Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Conscious Leadership: The Challenges of Empowerment

Laziness is my primary motivator when empowering others. If a thing is worth doing, I believe it’s worth getting someone else to do it.

This, however, is not as self indulgent as it might seem. I know that as a leader one of the first things I need to learn is to let go and trust others to get on with it.

I have not always been very good at this. However, over the years I have learnt why my old, more controlling ‘I’ll do it for you’ ways don’t really work and why empowering others is essential.

First off, lets look at confidence. My mother’s “Let me do that for you darling” – while I’m performing some simple task like making a cup of tea – is probably meant as an act of kindness. How I actually feel it is: “I am an idiot that can’t be trusted to make tea, despite the years of apparent evidence to the contrary.”

This not only irritates me but it also kicks my confidence, as it’s a tacit implication that I’m incompetent. There’s a subtlety to it though because cognitively I know I’m not, however I still irrationally feel it at some level and feelings tend to beat thoughts.

Learning is another key benefit of empowerment. In today’s fast moving, customer-centric world it is essential that everybody learns, and learns fast. Best of all is when they are so confident and engaged they take responsibility and drive their own learning.

When it comes to learning new things Mum is very much of the school of “probably shouldn’t try as it’s likely to be too difficult”. For me this is less than ideal. When I’m learning, what I really want is lots of encouragement and belief, as this helps me push through the self doubt.

Challenge is also very important to us. Solving something like a crossword puzzle or winning a video game is all the evidence we really need for this. Overcoming challenges helps us grow our self belief (or confidence) and it usually gives us a little frisson of excitement, and a sense of deeper resilience.

So why is empowerment so important? In my quest for a work free life, it is fairly obvious that once I let someone do something little – like a task I have handed them – then I  can give them more and more responsibility – until ultimately they are acting more like a leader themselves.

Effective leaders actively offer responsibility by distributing leadership power among the people that need it, allowing leadership to occur where it is needed most, often in the front line of business.  Most importantly this helps get a lot more done. It’s also likely to help teams be happier, more engaged and show more initiative.

It’s also probably helpful to think of leadership more as how you enable others to do what they need to do and then get the hell out of the way.

Although this is obvious in theory it can be quite hard to get right in practice. If you’re a control freak, for example, not only are you likely to be killing off your team’s motivation and innovation but you are likely to need more than a little help overcoming this urge.

A good and challenging place to start is delegation, and to get good at that. The more you are able to do this the more you are getting closer to allowing others around you to lead.

Inexperienced or untrained managers are most at risk of sabotaging themselves and their attempts to delegate.

The problem is, even if you are a ninja level engineer with technical insight gifted seemingly from the gods, management requires a totally and utterly different skill set and will exercise very different personality traits and emotional muscles, including some you might not have developed yet.

Many organisations miss this obvious fact and expect people to just figure it out, without proper investment in management training or personal development.

Not knowing how to be effective as a manager (common in those newly promoted to management) and without any help from those around them, before long the freshly challenged become frustrated and revert to what they do know – in this case “engineering”. They then start interfering with the “engineering” people in their teams are trying to do – showing them how they are doing it wrong and how the new boss can do it better.

As I said above, the thing most likely to undermine my confidence, motivation and general goodwill is poorly veiled criticism over my shoulder. Every “suggestion”, implies that I’m doing something wrong and thus can’t be trusted to perform the simple thing in front of me. And so I disengage.

Psychologically, I’m in a “double bind”: I’m feeling things are wrong even though I can see my way is working or valid. So I stop trying – because I’m wrong either way. I’ll go and look at what my friends on Facebook are doing instead.

Challenge is also removed – if my manager does take over and do my work for me. I lose the opportunity to learn. And, of course, I now believe he thinks I’m an idiot, so trust between us is destroyed.

It is worst of all when this exists at the top of hierarchies. Perhaps we are genetically predisposed to look up the hierarchy for tips on how to behave. So if someone senior is guilty of micromanagement, this crime can infuse the organisation below them like an unwanted inheritance.

An antidote follows. Let’s imagine the team player we’re delegating to is called Bob and he reports to me. Here is a way to set up delegation, broadly in line with the approach espoused by the late Stephen Covey. This is a mechanism that should catch any possible derailment and put the task back on track.

Bigger picture: I help Bob understand where he and what he’s doing fits into the bigger picture. What the organisation he is part of is trying to achieve. This taps into Bob’s sense of purpose and connects the task he’s achieving with that broader purpose. The context also helps him understand the implications if he does not get it done.

Ownership: I give Bob total ownership of the task. It’s up to him to get it done. This is so he is clear that no one else is responsible for achieving the desired outcome. No one is going to pick up his toys or tie his shoelaces for him. The buck stops with him. Essentially this is an invitation for him to “step up to the plate” of responsibility.

