couple of decades ago with The One Minute Manager: catch people doing something right. While he was talking about management style and leadership, his is a helpful concept to apply here. Deliberately and voluntarily turning attention to what is right about how we go about our business from a relational perspective, points the way to an expansive ethical stance. This intentionality informs the development of methodologies (codes, best practices) for the on going heightening of awareness. Hence a generative loop is complete: behaviour informs the articulated stance informs the behaviour - all fuelled by organizational commitment.

Learning from the Corporations

For corporations, success is measured economically. Because of their legal responsibility to shareholders to be profitable, they have less room to consider any impact that isn't measured in dollars. Therefore, their route to ethical corporate behaviour will be a necessarily longer one, involving many shifts in legal, financial, production, marketing, environmental and human resources realms.

Joel Bakan's The Corporation - both the book and movie - explains the corporation's legal standing as a "person" and then poses the question: what kind of person is it? Using psychiatric criteria, the answer comes in the diagnosis of "psychopath". The corporation is found to be incapable of relationship. Symptoms include lack of empathy, superficial relating to others, inability to accept responsibility for actions, and lack of remorse, among others. Entangled in their legitimate need to be profitable, relationship is left unattended except as it serves the need for profitability. That's relationship to human as well as environmental resources.

There are exceptions in the corporate world, of course, and an heroic one comes in the person of Ray Anderson, Chair of Interface, Inc. the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer. This is a manufacturing sector that has a huge and adverse impact on the environment. After 20 plus years of business success, Ray Anderson realized, in his words, that he is a "plunderer" - that the earth and its resources cannot sustain the damage being done to it. "Someday people like me will end up in jail." He came late to this awareness and not because he was "caught out". But once he came to it, he succumbed to neither defence nor shame, but to action. He set about making substantial changes, growing his company toward environmental sustainability and leading the way for others.

While economic considerations are important to associations as well, they are not bound to them in the same way. A key function of the association's job is that of bridge builder. They are service oriented, promoting excellence and an image to match. In part they do this by taking a larger view and offering a common well from which can be pumped up a resource for many. They are, therefore, positioned to lead in the modelling of what is acceptable, even preferable, in how we go about achieving our collective goals.

If the association were viewed as a person, what kind of person would they be?

The Ethics of Relationship

Ray Anderson was willing to stand in relationship to the environment he was plundering, in relationship to the clients who were asking about Interface's environment vision, and in relationship to his own team who were asking for leadership.

While there are some great complexities in the realm of ethics, we can actually talk about the ethics of relationship in a very accessible way. Rather than starting with a code of conduct or a theory, the entry here is the relationship. Whatever that relationship is, be it manager and direct reports, executive director and board, co-ordinator and volunteers, the same principle applies: allow those relationships and one's own subjective experience to inform how to proceed. The ethics of relationship is about operating from within the relationship, with all its chaos and conflicts of interest and communication problems and yet being willing to ask "what is right, under these circumstances, in this relationship?" We are informed by questions such as:

  • How will this (project, plan) impact our relationships with staff? With volunteers? With stakeholders?
  • Are there any conflicts between what we're proposing and our values as articulated in a code of ethics or mission statement?
  • Can I personally stand behind this action, honestly and without justification or defence?

This approach requires authenticity. It cannot be done for show or appearance. Authenticity requires congruence between what is being espoused and what is being enacted. It requires accessibility and a degree of transparency. Allowing for real personal interplay is what gives any ethical guide a living, actuated potency.

The ethics of relationship isn't punitive and policing, siphoning off energy to mend, amend or defend. It is an enhancing, even enticing aspect of engagement. It puts the generative juice into our teams.

The Corporation itself provides us with another piece of useful learning. It tells a critically important story in a way that has riveted the public's attention. It depicts examples of relationship along a continuum of (mostly) unethical to sound and respectful. It has educated and informed and provided a rallying point for change. In this it is a good book and movie. But if we turn from how The Corporation is about relationship to how it is in relationship, what can we assess? If you call someone a psychopath, how likely are they to engage with you? I asked earlier what kind of person the association might be if measured by standards of mental health. Readers of this article would likely have dropped off dramatically by this point if I had suggested a pejorative answer.

Associations: A Chance to Lead?

Some corporations have unwittingly taken on an important task for the rest of us: teaching us, by virtue of modelling, what not to do. The magnitude of some of the ethical breaches makes clear the issues, and demands that we face them. Without that magnitude, there would not have been the broad public awareness, and the opportunity for change and for understanding would have slipped by once again.

