Category Archives: Leadership


Understanding and managing anxiety

I recently came across a BBC podcast on ways to stay calm, and an HBR article on a similar subject. For this month’s article, I’ve extracted the key points and added my perspective. Much of it focuses on the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism – this seems particularly useful at a time when anxiety levels may be high due to the ongoing pandemic and surrounding uncertainty.

The article covers what you can do if you’re feeling anxious yourself, as well as how you can support your team. The core message is that we can’t control what happens, but we can control how we respond.

As the Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard wrote in his book, Happiness: “Most of the time it is not outward events but our own mind and negative emotions that make us unable to maintain our inner stability and drag us down”.

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Working from home

How to facilitate effective virtual meetings

With the pandemic ongoing around the world, your people are probably more certain by now about the technology they need to be productive at home. However, as you know, leadership is not just about tasks and processes. It’s also about relationships.

Your people need to feel cared for and supported, especially at a time like this. They need to feel connected to their team-mates. But how do you engage a large community who might be geographically dispersed?

Among other things, this article covers some of the principles you need to keep in mind when running virtual team meetings, as well as the tools, tips and techniques to use, and which mindset will be most helpful.

Advantages of virtual meetings

  • Nobody has to travel
  • Everyone has an equal voice (depending on the tech you use)
  • You can record video or audio for non-attendees to watch, or for attendees to review as a reminder
  • Record-keeping is seamless as there is no need to type up minutes afterwards (assuming you use the tech within the agenda, such as for brainstorming and decision-making)

Principles & tips

Above anything, preparation is key. Virtual meetings need even more preparation than face-to-face meetings, because you have to think about which process to follow, get the technology organised, and put a back-up plan in place just in case.

If the tech forms a large part of your meeting, be aware that people will have different levels of confidence and experience with it. It might help to offer a few practice sessions so they can familiarise themselves beforehand.

Do your one-to-one diagnosis beforehand, to gain useful information about team dynamics that will help you shape the session and build psychological safety. Also, this will inform the objectives and agenda – asking for this input and designing the agenda around it will build engagement for the meeting.

Create break-out groups in advance, and set up the virtual whiteboard with the questions/instructions so that team members can quickly get on with the discussion when they dial-in to the break-out group.

Be aware that sitting in front of a screen for a long time is draining, so you also have to work out how to keep people more active, and build in a break at least every 90 minutes. Be clear that the break is for team members to walk around, ideally outside, and get a drink – not to quickly catch-up on email!

In a group of more than about seven people, it’s really hard to keep on top of everything that needs to be covered. It can help to appoint one person to facilitate and another to manage the tech in the background.

I’m usually brought in as the facilitator. I contract with the team leader in advance (just as I would for a face-to-face event), to confirm which role I should play and which they will play. For example, do they want to be an active co-host or a participant (less the overt “boss”)? Will they agree that it’s acceptable for me to challenge them if I think it’s necessary?

Create norms for how to communicate during your online meeting. This includes use of back channels such as the chat box. For example, set a ground rule about whether it’s OK in your meeting for people to have private chat conversations with each other or not. As with face-to-face meetings, set the ground rules for other devices – such as putting mobile phones away and on silent, and turning off notifications for email and social media.

You might think that putting everyone on mute is a wise move (especially for a large group). But in a smaller group I would actually suggest you keep the microphone live to encourage more natural discussion.

Use grid view where you can. When you can see everyone on screen, it’s easier to observe their body language and react accordingly. For small groups, this also means you can use the physical ‘raise hand’ option to find out whether people agree on a topic or not.

It’s worth building in a check-in and check-out – choose activities that are relevant to that particular team and where they are in their journey. If you’ve not used this before, it’s a way of mentally and emotionally bringing everyone into the room – I ask a question that’s relevant to the objectives of the meeting and each person then speaks. You’ll want to adapt this depending on the size of the group.

