shutterstock_81135547During the production of a movie, the ‘editing suite’ is where the raw footage of the film is reviewed to determine its value to the movie as a whole. Following this review, changes are made: bits that confuse the plot or that might disturb the audience are edited out; scenes are rearranged and the best cut of any given scene is selected. Similarly, leaders can use the editing suite to reflect on their performance and “edit” their future behavior for maximum impact.

My concept of the editing suite can be compared to organizational theorist Donald Schon’s notion of ‘reflection-on-action.’ As the phrase suggests, reflection on action occurs after a given situation has unfolded, when the central character reflects on the situation alone or in conversation with others. These reflections then inform future situations, where they offer more choices or ideas to draw upon in a given moment.

One leader I worked with gave me the idea for the editing suite as a metaphor, he explains: “the biggest thing on this leadership journey is, you move from not knowing to knowing about yourself, and it’s the realisation on that journey that if you want change, the first thing that’s got to change is you. You’ve got to have a damn hard look at yourself. Standing outside of yourself and look at yourself as though you are seeing yourself replayed on video is very powerful.”

Based on what I’ve learned; I now use a very structured approach to reflection-on-action in my one-on-one coaching. These sessions happen within the context of the leader’s most important goals – goals that are agreed on up front and are revised at regular intervals. In a sense, these goals are the scenes in the Movie we want to make. As we review each goal, I ask, “How are you tracking against this goal and why?” When the leader reveals they are off-track, it presents an opportunity to bring to the surface strategies or habits that are ineffective and self-defeating. If the leader reveals they are on-track, it presents an opportunity to reinforce strategies that work. At the end of the sessions, we will almost always have homed in on one or two patterns – helpful or unhelpful – that become the focus for the next few weeks.

These mechanisms help to build the necessary muscles for reflection and increased self-awareness, allowing leaders to eventually take themselves into the editing suite without my involvement. The more they reflect, the better results they get, the more they value it, and consequently, the more they do it.

shutterstock_374775304Even though all of the leaders I have worked with are unique, the common thread for most is that at the outset of their leadership journeys, they felt as though they were trapped in a repeating scenario – just like Phil Connors, the Pittsburgh TV weatherman played by Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’s classic Groundhog Day (1993). At six o’clock every morning, Connors wakes up to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” playing on the radio, and to the dreaded realisation that he is doomed to repeat the same day over and over again. He is trapped in Groundhog Day.

In a similar fashion, many of the business leaders I have worked with would wake up and relive a similar reality, day after day after day. One of them would wake up dreading the seemingly endless queue of subordinates lining up at his door, looking for direction. Another’s Groundhog Day revolved around adjudicating the conflict among her executive team members. Yet another’s involved trying to muscle his way out of a dire financial situation. And another would climb out of bed with the horrible feeling that no matter what she tried, the day would be a struggle.

Like Bill Murray’s character, leaders do not comprehend that they are perpetuating their Groundhog Day through their own actions and the impact these actions have on others. For example, one leader experienced high levels of stress, anger, fatigue, and a sense of frustration – it seemed like he was powerless to make the positive changes he so desperately wanted to make. His days usually ended with late night phone arguments with his international colleagues rather than with him reading bedtime stories with his young daughter.

But there is more to this story. He was not just a victim of the role – he had become very adept at playing the victim. Over his career, he had internalised the leadership ideals of his head office to such an extent that he had the same negative impact on his own staff. Of course, at first he couldn’t see this because he was so consumed by his Groundhog Day routine and the victim mentality that he had adopted to cope.

Leaders often lack the time, space and reflective capabilities to plot a way out of their Groundhog Day. Ironically, it is the very act of disciplined reflection that allows leaders to understand how they are reinforcing the repetitive loop they’re trapped in, and eventually break out of it.

shutterstock_403057771I have found evidence of masking in many leadership journeys, but not all of the leaders I have worked with wear a mask in order to conceal their insecurities. Some of them deliberately put on a mask to project a particular persona. In this case, a leader isn’t so much hiding their ‘true self’ as internalizing a persona to such a degree that they risk becoming it — at least at work.

To explore mask of persona, let’s turn to the 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask. Carrey’s character, Stanley Ipkiss, is a shy man who discovers a mysterious green mask. Unbeknownst to Ipkiss, the mask channels Loki, the Norse trickster god. When Stanley brings the mask near his head, it melds with his face and transforms him into a confident, aggressive, and outgoing ‘superhero.’ With Loki’s mask, Stanley becomes the man he thinks he needs to be in order to succeed in life. In contrast to the Phantom of the Opera, people perceive Stanley as the mask rather than as someone hiding behind a mask. Stanley eventually learns the hard way that the mask isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as he inevitably scares off the love of his life and lands himself in jail. It’s not until Stanley rids himself of his mask — which takes some doing — that he gets his happy ending.

