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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Shut up, and listen

Last night I attended an RSA and University of Brighton event on the question ‘What is the role of men in supporting women into leadership?’

This was a follow-up to a larger event a few months back entitled ‘How women lead’. That was a great session, with a lot of energy. Creating a follow-up must have seemed a very logical next step.

All the panelists seemed to agree that there is a problem: there are not enough women in leadership positions – in both public and private sectors.

And as Simon Fanshawe, OBE, pointed out ‘complex problems require difference and diversity’. Many of our most significant problems today, from the social to the environmental to the economic are complex problems, problems that require different ways of thinking and acting.

Some good points were made.

Fairly obviously, ‘structural problems’ prevent women acceding to leadership positions.

James Rowlands, Violence against Women Commissioner, illustrated the importance of language by telling us about ‘mansplain’ – the phenomena when a man in a group takes it upon himself to explain what a women just said.

There was talk of the ‘fat, white middle-aged man trap’ and of re-framing what it takes to be a senior leader.

Giles York, Chief Constable of Sussex Police, pointed out the importance of holding people to account. Walking the talk is more important than talking the talk?

So why didn’t we, the audience, hold the panel to account? What might have been the structural problems that prevented that?

Structural Problems?

Firstly, it was an all male panel. That was interesting. Don’t women have a say in answering the question ‘What is the role of men in supporting women into leadership?’?

Secondly, with one exception these appeared to be very traditional leaders: a consultant, two CEOs, and a Chief Constable. We didn’t get to hear much from James Rowlands.

Thirdly, the room was set up in traditional lecture style. Chair and panellists at the front, (hiding?) behind a table. They had water, and microphones, we didn’t. Were these signals of power, showing us exactly who was in charge?

But if we had been brave enough to deal with those ‘structural problems’ what might we have held the panellists to account for?

Reframing Leadership?

Might we have asked what does ‘reframing leadership’ mean?

One possible reframing is towards a more enabling style of leadership, one that involves listening more than speaking.

Business theorist Chris Argyris, amongst others, has spoken of the difference between ‘advocating’ and ‘enquiry’.

Advocating is when we hold a position and tell others about it, and essentially recommend what others should think.

Enquiry is radically different. Enquiry, as I understand it, is a place of vulnerability – of not knowing. Starting from that place of vulnerability and exploring a topic. Engaging in dialogue, back and forth, while really listening. Trying to empathise,  to understand another’s point of view.

And possibly, just possibly, updating our own.

A lovely Argyris quote: ‘People don’t listen, they reload’.

Not only were there ’structural problems’, but there also seemed to me to be a lot of advocacy. Again and again, the consultant, the CEOs and the Chief Constable, assisted by Penny Thompson (CBE, CEO of Brighton & Hove City Council) told us how it was, leavened by a few jokes, statistics and stories to help keep us entertained and in thrall?

Questions from the Floor?

Yes, there were some questions from the floor. But might we have asked whether these were part of the enquiry? Or just further advocacy?

I am not saying this happens with every question. But sometimes it is worth looking for the advocacy hidden in a question. ‘Does the panel think X, where X is what I think, and what I really want is for you to agree or expand upon what I have just said, confirming it and making me feel good’. Advocacy or enquiry?

Or ‘I’d be interested to know what the panel thinks about Y because that demonstrates how knowledgeable I am and I would love for you to talk to me later and even perhaps employ me to help with your problems.’ Advocacy or enquiry?

Yes, enquiry is difficult. For all of us. Families and school teach us about power, and they teach us about the importance of advocacy. Sometimes with force. Sometimes with violence.

When we’re anxious, in front of a crowd, maybe advocacy seems the easiest path? Perhaps it’s especially difficult for men in traditional leadership roles to be vulnerable? Maybe it means giving up power, and status, and position?

Reframing Leadership?

And maybe it takes real courage to ‘walk the talk’ – to reframe leadership, and to hold each other to account, to be vulnerable? Perhaps it means allowing vulnerability – in ourselves, as well as others?