Expectations and Results: I also make sure Bob is very clear about what kind of results are expected. This will be helped if Bob already understands the bigger picture. It’s even better to ask Bob to consider the position of the other stakeholders and figure out what a good outcome for all might be.

For example, Bob might decide he needs to finish the project on time with a high quality, technically robust solution, and on, or under, budget.

Booby Traps: If there are some big obvious pitfalls in front of Bob then it’s only fair to warn him of these in advance so he can try to avoid them.

Support: If Bob is experiencing any problems, is unclear or struggling with the task, or if the delivery of the project is in jeopardy, I make it clear I am available to support to him to get through it, or to re-agree expectations. But I definitely am not going to do it for him.

Mistakes: Bob will undoubtedly make plenty of mistakes, we all do. This will help him learn and become more resourceful and do his job better, especially if all “mistakes” as are treated as learning opportunities. Not with punishment or disapproval, but with encouragement and support.

Feedback: Feedback should be a gift not a weapon. If given as a gift your teams will grow, develop and make you look good. If used as a weapon then your groups will regress, be generally unhappy and perform badly – they will be fearful of taking risks or “getting it wrong”. This kills innovation, creativity and energy.

Finally, having set all this up, you now need to live by the rules you’ve created. Again this is  basically because “monkey see, monkey do”. Other people will do as you do, not as you say. Any ambiguity also creates “wriggle room” – space to allow people to wriggle out of their responsibility. However, if you are consistently well boundaried and do what you’ve said you will do, the opportunity for others to wriggle will be minimised.

Good luck!

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Joint responsibility

There’s a lot of talk these days about responsibility in business.

To me, this always boils down to individual responsibility – individuals taking responsibility for their own actions. Without that kind of personal responsibility, any talk of ethics or morality seems, to me, to be less than useful.

But what does personal responsibility actually mean – in practice, in the nitty gritty of working life, in a company, in a business, where we are by definition working with others? Where really we mean joint responsibility, responsibility for the “we”, as well as for ourselves.

I think it boils down to three simple things:

  • Taking responsibility for my contribution – to the project, to the business, whatever.
  • Taking responsibility for the help and support I give to others in my team, in my business, around me. I can make a major difference by helping others succeed in whatever they aim to do.
  • Taking responsibility for making sure that all our aims are reasonably aligned.

It is easy to ignore the last one, and assume it is someone else’s problem – the CEO’s, for example. But if we all individually take on the responsibility for working together well as a group, I think our chances of success are much better.

That’s three areas of responsibility, not one.

If you think you are already great at all three, try this simple test: give yourself a score from 1-10 on how you currently perform in your role, in your organisation.

Be honest. Look for any signs of blaming or undermining – this may, of course, be unconscious too – in each of the three areas.

  • How fully do you take responsibility for your own actions, for gaining the results you wish to achieve?
  • How fully do you support and help others in achieving theirs? Do you really know what their goals and aims are, for example? Do you help, or sometimes, even inadvertently, get in the way?
  • And how well do you ensure that the whole group of which you are part works well? Do you sometimes, again perhaps without meaning to, undermine? Do you know that alignment is missing but fail to do or say anything about it?

Now think about how you would like your scores to be, from now on.


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Conscious Business Conversations that Enable Change

What are the important characteristics of a Conscious Business?  In July about 20 of us met in Brighton to discuss this and to develop ideas of how organisations, particularly those that are small and medium-sized, can practically become more conscious and to use this awareness to improve what they do and to share experience with others.

For large companies there are many audit tools, quality systems and awards to choose from.  From personal experience I know that they can be worthwhile, but they can be very time consuming, bureaucratic and take valuable resource out of the company.  They can have complex ways to examine and put a number on what people do in organisations (ie what people value and how they work with each other to bring about change).  Paradoxically the very act of putting a number on these interactions eclipses the essential quality of those interactions they seek to shine a light on.  The aim of the workshop was to develop something straightforward and meaningful that small and medium-sized organisations could use.

The general features were agreed, a Conscious Business is: respectful, transparent, is fair, is involved in its  community, is authentic, is humble, learns, makes a profit, is ethical, is honest, pays tax and is aware mindful of the full  impact it has.  All of these are important, but without context of what actually happens in practice they can lack meaning.

At the workshop these were further refined into the following distinct themes.