While leaders’ initial motivations for wearing a mask may be very different, the end result is often the same: the mask becomes too heavy a burden to carry. Brené Brown puts it beautifully in her book, Daring Greatly: “Masks and armour are perfect metaphors for how we protect ourselves from the discomfort of vulnerability. Masks make us feel safer even when they become suffocating. Armor makes us feel stronger even when we grow weary from dragging the extra weight around. The irony is that when we’re standing across from someone who is hidden or shielded by masks and armour, we feel frustrated and disconnected.”

Once Stanley Ipkiss comes to the conclusion that wearing his mask exacts a heavy price, he goes to great lengths to rid himself of it. As Stanley connects with the best parts of himself — parts that were previously hidden — he gets the girl of his dreams.

In a business context, the wearing of a Mask creates poor outcomes in a leader’s professional and private life, and often leads to inner conflict with the leader’s deeply held values and aspirations. As a result, many leaders will reach a point where they want to ‘de-mask’ as they realize it is no longer delivering success, and that not being able to show their true face has become a heavy psychological burden.

Taking off the Mask requires courage, but the rewards are exponential relative to the effort, both for the leader and for those they lead.

shutterstock_318990764Masks have been prevalent across human cultures since the Stone Age and have been used in a variety of ways. In a theatrical context, masks are sometimes used to conceal a character’s identity. At other times, they allow the actor to adopt a certain persona. It is these two notions of concealment and adoption of a persona that have enhanced my understanding of how a leader transforms. In this blog, I explore the first type of mask and in my next blog, I will explore the second.

To explore the mask of concealment, we need only turn to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, a musical based on Gaston Leroux’s classical novel of the same name. In the book and musical, the Phantom wears a mask to conceal his physical imperfections. But while the Phantom presents a perfect, porcelain face to his audience, there is a certain irony at play here: it is starkly obvious that the mask is not his real face. The Phantom knows he is wearing a mask, the audience knows he is wearing a mask, and the Phantom knows that they know. Still, he prefers to maintain a façade rather than reveal the man behind the mask.

I now understand that when leaders wear a mask of concealment, they undermine trust and create fear, doubt and anxiety in others. Rather than take what the leader says at face value, subordinates will try to second guess the leader’s true intent. Instead of focusing on improving performance, valuable time and energy is wasted trying to please the leader.

It is often the case that leaders feel they need to hide their human qualities from colleagues at work. Rather, leaders should embrace their humanity as it is a sure pathway to build connection with, and commitment from, those they lead.

shutterstock_145518796One of the fastest ways to build trust is to extend more trust than is warranted. Much like a bank account, this means making continual and significant deposits so that when the inevitable problems occur, the resultant withdrawals do not put the account into deficit.

This approach can be humbling for many leaders; particularly those who have been raised on a diet of command and control where subordinates are expected to win their trust.

While the building of trust can seem daunting, the rewards are exponential. Stephen Covey summarises the benefits in his simple formula for the economics of trust; low trust equals low speed and high cost, high trust equals high speed and low cost.

To verify this formula for yourself, compare two commercial partnerships you are engaged in; one which you would consider high trust versus one that you would categorise as low trust. Now imagine the commercial implications for your organisation if all of your relationships were like the partnership you categorised as high trust!

Trust is one of those concepts that can mean different things to different people. Some people describe it as a feeling, a primary example is
when people say “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I just don’t trust him.” This kind of gut response isn’t very helpful, so based on my experiences, both good and bad, I have developed the following three-part description of trust: Perceived Credibility, Demonstrated Reliability, and Assumed Good Intent.shutterstock_193134299

Perceived Credibility is akin to the resume. The first question we generally think about when we are deciding whether we can trust someone – in a business context, at least – is “Do I believe you can do what you say you can?” For this, we look for evidence of previous results and referrals from people we already
trust.

Next, Demonstrated Reliability is like the proof point for our credibility, harder both to earn and to maintain. The question on our mind here is “Do you actually deliver what you say you will?” We look for examples of where a person’s promises translate into actions, and where their potential manifests itself into concrete results.

Somewhat more difficult to classify in my trust description is the notion of Assumed Good Intent, yet I believe this is the most important element of trust. The questions in our mind when we think about good intent are “What is your motivation here? What do you stand to gain? How much of the real you do I see, and how much is a performance?”

By breaking trust down into its three component parts, we have the ability to not only understand it, but to build it.

shutterstock_310342454Today, coaching is used in a wide range of professional disciplines including business, education, and psychology. When you think about coaching in these contexts, the image that probably comes to mind is a one-to-one consultation that takes place behind closed doors, detached from the usual environment. In contrast, my research led me to explore the use of the word within the context of sport and how that somewhat different use applies to leadership transformation.

