Category: Articles

Resilience

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I bend, I don’t break.
I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

sprout-1147803_960_720

It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity.  Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.1,2

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

3-factor model of resilience

What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Ann Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. I love this because it marks it out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about these factors:

  1. Finding meaning
    I’ve written before about purpose as a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause. Purpose gives us direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?
  2. Flexibility
    Fixed patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. How can I widen my perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can I learn from this setback?(For more on this, I recommend Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets.)
  3. Support
    What company am I keeping? Resilience is not developed in social isolation. What positive and mutually supportive relationships can I build?
  4. Mindfulness
    Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.
  5. Proactivity
    What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to get ourselves out of a pit is to take back control – by taking one small step at a time.
  6. Perspective and taking responsibility
    Ask yourself these questions: What can you control about this situation? What contribution are you making to it?

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd


1I’ve previously written about how it’s not events in life that affect you, it’s the personal meaning that you attach to those events (typically because they’ve destabilised or taken away some core aspect of your sense of identity). It’s a little out of the scope of this article, though.

2It’s important to know that the loss of resilience is something that happens in response to normal life experiences. It is typically temporary. This needs to be distinguished from abnormal physical or psychological trauma, such as childhood abuse or involvement in a major road traffic accident. These kinds of traumatic life events are not part of our normal life experience, and any inability to cope with them is never any reflection on your capability. If this has happened to you, there is help out there. You may wish to read about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) here.

 

 

Thoughts become things – cognitive behavioural coaching and taking…

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of themLast week I wrote about learning more about cognitive behavioural psychology as part of my ongoing professional development – often encountered in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but also increasingly employed in the coaching domain. This post also links to my previous post on freedom where I wrote about making active choices.

I think the quote above, from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, sums up the core of CBT very pithily. The origins of modern psychotherapy can legitimately be traced to classical philosophical schools like Stoicism, which is, if you will, the original cognitive therapy (Albert Ellis, who founded the first form of CBT, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), has acknowledged the lineage from Stoic philosophy).

There is a great deal of synergy between the cognitive behavioural approach and coaching, particularly from a constructivist perspective. People can fall into the trap of being a passive participant in their own lives, and it’s very easy to tip over into becoming a victim of your circumstances. I often talk to clients about becoming actively involved in constructing their own realities (note: which is not the same as ignoring objective facts!) rather than playing a part in a story someone else has written for them. Learning and growing occurs when you are actively involved in a process of making meaning in your life, understanding the thoughts and beliefs that you hold and then taking conscious control of them.

The concept of mental control, heavily distilled, might look somewhat like this.

 

 

In a nutshell, there are things we can control, things we can influence, and things we can’t really do anything about. Although we might have legitimate concerns about what other people do and what’s happening in the world, very often we have little to no control over these things. What we do have control over are what we choose to think and feel, and how we choose to behave. And the kinds of thoughts and beliefs and feelings that we hold, and our subsequent behaviour, can make our realities happy or miserable. This is at the core of the cognitive behavioural approach. CBT and its coaching counterpart, CBC, teach that it is the meaning that we attach to events that causes our emotional reactions, not the events themselves, and that we can learn to choose different behaviours through retraining our thoughts and beliefs.

A key word here is ‘choice’. Everything that we do is a choice. Sometimes we may think that we have no choice but to respond or react in a certain manner – we say things like “she made me angry”, “I was forced into a corner”, “he is the reason I am in this predicament”. The trouble with this is that it opens up the door to everyone else being the cause of your problems, and us discounting or forgetting the part we have played in any given situation (often also the part that we continue to play, if we’ve fallen into the role of victim).

What’s the alternative? Accepting responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Viktor E. Frankl said that “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I very much like this quote because I think taking psychological responsibility – responsibility for our thoughts and feelings – is fundamental to our psychological wellbeing. This is a world away from a damaging  blame game – it moves us right across into the empowerment of realising that you do not have to rely on changing others, or your situation, before you can feel better or act differently.