If it’s a large group, you might be waiting for a couple of minutes until everyone has joined. To keep them engaged before you start, you could, for example, ask them to pick an object from their desk, such as a photo or personal memento, and show it to the camera while explaining what it is. This helps people connect with each other and their environment on a social level.

Make sure you invest time in building trust, because people can’t feel trust in the same way on video as they do face-to-face.  With this in mind, also spend time on discussion if one person disagrees and most of the team agrees – don’t just go with the majority unless that’s been agreed as a ground rule for an agenda item.

If something isn’t working well, ask yourself is it energy/engagement; process; team dynamics; or information. Then, call it out – curiously and without judgement – to invite others to speak.  This quickly addresses an issue and is less likely to result in team members getting frustrated or mentally checking out of the discussion.

Whether I’m running a face-to-face or virtual event, I always define my role at the start and make sure each discussion leads to a clear outcome. For example, I can be there in service of the group to:

  • Help them meet their outcome
  • Pay attention to the atmosphere in the (real or virtual) room
  • Facilitate a clear process (which is even more important online)
  • Role model the appropriate mindset and help create psychological safety

Be wary of having long discussions in the virtual space, because they can drag down energy. It’s a better idea to pose a question and get people into breakout groups where they can report back with a summary for everyone else.

Useful tools

You probably know about the various tools available for video calling, such as Zoom, Skype, WebinarJam, and Hangouts from the Google Suite.

One useful tool is Google’s Jamboard, which is like a whiteboard or flipchart where everyone can work at the same time. Posting to the Jamboard is anonymous, which helps people who would otherwise be quiet and reluctant to contribute.

This tool makes it easy to cluster and summarise things, creates an immediate record with no need to type anything up later, and can be stored on the team’s shared drive. A benefit of this is that people can work on the same Jamboard in their own time and in their own time zone, wherever they are in the world.

Mural is another electronic whiteboard that also has a voting option.

Pollev and Mentimeter are good for capturing votes, while Trello is useful for project management.

It can be wise to display a countdown timer on the screen in the main room, so people know when to come back from breaks and breakouts. For example, iPadStopwatch.

Chat is the backbone of many tools. You can ask people to post questions and add comments, so it’s useful for gathering feedback. Note that it’s helpful to appoint someone to manage chat while you facilitate the actual meeting.

Slack is another popular tool for storing document-sharing and having online chats.

You can invest in or create graphical templates that help people engage in a creative way, such as for the objectives and agenda, or decision making. Ask me if you’d like to explore this.

Don’t use too many tools, because the more you do, the more it slows bandwidth and discussion becomes about the tech rather than using the tech to enable quality discussions.

Encourage discussion

Here are some sentences that might help you when you are leading a discussion in the virtual space:

  • “If you agree, you don’t have to say anything. If you disagree, please let us know.”
  • “I’m going to give you a minute in silence to think about that, and then invite you to share your thoughts”.  This then makes the silence comfortable, rather than awkward – and ensures people don’t speak into the space before others are ready.
  • “From our discussion, it sounds like… Have I got that correct, or am I missing something?”
  • To close out a workshop, a check-out question for each person to answer could be: “I see, I feel, I think”.
  • If one person has a different view to the majority: “Tell us, what do you see that we don’t?”
  • “It’s more likely in a virtual meeting that two or more people will speak at the same time… let’s happily accept this will happen and move on.”
  • “As we look at this (e.g. clustering of stickies) what thoughts do you have?”
  • “Is anyone lost?”
  • “If I invite you to comment and you’re not ready to, it’s fine to pass – I won’t force anyone to speak that isn’t ready to.”
  • “Feel free to let me know if this isn’t working for you – others may be feeling the same.  We can then figure out what and how to change it.”

Manage your mindset

Be patient with the tech, and with each other’s comfort level at this way of meeting.

When you ask a question, you need to be OK with longer pauses – this is what I experience often in virtual meeting rooms.