Football metaphors are, of course, not new in leadership literature, and are often related to individualistic and competitive behaviours. My interpretation, however, is quite different: for me, football is a team sport. Teams comprised of superstars often loose to cohesive teams of individually inferior players.

While a business leader may be seen to be the captain of a team, there is an important distinction to be drawn between the role of captain and coach. While the captain may have been selected for the role because of a certain leadership quality he or she displays, a captain cannot be successful without support from the team.

Any successful football team requires a clear distribution of roles both within and around the team, and this distribution of functions is similar to those assumed by the groups who can help a business leader transform: a formal coaching staff, such as executive coaches; teammates such as the leader’s peer group and direct reports; and fans such as family members who are vested in the leader’s performance.

It is by leveraging all three groups in the coaching process – executive coaches, colleagues and family members – that leaders accelerate their transformation.

shutterstock_108271331While a framework provides leaders with a plan and creates a sense of comfort, and tools supply data and a language for change, leaders still need to implement actions in order to transform their effectiveness. This is where strategies come in; within the Master Chef metaphor we’ve discussed in previous blogs, they are the equivalent of cooking methods such as steaming or frying.

In simple terms, there are five key strategies, framed below as shifts, which can help any leader be more effective:

  1. From content to context; leaders shift their focus from the day-to-day operational and technical detail of their world to creating a context for the success of others.
  2. From talking to walking; leaders shift from telling others what is required to showing them.
  3. From competing to collaborating; this shift involves moving from isolation, politics, and interpersonal conflict toward genuine relationships built on trust and a desire for mutual success.
  4. From guru to guide; leaders shift from providing answers to coaching others to find answers themselves.
  5. From critic to cheerleader; this final strategy involves moving from a focus on what is going wrong to what is going right.

While these five strategies are simple, they are not simplistic. For many leaders, the real challenge will not be learning new behaviors, but embracing the beliefs and assumptions that underpin these shifts; that people need purpose, trust, growth, care and sense of community to do their best work.

Just as chefs select from different utensils when creating a dish, business leaders have many tools at their disposal, including ones that profile or measure a range of attributes such as behavior, personality, values, strengths and thinking styles.

While any or all of these tools can be useful in a transformation effort, I have found in my research and practice that it is far more useful to profile leader’s impact than his or her personal attributes. That is, what’s most important, is how a leader encourages others to behave.

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For a tool to be truly useful in the context of transformation, of course it needs to be statistically valid and reliable, but also accessible; it must possess the substance required for credibility as well as the simplicity required for action. Additionally, a tool needs to establish a baseline measurement that allows leaders to see how they are being experienced by their most important stakeholders – one that allows for an “apples and apples” comparison at a point in the future. And that baseline needs to be set against the leaders’ own vision in their daily interactions.

That said, a great tool is no guarantee of success. To return to the Master Chef metaphor, an amateur chef cannot achieve the same precision with a utensil as someone who has honed his or her technique. Take experienced sushi chefs, who over many years have developed an artful application of their sushi knives. An amateur chef using the exact same knives is unlikely to replicate their results. They are also unlikely to have a full appreciation of how dangerous these tools can be when used with poor technique!

In recent times, cooking has been elevated to a social phenomenon and a marker of cultural sophistication. Prominent chefs like Jamie Oliver, Wolfgang Puck, Nigella Lawson, and Anthony Bourdain have achieved global celebrity status through their TV shows, restaurants, books, and product endorsements. They exemplify how cooking has become something of a theatrical art form across both old and new media, and how cooks have become ‘Master Chefs’.

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The metaphor of Master Chef may be new to the realm of leadership, but it provides valuable insights into transformation. The Master Chef metaphor is about artfully applying leadership science – frameworks tools and strategies for change – in much the same way as a chef employs recipes, utensils and cooking methods to create a culinary experience. Over time, leaders can and should advance form amateur cook to Master Chef, using their skills with increasing creativity and flair and thus maximising their impact.

Whenever I ask leaders who have shown dramatic improvement in their effectiveness how they did it, I’m usually surprised by their answers. They will almost unanimously point to the frameworks, tools, and strategies we encouraged them to employ. Which is great, of course, but the reason I’m surprised is that there are many frameworks available for those seeking to make changes. The tools and strategies are everywhere, but case studies of transformation are relatively rare.

In exploring this seeming paradox, what has emerged for me is a far more nuanced and subtle appreciation of how it is the ‘artful application’ of frameworks, tools, and strategies that helps leaders transform their leadership and their organizations.