Your thoughts don’t have to become your reality. They’re opinions, not facts. (Opinions welcome in comments below!)

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Freedom

I’m not sure if today’s blog post is going to hang together coherently. There are a few themes running through my head that all connect, but I’m not quite convinced I’ve connected them yet. See what you think.

Anyway. A couple of weeks ago, while attending Mass in Singapore, I listened to a homily about freedom. The message was that freedom shouldn’t be equated with liberation.

Dictionaries commonly define freedom first and foremost as “the power or right to act, speak or think as one wants”. Liberation, meanwhile, is commonly “freedom from limits on thought or behaviour”. So, a bit of a circular reference, but the point was that freedom shouldn’t be about self-gain – what I want, when I want – but should instead be about exercising free will in the service of others, with conscience and responsibility.

Now, there was obviously a religious slant to this, but whether you are of any other faith or none, I thought there was something to reflect on and find relevance in. I last wrote about freedom in the context of wandering, in the context of a book I’ve been reading called “A Little Nostalgia for Freedom” (Steve Bonham). And when I think about wandering, I think about wandering with a purpose. Not to get somewhere, because that is somewhat paradoxical, but as part of inhabiting the world in a certain way; as part of an active choice to remain in a mode of inquiry.

Which brings me to the choices we make. I’ve argued before that everything we do is an act of choice – even when it might seem that we haven’t got a say in a matter, we remain in control of how we react and respond to our circumstances. Henley writes in Invictus: “It matters not how strait the gate/How charged with punishments the scroll/I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.” The truth is the same for the freedoms we exercise. I think that rights necessarily come with responsibilities and limits, because to argue otherwise leads to anarchy. So in freedom we have to take responsibility for the ways in which we choose to think and act.

You could look at this in two ways – responsibility to self, and responsibility to others. First, there is little point in blaming others for the decisions we make. To do so is to play victim and that’s a slippery slope that comes to no good end. Beyond this, I like to think that there will always be a moral core of decency in people that chooses to look for the best in others and tries often to act for the higher good rather than the selfish gain.

My own take-home message: In a world where you could choose to be lots of things? Choose to be kind.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

About talking, and being scared

I’m on tour in Singapore for the next fortnight and the iPad isn’t really cooperating so I’m going with the flow and keeping it simple. A short text post this week, therefore.

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication and dialogue. Last night I had a long, intense conversation about moral theology, doublespeak, homosexuality and transgender issues, the principle of double effect, relativism, and diagnoses of madness coming ever closer to the boundary of ‘normal’. It got slightly charged at some points, and if I had been feeling vulnerable, the way in which my language and opinions were criticised would have cut pretty close to the bone. In the past I have mostly shied away from discussions like this as I have always felt unable to confidently articulate what I believe – I have felt intimidated by what I perceive to be others’ superior knowledge or intelligence. As it was, I think I held my ground. I asked questions and sought clarity, and was forthcoming in expressing my objections about the language of some of the criticism. My interlocutor withdrew the term of criticism that I’d taken exception to. We found we agreed on more than we may have initially thought, and politely respected each other’s positions where we disagreed, recognising that our different life experiences and influences will have shaped the views we hold. The me of five years ago would have avoided engaging with what turned out to be a rather valuable conversation in the end.

Separately, Trump and Kim are coming to Singapore next week for what will undoubtedly be an interesting conversation. And separately again, a close friend is having a meeting this week which is really significant in terms of opening up the channels of communication for important future dialogue.

What determines the quality of our interactions? We all come to the table with various assumptions, preconceived notions, biases, hopes and expectations. Sometimes we take risks in entering that dialogue. Sometimes potentially major ones, in the case of North Korea vs America chez Singapore, but more often than not, the risks we perceive are simply to our comfort and emotional and psychological security. To put it bluntly, on some level, when it comes to conversations that are emotionally charged in some way or which can trigger our insecurities, lots of us are scared.