Someone in the audience asked the question ‘What is the change we’re all afraid of?’ That is a great question, and I’d have loved to have heard a real discussion, and heard people’s views.

But I couldn’t see the chance, that particular evening. I was sad about that. It felt like a missed opportunity.

Where were the young women – Gen Y or Gen Z – in all this, I wonder? I would have liked to have heard from some younger people. Maybe they would have been able to give us some pointers, some good ideas?

Maybe they would have said that the role of men in supporting women into leadership is to make sure that a genuine dialogue takes place, to make sure that as well as appropriate language, there is equivalence of opportunity to speak? For all – the young, the old, the extroverts, the introverts, the women, and the men?

That’s obviously what I think. I’m advocating that position. But I’d genuinely love to hear some other views. I’d love to be contradicted, to hear I was wrong. Or maybe just not quite right, not in command of the full picture? Maybe I could add some new ideas, maybe I could throw out some old ones? Only then can I learn.

I am really encouraged that these conversations are taking place. But I agree with Giles York, we need to ‘walk the talk’, and hold each other to account.

Creating that kind of dialogue requires real leadership – it can seem hard to rearrange the furniture, to make a circle, to stop, and to listen.

Maybe that’s where the (young) women were? Talking together? And waiting for the men to shut up and listen?

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Spark the Change – A conference for Inspiration and action

The Spark the Change conference is happening in London July 3rd & 4th, and it’s exciting from a Conscious Business perspective.

http://sparkthechange.co.uk/

It’s all about different approaches to running businesses and there is a lot of the feel of Conscious Business about it all, so we thought we should get involved. The ‘Spark’ is the inspiration bit from the conference but I guess the ‘Change’ is where it can get a bit tricky.

So with that in mind and with our ‘Conscious Business People’ hats on we’re running a workshop on the Friday at 11.30am all about how Congruence can save your business. It will give attendees something tangible they can take away to move their organisation forwards.

But… we’re all about practice, impact and action, and given the session is only a couple of hours we thought: How can we better encourage people to go away and start some actual change happening? Would £1,000 help? Probably!

So along with the Spark the Change people we’ve created ‘The Spark Award’ and are giving £1,000 to the person that most impresses the panel with how they’ve implemented something they’ve learned from the conference.

In addition, they’ll also get:

  • An article all about the experience to be published in InfoQ
  • A speaker’s slot at Spark 2015
  • A professionally produced case study.

The Spark Award is open to participants at Spark — including speakers and the holders of workshops. This is about leading change!

There is no definition of what type of change, how big or small, whether it succeeds or fails or is still ongoing.

Your spark could be about trying a new process or structure, it could be about a change in your own behaviour. We care about why this spark was important to you and your organisation, about HOW you went about implementing, and about how much you and others around you learned in the process.

So come to the conference, get inspired, implement something and maybe win £1000 in the process.


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We’ve come a long way baby

In its short history, the human race has achieved some magnificent things. But together we’ve also created a host of complex, and very serious, social and environmental problems.

Of the three powerful forces in society – business, the public/charitable sector, and politics/religion/media – I believe it is only business which has the power and the flexibility to address these problems.

Power because of its reach – the ability to touch many lives, even from a small base.

Flexibility because only business seems to be currently capable of transforming itself – reinventing itself. Away from greed and personal profit and towards really addressing those broader, much more important problems. Above all, business listens, and people are crying out for change.

But change alone isn’t enough. Too often change just means small improvements to delivering the status quo. We need ‘step-change’ – real transformation. Transformation is beyond change – it means adopting a new purpose, and a completely new way of operating, with new energy.

I am reminded of the story of one visitor to Ray Anderson’s visionary company Interface. A fork-lift truck driver, working for a company that makes office carpets, after helping her all he can, tells the visitor he must get on, because he’s “busy saving the planet”.

That is the new kind of energy we need in business people. Energy released by belief in a new kind of purpose.