  • Conscious about Profit
  • Social Value
  • Transparency
  • Fairness
  • Have Generosity

In order to bring these themes to life in a practical way we worked on: 1) concrete and everyday examples: 2) what are the two or three question areas that bring these themes to life.  These now feature in our Changing Conscious Business Conversations Tool. There are no metrics or scoring mechanisms in the Tool.  The focus is on having conversations.  These are conversations that relate to what people do in their organisation and how they relate to their environment, suppliers and customers.  Meaningful conversations, particularly with people who you wouldn’t normally speak with, enable people to notice what has not been noticed before and to understand their importance.  A few conversations and a page or two of notes can form the basis of an action plan to bring about change.  These notes and the action plan can also form the basis of further conversations with other Conscious Businesses with the aim of sharing what works and avoiding what doesn’t.  It helps to raise the consciousness of conscious business within the community.

The tool can be found following the hyperlink here.

If you are inspired to use this in your organisation we would very much like to fear from you – what went well, what could be improved, and most importantly the difference it made.


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Why Consciousness

People sometimes ask me why am I involved with Conscious Business?

I have been involved in business for over 30 years. During that time I have worked with some marvellous people, and in some marvellous groups and companies. And we’ve done some great things.

So the business bit is easy – business is, in my view, simply the best and most powerful way to get good things done.

But why ‘conscious’?

I’ve often noticed that the things that seemed to work really well in those successful groups weren’t the stuff of conventional business or management. It was as if I was operating in a parallel world – that, to me, seemed very different from the conventional one outside.

About 10 years ago I moved to Brighton and helped create the MDhub, a collaboration of local MDs. Working with this group I realised that a lot of them wanted to do things in more innovative, more collaborative, more successful ways, but that they too could only find the one business and management book – the conventional one.

So I started working with some of them to do things in slightly different ways from how they are usually done. Business, but different.

Digging this up is a bit like archaelogy. It is only through uncovering artefacts I can date certain of these activities and things that I started to do differently.

For example, I know it was it 1987 that I learnt some of my first lessons about self-responsibility at work. On my first day of work in my new job at DEC, I was left to my own devices. On the next day too. And the next. It took a while for me to realise that I was meant to figure out what I was meant to do – for myself. Without instruction.

I know that it was during 1997 that I started doing stand-up meetings with teams, because I know that is the year that BBC News Online launched. And I remember the first large team meetings – held in an abandoned studio that had no chairs. Hence it was a “Stand-Up”.

I know it was in early 2007 that I started measuring happiness in my favourite organisation – my family. I got the idea from Paddi Lund – an Australian dentist – and my wife, kids and I measured our happiness daily for some months. I know because I still have the spreadsheets.

Having prototyped (!) the approach the only sensible thing to do was to start trying it out with the businesses I worked with.

The financial crash of 2008 certainly isn’t too far back to remember. The crash accelerated the number of MDs, and people from other fields, calling out for different, more effective ways to do business and management. The trend was already clear by then, and it wasn’t just financial. Bigger social trends such as the feminisation of the workplace were already well underway.

So working with my partners we’ve continued to develop and deliver new and different ways of doing business.

But why consciousness? Looking back the key to change in all the outfits I have worked in has always been a change in the level of consciousness, first with individuals, and then with the group.

By a change in level I don’t meant anything esoteric. Or spiritual.

I mean something quite simple to understand. But hard to achieve in practice. I mean a change in my assumptions, a shift of paradigm.

I don’t know how many levels there are.

But I do know that my experiences of 1987, 1997, and 2007 were all about increasing my consciousness and those of others.

In 1987 I learned first-hand that business worked better when I and others chose what to do.

In 1997, standing up, I and others learned that meetings weren’t the be-all and end-all of getting things done.

And in 2007 I realised that measuring happiness every day – paying attention to it – actually seemed to change my level of happiness.

There are many ways to ‘do’ change in organisations. Change is often approached like a technical problem, as if a company was a machine that could be prodded and pushed into action. Much is ‘technological’, believing that new technologies will somehow drive changes in behaviour.  Some change is ‘structural’ – change what is connected to what and things will get better.

In my view all of these work to some extent. But the thing that makes most sense to me is increasing consciousness. To me changing, and developing and growing, in fact, maturing, seems to me to be the only thing that really changes things sustainably and reliably.

I am not saying it is easy. It has taken me these three decades to make even a few real steps forward. And I often step backwards too.

But, personally, I find the process of growing my consciousness terrifying and fascinating in turns, and ultimately deeply rewarding. We get better things done, and it is more enjoyable.

That is why I choose to work in Conscious Business.


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What a week

What a week that was.

Momentous change in Egypt, people power in action – again. The process that Ghandi helped start in India in the 1920 to 40s, that continued in the U.S. Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, continues today. And, it seems, enabled by ever faster, more democratic media to be, if anything accelerating. Despite the fears of a surveillance culture, centralised control and so forth, we seem (at least to this optimist) to be moving slowly in the right direction.