So what do you do, if you are? Well, in the words of Susan Jeffers, face the fear and do it anyway. We don’t get less scared through avoidance; we get less scared through accepting that we’re scared and then engaging with the fear, because you need to practice to get better at anything. Progress can be slow, but you don’t grow unless you start the journey. Three things that have helped me: learning how the art of questioning can help you; being absolutely clear about what you think and what you want (if you’re going into a conversation with a purpose); and realising that you often know more than you think about any given subject.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Drop me a message!

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Attachment and detachment

IMG_7338In the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to people about the difference between a goal-oriented mindset and a systems mindset, and the difference between commitment to action and attachment to the outcome of that action.

I recently learnt about two terms in Ancient Greek, telos and skopos. The distinction is that, unlike skopos, telos suggests an end or goal not in the sense of the thing you aim at, but rather your aiming at that end. In other words, telos = doing or getting something, and skopos = the thing done or begotten.

I like this distinction because the way in which we set goals for ourselves can affect our motivation and sense of achievement. To give an easy-to-visualise example – if you were an archer learning to shoot, your skopos might be to hit a bullseye, whereas to shoot well might be your telos. Similarly with the difference between aiming to lose twenty pounds in two months and eating well every day, or making a million pounds vs. building a business that’s true to your values. Your telos is absolutely within your reach, but your skopos is likely to depend on factors not always within your control.

So what’s the lesson? The importance of learning to detach yourself from the results of your actions. Another way you might choose to look at this is learning to appreciate the process, not just the outcomes. Achievement is not always marked by the tangible and the concrete. And life should not be viewed through the lens of success and failure, but rather in terms of all the experiences that make you who you are.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

What motivates you?

motivation trifecta-3

A little while ago I posted about the book Drive (Daniel Pink) and the ‘motivation trifecta’. The idea is that, in contrast to the (outdated) carrot-and-stick paradigm, we’re all catalysed by basic drives to achieve three things: autonomy (the desire for self-direction); mastery (the desire to keep getting better at something that matters to us); and purpose (the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause). In brief? We want to be good at something that has meaning for us, and to be allowed to get on with it.

There’s a great summary in the video below (adapted from a talk given by Daniel Pink at the RSA).

When it comes to work, I like to equate autonomy with being given a licence to operate. One of the (suite of) very appealing things that self-employment has brought is that I no longer need to navigate a host of red tape to get things implemented. Employers take note – if you spend time on recruiting the right staff, then let those people do their jobs without being micromanaged. Trust that they know how to consult on and mitigate any major risks, and let them ask for forgiveness for the minority of things that might go slightly wrong, rather than require them to ask for permission for the things that should be within their remit and control.

Outside of an organisational context, I like to think of the principle of autonomy in the context of the control you have over your life. Working with clients, I often introduce concepts relating to constructionism and narrative: becoming the author of your own story, rather than acting out or directing a script that someone else has created for you.

With mastery, the starting point is the flow state, where the challenges you’re faced with are aligned with your abilities so that you’re doing tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult (aka ‘Goldilocks tasks’). It’s the space where peak experiences live: where you lose track of time because you’re so in the moment; where you’re absorbed in what feels effortless and thoroughly enjoyable; where you’re using your learned and innate skills and abilities, everything is going well, and you know you’re going to be successful.

You flow in the moment, but mastery emerges over a much longer period – months, years, decades. Hence Pink’s first law of mastery: mastery is a pain. Grit isn’t the easiest thing to learn, but it’s a vital companion to talent.

The second law of mastery is mastery is a mindset. If you’re not familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on the importance of cultivating a growth mindset, it’s definitely worth taking a look at. Building on the first law, the growth mindset says that innate talent, intelligence and ability is just the starting point, and needs to be augmented and developed through learning and effort. Believe that you can, work for it, and success is within your grasp.

My favourite’s the last law, though: mastery is an asymptote.

This one’s for all you perfectionists out there. Just like an asymptote, mastery is something that you’ll approach, but never quite reach. So reach for it, if you will, but gain your joy from the pursuit and don’t get discouraged when it eludes you.