How do we get there? As the author Jeanette Winterson said in her New Year resolution: “It is important to work out what is important. Living consciously has never mattered more.”

Individually and collectively we need to raise our consciousness. To become part of the group who are trying to transform things, systemically, radically – at the root.

We need to become more aware of what matters, why it matters, and what we can do, and are doing, about it.

And often are not doing. We need to become aware of our habits and the other things that hold us back. Conscious of our failings, as well as our successes. That means internal, personal work. As much as putting our heads above the parapet.

There are many, many people on this journey. It is not my place to tell you what you should do. But I can tell you what we are doing.

We are building a business – Conscious Business People – that helps leaders discover a more important purpose, a transformational purpose for themselves and their businesses.

Then we help those leaders develop transformational strategy, structure and culture – to create businesses that are part of the solution. Businesses with positive purpose, and radically better behaviours, and much higher levels of awareness.

We help businesses and the people in them become more conscious, and stay that way.

Many will say this is foolhardy, it will never succeed. That mixing business with purpose is simply wrong and doomed to failure. But I think it’s the only game in town. The only game worth playing.

I’d love to know what you think, what you’re doing to “save the planet”.

Happy New Year.


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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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4 good reasons to make your business more conscious now

I get some perplexed looks when I mention ‘conscious business’, which are often initially followed by further confusion as I try to explain the concept. This is because on the face of it, it does not sound very ‘business-like’. But then, maybe the problem with business practice as we’ve always known it, is that it has actually remained too ‘business-like’ and that hasn’t evolved along with the needs, awareness and expectations of society. This leads me to my first point…

  1. Evolution through expectations in the workplace

It might be living in Brighton, it might be that I’m getting older, but it feels like we’re finally getting over the ‘greed is good’ hump and refocusing towards something a bit more enriching. Maybe trying to climb an increasingly greasy pole makes us pause for thought and wonder why we’re focusing so much energy on that specific objective and not so much on everything else in life, such as making it more enjoyable, or pondering what it would be like to look forward to going to work every day because we just love it there.

This is not unique to our generation, it’s the ongoing culmination of the evolution that has been before us and that continues every day. The same basic principles that eradicated slavery, for example, have influence on the increased adoption of flexible working hours, less structured working environments, less formality, project days once a week, etc.

We’re slowly realising that effective collaboration and a well boundaried democracy is far more productive, adaptable and enjoyable than a mono-focused dictatorship. Conscious business is the natural next step in the business evolutionary process and it’s already happening.

  1. Knowledge changes things

Being able to Google anything from your pocket – apart from ruining the pub quiz – has a more profound impact on how society functions because the wide distribution of knowledge means we’re no longer living in the dark, trusting only a few questionable sources.

Part of this shift to knowledge ubiquity has been the rattling of the skeletons in many company’s cupboards. In fact now it’s a bit like the cupboard doors have been removed so all can see inside. So if a company is less than honest and perhaps a little too cut-throat in their practice, the knowledge of this will increasingly decide how and more importantly if, we deal with these people now or in the future.

Consider the web site TripAdvisor: when people have good or bad holiday experiences they have a forum to publicise this information. This knowledge helps others decide whether they want to go to a particular hotel, for example, but most importantly it transfers control of the hotel’s reputation into the hands of the hotel users who are perhaps more objective than the hotel itself.

So if you are not open, honest and genuine in your dealing with your clients you rapidly risk being left behind as your potential customers go to those hotels that are. Wouldn’t it be better to be the hotel that they move to, rather than the one they move from?

Now this sort of balance is what we’ve always wanted but we’ve never had the tools to achieve it before. To that extent, though social media has provided the tool, it’s in response to an underlying desire for balance and fairness that is innate within us. And this is an important distinction: what we innately desire is conscious business, it’s just we’ve lacked the tools to achieve it. Without this desire, TripAdvisor would never have been conceived, let alone built.

On the other side of this the internet also empowers us to make change directly, hence:

  1. The empowerment of the general public

The other part of the ‘TripAdvisor effect’ is that if you’ve been poorly treated by a company as a customer or in B2B dealings, you can broadcast that experience to the world quite easily. So suddenly we’re empowered and the knowledge that we can do this makes us less likely to accept substandard practice.

Last time I got stitched up by restaurant owner, who admitting the mistake (thinking I was a tourist rather than a local) refused to do anything about it, I posted a factual article about the experience on a local restaurant review site for others to read. There were many similar complaints from others – maybe I should have checked first – next time I will.

Now I know most people reading this would never consider ‘stitching anyone up’ for anything but the point is in a business that attempted some empathy with their customers rather than just trying to say the right things to extract the maximum amount of money, one where the client is valued as an ongoing relationship rather than a ‘mark’ to fleece, that business would be full of clients throughout the sparse ‘tourist free’ winter months. This one is always empty. Now I know why.

Again my personal desire was to redress the balance because I’ve been swindled by sharp practice and left with an unwholesome taste in my mouth. It’s just that before I could never do anything other than mention this to a few friends, and now I feel a real sense of  redress because I have ‘outed’ them publicly.

Social media is the tool but it’s only used because there is a desire from me wanting to do something about the situation, to let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable in a way where they can’t brush it under the carpet and to warn others.  Personally I only want the nice, fair businesses to survive and I think I’m probably not alone in that.

Which neatly leads me to the last point and that’s all about spin.

  1. We are better spin detectors

Spin has been the norm in political messaging for a good long time, but because we are aware of it, we’ve got more cautious about believing it and on the whole we’re pretty sick of it. We know when we’re being spun and very often where to look to find the truth or at least what sort of questions to ask to reveal what the spin is designed to conceal. We’re tired of being lied to and want something better than that.

If you think about your relationships in general you will probably find that, if you are honest with yourself, what you prize more now than ever is truthfulness or congruence in how you’re communicated with. We’re tired of being bullshitted to and we increasingly know when it’s happening.  So a very positive differentiator when attracting customers is to be straight with them.

Also remember being congruent is just sooo much easier as well. One of my favourite quotes, from Oscar Wilde I think, is this: ‘People who never lie have it easy because they never have anything to remember.’ If you are always straight and open you will build trusting, long lasting and fruitful relationships.

So where does all this take us? Well, there are lots of reasons to make your business more conscious, but none better than to capitalise by being in front of the revolution as the sort of business that everyone in society wants you to be, rather than desperately trying to catch up when you’ve been left behind.


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Becoming a Conscious Business

Fairly regularly I find myself trying to explain what a Conscious Business is.

I have answered this in terms of strategy before; and also in terms of what CB is not.

But this time I thought I’d try to answer a variant of the question: “What does a Conscious Business look like from the inside?”

At the core of a Conscious Business are people, of course. In my view, every business is simply a bunch of people, when you boil it down.

And in a Conscious Business these people are – well – conscious.

By that I mean self-aware. They reflect regularly. They assess themselves. With compassion for themselves – and with respect, empathy and congruence for others.

They’re also as open as they can be to change. They learn all the time, and a lot of that learning is about themselves.

And they work together in certain ways: for example, they challenge each other’s ideas, decisions, and behaviour. They’re open and honest – about strengths and failings.

They believe in possibility, not certainties. They’re humble. They have fun. They take responsibility – and are able to hold each other to account.

And they take joy in working with others – trying to create something valuable for themselves and others.

Having all this at the core means the business has a clear identity and is suffused with meaning and purpose. It is transparent and open to the outside world.

It is resilient and flexible, profitable, does less harm, offers truly valuable products and services, is highly attractive to customers, and is better able to attract and give a great home to key employees.

Of course, there are many businesses that are already like this. I’ve worked in some, and you may have too. (We’re not “inventing” anything new here. We’re just trying to help businesses as they grow and become more conscious.)

And a conscious business isn’t really a thing at all; it isn’t any of these things in a static sense. It’s a process – of growth and development – something that is always changing, always becoming.