Equally, accept there will be times when more than one person speaks at once. Don’t feel awkward about it. It’s fine and natural. Just deal with it calmly, because you don’t want to stop people speaking.

One way around this is to set up a ‘relay’ system where you invite one person to speak, and they bring in the next, who brings in the next and so on.

Keep your mind open to opportunities, just as you would if it was a face-to-face meeting in the same physical space. You are there in the service of the team, so don’t be a slave to the process and agenda. Be prepared to be flexible.

Case study

It’s important to invest in the wellbeing of your team, and that means keeping people connected even when we can’t be together.

As you may know, I facilitate leadership and team meetings, often with a focus on strategy and team development. I don’t just focus on tasks and process (although I can also do that, of course); I very much also focus on the relationship side.

For example, I was recently invited to run a 90-minute session for a department of 75 people who are located around the world, in countries with different stages of lockdown.

Before the day, I had a one-to-one with each member of the leadership team to find out how their people are doing, and what the organisation needs holistically and collectively.

Overwhelmingly, their people were needing support and reassurance from their leadership team, particularly those who were juggling productivity with young children at home. Speaking to the leader in advance helped them think through the opening talk that would be needed to land their key messages.

We also posed questions in advance so people could contribute their ideas about:

  • How to manage childcare with work
  • How to separate work and home life when working from home
  • How to look after physical and mental health during lockdown
  • What they have learned about themselves during this crisis

On the day, I delivered a 15-minute presentation giving guidance about how to look after yourself at this time, with advice, tips and reassurance. Key points included:

  • Fear is natural, but there are things you can do to handle it. Don’t let this situation control you; you control it.
  • You shouldn’t be expected to achieve something onerous or amazing during this time. Be kind to yourself.
  • Decide what you would like to learn or experience while you have the chance. Think about your personal development or career or a new hobby, or the opportunity to catch up with reading or old friends. That way, when we all come out of this, you’ll feel you have accomplished something you might not otherwise have had time for.

We then used Jamboard as a place where people could post their advice and pictures, and encouraged them to speak about their truth and reality. They contributed a range of amazing suggestions.

The result was a real team spirit and sense of community. People felt supported by the leadership team and each other. They came away with tangible and practical advice on how to look after themselves. They felt proud of working for this organisation.

Please contact me if you’d like to discuss this in more detail.

Top TV tips

You’re on screen, so take a lesson from TV presenting (these tips are inspired by Esther Stanhope, former live BBC producer):

  • Love the lens. Make sure you look at the webcam not the screen. Imagine you are talking to a person you love / someone who makes you feel good about yourself.
  • Smile, smile, smile. It’s all about your eyes and teeth.
  • Eradicate background noise. Use a headset and mute (especially for large meetings)
  • Consider what’s in shot. Tidy your background. Think about lighting. Set the camera so your face is 1/3 down and fills the frame.
  • Hair, makeup, wardrobe. While no-one expects you to wear a full business suit, don’t wear a scruffy tracksuit either.

One of the team members from the session described above said that wearing ‘home’ or ‘work’ outfits benefit her work:life balance as it helps her and her family know when she is ‘on’ or ‘off’ duty.

  • Invest in tech. If you want to look and sound professional, you need good quality internet, speaker, microphone and lighting.

To ensure my video calls are clear for participants, I’ve invested in a whole range of new equipment, including a Pantronix earpiece – these are good quality (and the one I have doesn’t squash my hair!).  If you don’t want an earpiece you could invest in a Jabra speaker – they’re small speakers that sit on your desk.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Many people are relatively new to video-calling tech. Don’t underestimate how much practice you’ll need to become accomplished with it. The more you use it, the better you’ll get.

Further reading

If you found this article useful, you might also like my related articles:

Next month

Understanding and managing anxiety.