Now, this is a hard way to effect change; need it be the only way? Can associations contribute to the collective consciousness - and do they want to? Is there a return on this investment?

I pose the questions and hope I have also posited some answers. At the end of the day, no matter what else has gone wrong, advancing ethical behaviour by living it, and putting energy into true relationship building would seem to be "value added" in the highest sense of its meaning.

[As published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) in Association -October/November 2004]

Sunday, May 09, 2004

'Gleeful' Begs The Question: How To Make Room For Accountability?

The Canadian Government sponsorship scandal was but one of a list of failures in corporate governance. The list grew - one suspects - in direct proportion to unprecedented public outrage. Enron, CIBC, Hollinger, even Martha Stewart: issues of corporate governance are not new. What is, is the entry into public consciousness of previously walled-off information. We are more savvy, more cynical some would say, and more willing to question authority.

Notice the degree to which issues of power and ethics - corporate and political - have entered popular culture. As readers we make Michael Moore a best seller. We pack movie theatres to watch nearly 3 hours of truly disturbing corporate abuse in "The Corporation".

Everyday all forms of media lead with the latest details, or often in the absence of details, endless speculation about wrongdoing. The headlines gleefully announce: lord black humbled! And we the readers are equally gleeful in our response. We seem to relish the downfall of the powerful. Watch the Opposition during question period as they hammer away at the Prime Minister: there too you will see a startling delight on the faces of MPs whenever they feel they've scored a point.

Surely there's something wrong about all this glee. On the one hand we're genuinely distressed by misuse of power, misappropriation of public funds and cover-ups. But how does that square with a self-righteous satisfaction? At first glance you'd think we were actually happy that our authority figures are screwing up.

And what do we want? Punishment, banishment, and a casting-out? Get the "bad guys" out of power, out of sight? Replace them with the "good guys"? Well, that presupposes that the lines are that absolute; identify an Alfonso Gagliano, send him off and it will all go away? As a symbol, there is no Denmark far enough away. Good guys with enough power, in a complex world with conflicting demands, can become bad guys - that is, they can and will err.

It's a primitive part of us that wants retaliation, and as an instinct it is understandable. A wrong needs to be redressed, a conflict requires resolution. The question is: what does retaliation beget? Experience would seem to suggest it begets defence, entrenchment and reciprocal retaliation. I suspect that what most of us are longing for is for someone, just once, to have the courage to stand up and say: "I'm sorry. I take responsibility. I will listen and learn and put in place practices that ensure ethical, responsible behaviour in the future." But try that on personally. How easy do you find it to withstand your own shame when you mess up? What's your instinct? Mine is to defend. When you tell me how bad or irresponsible I've been - especially when I've been working hard and my intent has been to the good - my first instinct is to provide all the reasons why you're wrong. And I don't think I'm alone in this. I think we're hard-wired for defence. The stakes are very high when career, reputation and livelihood are threatened. So by setting out to pillory miscreants, we actually reinforce that reptilian need to defend and thereby make impossible the owning of our mistakes. And the greater the mistake, of course, the greater the defence.

When our organizational systems support criticism rather than collaboration, they support defence rather than accountability. When we seek solely to punish (blame, fire, sanction) we miss the opportunity for ethical reflection, learning and the enhancement of responsibility. And certainly when we smugly settle for "getting the bad guy" we miss another maxim: there but for fortune go you or I.

When we think of human development we tend to think in terms of individuals. But groups, communities, countries go through developmental processes as well. It follows, then that we are fortunate to be at a stage of development where things are no longer hidden, but are available for us to grapple with. To be able to see and observe is a mark of maturity. Acknowledging the body of evidence in front of us that organizations - be they business, associations or government - are in ethical deep waters, is a requirement in our collective developmental process. We are paying attention, asking questions and demanding that those in positions of authority act with integrity and honesty, and ensure ethical organizational practices. We are demanding accountability and consequences, but there will never be enough rules and punishment to create the environment that fosters the very qualities we want embedded in that environment. Punishment and retaliation may promise to satisfy an instinct, but they will not further the goal of restoring trust, nor will they in and of themselves, raise our ethical consciousness.

My question is: How do we begin to influence our respective environments in ways that promote this ethical accountability rather than an entrenched defensiveness? How do we shift from criticism to collaboration? Do we even want to?

[As published in The Association Agenda - May 17, 2004

An online publication of The Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE)]