Finally, on the question of purpose: what meaning do you seek, and what purpose does your work fulfil? If your core values aren’t met by your work, are they aligned with something you are pursuing elsewhere in your life? Do you know how your work contributes to a larger cause (and do you care about that cause)? If you’re yearning for something, to do what you do in the service of something larger than yourself – go and find out what that something is. And then go get it. Life is too short to keep thinking you should be doing something worthwhile, yet not doing anything about it.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Pink’s motivational trifecta?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Career: Capitalising on chaos?

expectation vs reality-3

We talked about the chaos (Pryor and Bright) and planned happenstance (Krumboltz) theories of career at Quiet Space’s inaugural career reinvention day last Saturday. Only briefly, because career development theories aren’t really the best thing for a post-lunch slump (unless you are a geek like me).

I quite like chaos as a conceptual backbone to careers theory. In a nutshell, the chaos view of careers says that you and I are complex systems who are subject to complex influences and chance events. It’s all about unpredictability and non-linear, continual change. Planned Happenstance similarly embraces the idea of serendipity and being open to uncertainty, maximising your ability to capitalise on unforeseen opportunities when they happen in your life.   

More traditional theories of career development typically invoke some sense that career can be logically planned and the plan then followed. In contrast, chaos and happenstance shift the perspective from prediction and control to saying that indecision and not knowing are in fact part and parcel of living well within our complex and changing reality.

This is not to say that life is random. Instead you might like to think of life, and career, as a fractal… starfish.

fractal-starfish

I like fractals. They’re infinitely complex systems created by the recursion of a simple process over in an ongoing feedback loop. As an analogy for life, I think the fractal starfish is pretty spot-on – daily life can be so simple, yet so complex and beautiful. Just like the emergence of a fractal, life isn’t predictable, but needs to be understood in the context of the multiple possible and interconnected outcomes of a dynamic process in a complex system.

Growing up, I wanted to be an archaeologist, psychologist, astronaut, teacher. Aspirations directed me into triple science before I funnelled myself into the arts and social sciences, via a college that I only went to because the other one I liked was too far away and I didn’t want to go to the same college as my overachieving elder sibling. A scholarship scheme that I discovered by chance gave me one of two coveted full overseas university scholarships throughout the duration of my degree, before the Asian financial crisis prompted me to stay in the UK for graduate study and my first job. I found myself in University administration after an initial research post, simply because I wanted a permanent fixed-term contract. They were recruiting for two possible jobs via the same interview process and I secured the one that would eventually prove to give me greater visibility and profile, because of a hunch from the hiring interviewer about best fit. Between 2004 and 2017 I found myself in four different jobs, all internal moves (none of which I was interviewed for), chiefly due to the right connections and being in the right place at the right time. In 2016 I had a mental health crisis that had been brewing for a while, which I can link directly to seizing hold of the day and taking the plunge to launch a new career in coaching in 2017. And I feel like I’m finally where I want to be. Will what I’m planning right now materialise the way I’m currently envisioning? Probably not. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m making the most of the journey, always focusing on continual learning and growing, and being comfortable with not knowing.

Both the chaos and happenstance theories of career talk about the kind of skills that we can develop to allow ourselves to best take advantage of those unexpected opportunities when they come our way. In brief, these are:

  • Curiosity – has an appetite for learning and for seeking out new knowledge and experiences
  • Persistence – tenacious; not easily discouraged or daunted by failure
  • Flexibility – adaptable and open to change; able to cope with the unfamiliar or unexpected
  • Optimism – has a positive mindset and is able to take the best out of situations
  • Risk – has a healthy and confident attitude towards the management of risk
  • Strategy – is able to plan ways to improve their ability to influence and capitalise on chance events
  • Efficacy – has confidence in their ability to take control of their own life and the belief that luck and circumstances need not determine their destiny
  • Luckiness – believes or expects to be lucky.