How to lead through new territory

No-one could have predicted the situation we’re currently in, and it’s probably evoking lots of uncomfortable feelings – I know it is for me. I’ve also heard some wonderful stories of how people are supporting and taking care of each other, whether that’s at work or at home.

Being a leader is complex, especially at a time like this. How can you show vulnerability and make it psychologically safe for people to speak up, yet also show confidence and strength so those same people can rely on you to provide a safe harbour?

One could argue this is simply good leadership, albeit magnified at the moment! So, this article comprises some thoughts for you to consider around how to support your team during this time.

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Playing cards

Elements of good judgement

Building on my previous two articles about what makes a great CEO (remember, the insights apply to all of us), this month’s newsletter takes a key skill – good judgement – and examines it in more detail. Some of the insights are based on interviews with CEOs in many different companies conducted by Sir Andrew Likierman, a professor at London Business School, and detailed recently in the Harvard Business Review. I’ve added my own perspective based on my experience of coaching individuals and leadership teams over the years.

Do you ever ask yourself these questions:

  • Should you make a decision without all the facts, and in an environment where new information is coming in all the time?
  • When is the right time to make that judgement call? How will you judge you have enough information to make that decision?
  • How can you keep moving forwards confidently without being overly rash or cautious?

According to the professor, there are six basic components of good judgement. I’ll explore these ideas below, with my advice added.

“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

1. Learning

There is a proliferation of information out there, ‘fake news’ is commonplace, and it’s hard to know fact from fiction.

When we receive information, it’s human nature to filter out certain pieces of data, usually because we don’t understand, or we disagree, or we don’t want to hear it, or we’re feeling overloaded. This is probably done unconsciously.

Also, my recent articles say that leaders who feel very comfortable in their role can become over-confident in their own ability, and stop listening attentively to information that comes in. I therefore suggest you become aware of what you tend to filter out so you can consciously hear and really listen to every piece of information you receive.

This links to the section about filtering out information in my article: Using language to influence behaviour

Tips for listening

  • Be aware of your own filters so you can reduce this effect
  • Fully listen to whatever you see and hear, and also attend to the body language of the other person. For example, if you are getting signals that they could say more but feel they can’t, are they filtering or ignoring this because of their own bias?
  • Try playing devil‘s advocate, and/or get people to give you different sides of the argument.

2. Trust

Know who your trusted advisors are, people whose judgement you respect. Note that, when you get a group of different people together, they are likely to disagree with each other – if this is “allowed” and accepted as normal it will increase the quality of overall judgement because it will force the group to see the issue from different angles. Your role as the leader is to hold the inevitable tension for long enough and in a safe way that allows the debate to take place.

This links to last month’s article about the Mindset and practices of the best leaders (part 2) – revisit the section about perspective, which covers why you should listen to people who tell you what you want to hear as well as those who tell you what you don’t and give you candid advice.

For more on building trust, check out this article: How to build trust: the core of all relationships

Further reading: Please ask for my one-page PDF handout ‘The 5 dysfunctions of a team’ by Patrick Lencioni. This gives an overview of the key behaviours required for teams to consistently deliver results – the first step is to build trust.

3. Experience

The experience you bring to your role Is invaluable. Ideally, you’ll have broad experience not just deep experience.

If you are in the early stage of your career, it will help you to get experience in different areas, so that when you are in your first big leadership role, you’ve got a breath of experience to draw on. This will increase your chances of making good judgement calls.

If you are the leader of people with talent and potential in your team, try to expose them to a wide variety of situations and stakeholders. This will give them experience that they will be able to draw on later in their career.

4. Detachment

When emotions run high people are more likely to over-react, and objective information and data get lost.

The ability to detach, not just emotionally, but also intellectually, will help you take a step back from the situation and look at it dispassionately. This enables you to stay calm when the stakes are high, and help people around you to feel safe enough to speak up.

Being detached can also help you avoid your personality biases – for example, if you have a tendency to avoid risk, or if you are rash about taking risks.