And on another front it was pleasing to read and hear Michael Porter, the eminent business guru, apparently joining the bandwagon of “democratic business” (WorldBlu?), “social business” (Yunus?), “sustainable business” (Anderson?) and “conscious capitalism” (Mackey?) – all things related to what we might call Conscious Business.

Pleasing as it demonstrates how mainstream these ideas are becoming.

But beyond that it is also interesting to ask “how are we to ensure that this innovation, once underway, continues?”. Many, many forces are able to kill off good ideas long before they really get established. Indeed, does entering the mainstream always represent a good thing?

Two very familiar phenomena are backlash and whitewash.

Examples of backlash are all too common – everyone is watching Egypt with concern, for example. Will the “uprising” cause a backlash from the “system” that initially appears to allow it?

Whitewash, while less violent, is perhaps more worrying. And it is equally common when change “threatens”: for example, we all recognise “greenwash” in relation to the response of mainstream business to environmental concerns. As this new type of conscious business emerges, as my friend and colleague Tom Nixon asks: “how many of, say, the FTSE 100 or the Fortune 500 have made it real?”

In response, I’d like to quote Hunter Lovins: “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.” His point is that once somebody says something, then we can hold them to account for it.

So let’s listen to what Porter and the gurus have to say. Then see whether corporate America and corporate UK actually change. Or if they just pretend to.

And then, personally, we need to hold the line. Hold on to our own beliefs and hold others to account for what they are saying. To make sure their actions follow their words.

Of course, that requires awareness, self-knowledge and, most of all, personal strength and courage. It’s all too easy to want throw in the towel when faced by force and threat or by duplicity and pretence. Easier to give in – especially when the power of the “establishment” seems overwhelming.

For me, overcoming those desires is what Conscious Business is really about – not the big trends, not what happens in the world, not what others say and do – but what goes on inside me, the choices I make, and what I do as a result. Exploring that, in the context of business, is “the road less travelled”. But also the route to momentous change.


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Taking charge

A recent news piece on BP’s behaviour in the Gulf of Mexico made me wonder about the use of the word ‘systemic’.

I know it’s probably not what was meant. But when I read this article, “systemic” started, to me, to sound like an excuse. A reason why BP and others didn’t do what they could have. Should have.

The first time I heard that word in relation to a disaster, or a scandal of some sort, it seemed to be properly used. Indicating that there are features of the system that make a problem likely to reoccur. That the problems are deeply entrenched in the design of the system, and that these conditions ensure that individuals often behave in certain ways. That we need to reform the system. Not just scape-goat individuals.

But now, and maybe it is me, it begins to sound as if the word is trotted out whenever a major disaster or scandal occurs to absolve any individual of responsibility.

“It’s the system’s fault, I couldn’t do anything!” comes the plaintive cry.

But as Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

And where does that small group of thoughtful, committed people start? It starts, of course, with the individual. One individual needs to take a risk, change their way of thinking, say something others daren’t.

An individual within a system is, I believe, the only thing that really can start to change a system. The individual is the catalyst for system-wide change. Somewhere, sometime, were there perhaps people in BP would could have said something and didn’t? Who went along with crowd-pressure and followed the herd mentality? When there was an opportunity to say or do something different?

What does this all have to do with you and your business?

Maybe you are in a business, running it or working at the front-line, and everyone blames everyone else? Maybe everyone is rubbish at their jobs. Maybe you don’t like the way the company is set-up or structured. Maybe your boss is an idiot. Maybe the reward systems are set-up to reward the wrong things. Maybe the company regularly does bad things, or allows poor quality work in the pursuit of short-term profit.

If any of those things is wrong with the system – please don’t blame others. Don’t blame “the system”. Take responsibility. Change yourself. Be the catalyst. Be the change.

Happy New Year.


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Changing our world

Over the last few weeks the subject of ‘internal’ and ‘external locus of control’ has popped up in conversation three or four times.

Apparently, there is a general trend in society towards an ‘external locus of control’ which should, if true, make policy makers sit up and take note.

Locus of control is about the extent to which people believe they are in control of their own future. Those of us with an ‘internal’ locus of control believe we can shape what happens to us and those with an ‘external’ locus of control believe life happens to them. If people don’t feel they can influence what happens to them, then surely they’re going to rely much more on the State and on the goodwill of others.

Stephen Covey, in his hugely successful book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ says:

“Be Proactive – Your life doesn’t just happen. Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you. The choices, after all, are yours. You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose success. You choose failure. You choose courage. You choose fear. Just remember that every moment, every situation, provides a new choice. And in doing so, it gives you a perfect opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results.”

It seems to me that:

At any given moment you have a choice. You either ‘want the world to change’ or you ‘want to change the world’.