If you look back at your own career, how much of it would you say has occurred by planning and design? And how much by circumstance, accident or sheer luck? Did you find your way to where you are now having planned for it? Could you have predicted what factors would have underpinned your future career decisions? Do you have regrets about any decisions you’ve made, or do you take the view that each choice you’ve made, though you didn’t know it at the time, has led you inexorably to where you are?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Returning to work after a career break

International Women's Day 2018

In a week encompassing International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday, I’ve been thinking about women’s careers in the context of gender inequality – glass ceilings, the gender pay gap, harassment, societal expectations and conditioned expectations of self. I don’t want to get too political today though, so maybe gender inequality is a topic for some other time. What I did want to write about was my perspective on the impact that motherhood has on your career, particularly with your first child or when you’ve taken an extended career break to raise your family (still a disproportionately female endeavour, but yes, politics…).

In the course of my coaching career, as well as in previous management roles, I’ve worked a great deal with women who have taken time out of the office for family reasons. One thing is clear, whether you’ve had nine months of maternity leave with your first child, or a fifteen-year career break to raise three children, returning to the world of work can be hugely daunting, both in the prospect of return and in the actual transition.   

The challenges vary from person to person, of course, but I think there is nonetheless a great deal of commonality in the experience. If you’re returning from maternity leave, fatigue and overload are often front and centre – quite apart from horrific sleep deprivation (and the concomitant caffeine dependency) if you’ve been battling with a child who clearly hasn’t read the sleep manuals, you might still be coming to terms with a new physical and psychological identity in which the person you once knew has gone AWOL, replaced by someone who’s mostly forgotten how to have a proper adult conversation and whose life for most of the past year has mainly consisted of attempting to get out of the house before you’re due back home and trying to drink a cup of tea that hasn’t been microwaved at least twice (although you do now have new skills that include being able to switch off lights with your toes and work a variety of household gadgets with your elbow).

And when you return, everything is simultaneously familiar and foreign (all the more  so if, like me, you decided to get a new job while you were on leave – you know, because you are slightly masochistic). Your sleep deprivation is magnified from the exhaustion of being back in the work environment and absorbing new information in addition to re-learning all the things you forgot while you were away. Plus you’ve still got all your responsibilities at home, juggling kids’ schedules alongside keeping the household ticking over and in a vaguely clean, fed and organised state, and bearing the mental load of remembering everything on that burgeoning task list. You think you’re failing at everything because you still expect yourself to be able to perform the way you did before life changed and now you are neither a good employee (because you can no longer work all hours) nor a good mother (having left the baby wailing at nursery), or indeed a good wife/partner (because you are almost exclusively a mother and have somewhat forgotten how to be yourself). And then when you’re finally up to speed at work again – maybe, just maybe, you find yourself fretting about no longer having the focus or ambition you once had.

If you’ve been out of the workforce for a matter of years rather than months, lack of confidence and the issue of identity can feel like even more of an insurmountable barrier. The gap in your work history can feel like an ending, and your professional self a distant memory. Because you’re firmly rooted in a different world, going back is about something larger than a ‘return’ – it necessitates a re-invention. Perhaps you don’t want to go back to your previous sector or industry, or discover you’re going to need further education and retraining to get anywhere. Then the big questions start. Who are you now? Who do you want to be? What are you interested in (that will pay you)? What do you actually want out of a career? Where do you start? How do you get from now to where you want to be? Are you even going to be able to get a job? Do you have any currently marketable skills? Are you going to fall flat on your face?

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away for; the time will have changed you. Your priorities, values, interests and skillsets are likely to have shifted, and with them possibly also what you might want from your career. Sometimes a career change isn’t what you want, but is nonetheless going to be enforced due to childcare issues or the lack of a sufficiently supportive or flexible work environment. More often than not, however, many women come to a realisation that they themselves want to make a change that will fit their new circumstances or desires more closely. But this doesn’t mean that your career has no future. Take note: your career doesn’t have to stop because you’re now a parent and might want to move to part-time or flexible hours, or to a job that fits more easily around family.  