One thing you can do is step outside your own situation and see it from the point of view of your stakeholders, and there are some practical ways to do this. One obvious suggestion is to do this through a discussion with your team, by asking them to role-play being that stakeholder. Or you can set up a circle of chairs with each chair representing a different stakeholder. Sit in that chair, imagine being them, consider the impact on them, and then think about which decision this calls you to make.

“What’s beautiful about Taoism is that it teaches you to detach – not only from the world’s emotions and the emotions of your family and the people around you, but it teaches you to observe and detach from your own emotions. It’s almost like standing above yourself and watching what is going on rather than owning the whole opera. In learning to detach from your urges and disquietude, you become more clear, and less a victim of your own stuff.”
Infinite Self by Stuart Wilde

That quote reminds me of my article about Future-proofing yourself and your business, where I wrote about the Ronald Heifetz analogy from his ‘adaptive leadership’ model: When you are on the dance-floor, you are sucked into the operational aspect. When you are watching from the balcony, you are surveying the whole. So, every now and then, leave the dance-floor and go and stand on the balcony.

5. Options

Leaders are usually presented with options to make a decision about. What I find interesting is that they are often given just two options to choose from: either this or that. Actually, there are rarely just two options. You could expand them by asking: “What else could we do?”

Similarly, when I’m coaching people, they often tell me: “I have to do either this or that, “and I say: “Well, what else could you do?“

Whether you are a leader or a team player, hold the mindset that other options are often available. That might include doing nothing, or maybe piloting something.

If you are about to embark on something new, trialing it for a period of time or in a specific part of the business, can often help you make better judgements and reduce the risk if things don’t go in the way you were expecting. Piloting also helps you to discover unforeseen consequences that you might not have realised otherwise.

If you are being presented with options, then probe. Why does your advisor give you those choices? What data do they have to back them up?

If they explain which decision they think is right, ask: “What are your concerns with this option?” Invite them in a safe way to consider what could be wrong with their proposal, so that, even if you do go on to make that decision, you know what potential problems you will have to mitigate.

6. Delivery

The Harvard Business Review article says that once you have made your decision, it’s important to understand the risks and know who is best at mitigating and managing those risks.  Hopefully, if you have done a good job with questioning the options and playing devil’s advocate, you will be reasonably aware of the risks.

In determining who is best to manage/mitigate these risks, consider the skills, experience, mindset and behavioural traits required. In an agile world, the most effective leaders are those who effectively balance relationship management with strategic execution, and also speed with flexibility and stability.

This links back to section 3 of my article Mindset and practices of the best leaders (part 1) – knowing how to get the best people for the right role, and managing the development of their talent.


We are all called upon to make decisions every day, and it’s rare that there is an obvious right or wrong answer. If you feel overwhelmed, then go for a walk or sleep on it – this sometimes helps the right decision to become obvious – and gets you onto the balcony, rather than the dance-floor!

If you’d like to develop your skills in judgement or any of the topics touched on, please feel free to contact me for some time to think this through. At this time with most of us having to work from home, we are less likely to have informal contact to brainstorm ideas, so use your time wisely to continue your personal and professional development.

To conclude, here’s a poetic quote from HBR that explains the image heading this article…

”Leaders need many qualities, but underlying them all is good judgement. Those with ambition but no judgement run out of money. Those with charisma but no judgement lead their followers in the wrong direction. Those with passion but no judgement, hurl themselves down the wrong paths. Those with drive but no judgement, get up very early to do the wrong things. Sheer luck and factors beyond your control may determine your eventual success, but good judgement will stack the cards in your favour.”

Further reading


Mindset and practices of the best leaders (part 1)

This month’s article was inspired by some research by McKinsey called: “The mindsets and practices of excellent CEOs“. I’ve added my own advice to help you kickstart your 2020; even though the research focuses on CEOs, much of the insight can apply to other leaders and professionals too.  I hope it gets you thinking about how you might like to refresh your mindset and practices.

McKinsey looked at the six main elements of the job:

  • Setting the strategy
  • Aligning the organisation
  • Leading the top team
  • Working with the board
  • Being the face of the company to external stakeholders
  • Managing your own time and energy

They summarise this with the diagram below, with the optimal mindset and practices for each element of the role. So, for example, setting the corporate strategy is best done with a mindset of “Focus on beating the odds”, with three practices to complement this around Vision, Strategy and Resource Allocation.

Excellent CEOs

We look at the first three of these below; I’ve picked out the elements I believe will be of most value, and help you set the spark into a new decade at work. Next month, we’ll consider the other three.

Everything you do sets/affects the tone for your team(s) and colleagues. So, if you are in a rut about the way you do your job, read on!

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Courageous leadership

As you may know, one of the most popular TED talks of all time is by Brené Brown about vulnerability.

Her latest book, Dare to Lead, was published in 2018 and builds on much of her research on vulnerability – she expands on this theme and describes what it looks like in a leadership context. I found it packed with rich content and lots of checklists, (although you’ll need to create your own checklist for all the checklists :-)), so it’s worth getting if you want to dig a little deeper. Meanwhile, it inspired the ideas in this article which I hope you find useful.

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How to support somebody who is grieving

In today’s society, we no longer live in big family groups. When family and friends live far away, the people we would usually turn to are not easily available. Instead, workmates can be a big source of support. However, death is a topic we don’t often talk about at work.

When someone has lost a loved one, their colleagues can feel uncomfortable, and it can be hard to know what to do or say. As a result, they may keep quiet about it.

This article gives you some ideas about how you can support a grieving colleague, whether you’re their line manager or a concerned workmate.

If you have suffered a loss and had support that you found particularly helpful, I’d love to hear from you. I will collate any responses and write an update to this article so we can learn from you (I will assume you wish to be anonymous unless you tell me otherwise). Thank you!

“Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise.”
Victor Hugo

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How to be an agile leader

The world is changing fast and our lives are much more complex than they used to be. People in senior roles are making decisions about things that haven’t happened before, and without the comfort of having all the facts. Because of Artificial Intelligence, jobs are being created that don’t exist today, and today’s jobs won’t exist tomorrow.

In a VUCA* world like this, the only way to be is more human – to bring all of who you are to work, and let go of your fears.

I’ve recently completed certification training on an inside-out tool that helps leaders and teams to do just this. Building on a model by Kegan on the stages of adult development, the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) looks at what an effective agile leader embodies. Some of my clients are already using this tool as the basis of their leadership and cultural transformation to evolve to a new way of being in this VUCA world.

This article gives you food for thought to help you develop a deeper understanding of these principles. It is linked to my previous two articles: Agile Organisations, and Agile teams and completes the trio to help you develop and thrive.

*VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The term was first used in 1987 by the US Army War College, drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus after the Cold War. An article in Harvard Business Review paraphrased it as: “Hey, it’s crazy out there!”

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How to look after the wellbeing of your workforce

Research shows that when employees feel their work is meaningful and they are valued and supported, they tend to have higher wellbeing levels, be more committed to their organisation’s goals, and perform better too.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wellbeing is defined as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” In this article, we are assuming a broader definition, such as the one drafted by the New Economics Foundation: “how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and a social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole.”

There is clear evidence that shows a link between stress and cardio-vascular disease. Meanwhile, a poor diet full of sugar and fat suppresses your immune system. It’s also known that exercise promotes physical health and helps you get a good night’s sleep, which is a key factor in personal wellbeing. Organisations should aim to support both physical and mental wellbeing (traditionally the focus has been more on physical health, but visibility of the effect poor mental health is now increasing and starting to gain much-needed attention – see more on this at the end of this article).

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of the water.”
Benjamin Franklin

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