Where do you go from here? There are a few things worth reflecting on, I think.

The first is that you probably have more going for you than you might realise even if you’ve been out of the work world for years. Coordinating three children and a household? Administration, organisation and budgeting, not to mention creativity and the ability to pull things out of a hat at the last minute (World Book Day, I’m looking at you). Volunteering with the PTA? Tact, teamwork and negotiation. You get the idea. I don’t say this to be flippant; the important point here is about recognising transferable skills and being able to present them in a way that’s relevant to potential employers.

The second is giving yourself time and permission to ease back in, because it often takes at least 3-6 months to properly get to grips with the big change in your routine and to start feeling like you know what you’re doing. In any job the learning curve can last for a year or more. Don’t expect, after just two weeks on the job, to be back at the level you were. Be kind to yourself.

Thirdly, I think there are always compromises. Can you have it all? Personally, I think that every choice you make about how to spend your time means a choice to not focus on something else. But that also means that you don’t need to feel guilty if you’re not keeping all the balls in the air 100% of the time. Some things will give. And that’s ok.

And the final point? You don’t need to do it alone. If you’re currently planning a return from maternity leave or a long career break and this article has struck a chord with you, get in touch to see how return to work coaching can help you make the transition back into the working world with confidence. Take a look too at the upcoming Career Reinvention Day for a perfect kickstart.

To your success.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Leadership musings

A few weeks ago, quite by chance, I met Louis Shakinovsky in the lounge at Warwick Conferences Scarman, where he’d been having lunch with local Warwick Business School luminaries Ashley Roberts and Rachel Cuddihy prior to delivering a talk to students as part of WBS’ International Speaker Series. Some utterly enjoyable and very engaging conversation – and one talk – later, I found myself thinking about leadership.

Louis has been described as a polymath. Certainly he is the only lawyer I know who is not only also a practising clinical hypnotherapist on Harley Street but has a pretty impressive track record in business – currently Chairman of Global Dental/Clove (which he was instrumental in growing into India’s largest dental group in fewer than 5 years) and Chairman and co-founder, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Centre of Excellence, he previously held numerous positions over 50 years at Belron including Main Board Director and Executive Head of Legal, during which time he led over 800 mergers and acquisitions and became the only non-family shareholder in Belron’s history.

I took away several things about leadership from Louis’ talk. The first was an acrostic, about which I entirely agree with Louis in that it’s what you not only need to look for in the people you hire, but also what you need to find in yourself:

Dedication
Integrity
Respect
Energy
Credibility
Trust

The other things were three quotes from the evening. “It’s all about how you choose your people”, “If you’ve done anything wrong, fix it”, and “Leadership is doing what you say you will”.

There are countless books and papers out there about leadership. It means different things to different people around the world, and different things in different situations. According to Eisenhower (apparently), it’s the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it. In other approximations, it isn’t management and it isn’t authority. Great leadership probably involves a combination of traits, including focus, clarity, decisiveness, confidence, accountability and honesty. Personally, I think good (or bad) leadership is the kind of thing that resists definition, but you know it when you see it.

Like everyone else I’ve seen my share of good and bad leaders. The bad: Leaders who are only ‘leaders’ by virtue of their position, and leaders promoted beyond their level of competence. Leaders who take more than their share of the credit, who let their egos get in the way, or who micro-manage because they’re afraid to give others the reins. Leaders who let their junior staff take the blame. Leaders who forget where they’ve come from and who end up entirely disconnected from the people who make up the business.

There is a lot about leadership that is wrapped up in delivering success: bottom lines, market share, victories at sea. There have certainly been plenty of successes in Louis’ career, but what I really liked was that the main message of the evening wasn’t to do with business success (not directly, at any rate). Rather, it was about integrity, credibility, and mutual trust and respect, which, when I thought about it, are probably the aspects of leadership that I most value.

So, the good: Leaders who stay true to their word, who remember their roots and who aren’t above mucking in when it becomes necessary. Leaders who are honest and who wield their authority, power and influence fairly and without ego. Leaders with empathy who treat people the way they would like to be treated, and who make people want to give of their best because they’re proud of their jobs and to be part of an enterprise they believe in. Leaders who take the time to recruit good people, and then trust them with a licence to operate, as well as the necessary tools and support to let them do what they do best.

Tell me your thoughts. Is this too idealistic or simplistic? I don’t think there’s any good reason why it shouldn’t be possible to build a successful business centred around this kind of ethos, but instead there are far too many examples of toxicity out there.

What example are you setting as a leader?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Thoughts on networking

Enter the secret doorway

On a scale of ‘deathly allergic’ to ‘I love it to the end of the universe and back’, how much do you like networking? To what extent is it like some secret cabal for people in the know?

I used to see myself as extremely introverted: wallflower, hates parties, world is too peopley, socialising is utterly draining. Even amongst loved ones I needed to escape to a darkened room after a couple of hours. And then networking – ah, hell on earth. Can you relate? (If not, maybe keep reading anyway.)

Some five years ago I was taking part in a coaching trios exercise (where you take turns being the coach, client and observer). I was in the client chair, and had just mentioned my dislike of networking. My coach in the trio said: “Well, why don’t we talk about that – in fact, let’s try it out now and see how you get on.” and I physically recoiled with a “No!” “Aha!” she said. “Look at that! You actually leapt back in your chair! What’s behind that?”

To cut a long story short, I realised that day that I had a bit of a phobia about it all. I hated it because I always felt like I didn’t have anything to talk about and was scared of coming across as stupid and uninformed. I also realised that it wasn’t just professional networking; it was any group setting where I felt surrounded by far more intelligent people (even among friends) and therefore felt unable to put in any twopenneth worth talking about.

That day I discovered two key strategies for overcoming my fear: first, learning how to take a step back, away from the perceived pressure to appear intelligent, and into a space where I asked questions instead (because even if you don’t, lots of people do like to talk about themselves). Second, once I was out of the perceived spotlight and a conversation had started to flow, I realised that I actually knew more about any given topic than I thought I did.

More recently, I’ve moved from being better at networking to actually enjoying it. There are, I think, a number of factors that have led to this, primarily the fact that, in having started to love myself properly, my happiness and confidence have grown markedly and I seem to have developed an expanded capacity to welcome others into my world. There is also a great deal to be said for finally doing something that I care passionately about; now I actually want to talk about my work.

The funny thing is, now that things are easier in the context of networking, it’s as if the tumblers have fallen into place, the lock has clicked and the door’s wide open. I keep finding myself initiating conversations with strangers simply to make a connection. And then I find that me being happy and wanting to connect is somehow contagious, which is a lovely effect to have on people.

The way I’ve started thinking about all this is that I really don’t like to call it networking, because it can be off-putting jargon for what is, at its core, creating relationships, finding things to bond over and seeing how you can help the people you meet.

I think everything flows from this. Ultimately everything you do is about people. Getting to know people, being curious about people, building connections with those people, and having mutually fulfilling interactions. Selling products? Focus on what your customers want. Service-based business? Find out what problems your potential clients are trying to solve and then focus on that, not what you want to push out to them. Attending a professional networking event? Find out about the person you’re talking to, not just their job or business. Tricky colleague? First, make them feel heard and understood.

I don’t know about you, but I hate small talk; I’d much rather skip straight to the meaningful conversation. Don’t be afraid to go deep. Shall we skip past the weather and the state of the country? Let’s pretend we’ve known each other for months and have that conversation instead. Suddenly we’re entering interesting and worthwhile territory.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d probably still rather curl up at home than dress up for a night out, which also explains why I often look like I’ve gone out in my pyjamas. But that’s me, you know? And on that final note – just be yourself. I want to know you, not the person you think you should be. Everybody is fascinating when you take the time to get to know them, which is exactly what I’ll be doing.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd