What does Leadership Look Like?

I was looking for an image to illustrate my version of leadership, for once Google was not helpful. Here are some of the images Google provided and my first , somewhat snarky, reaction to them.

Apart from an apparent gender bias (none of the stick figure appear to be female), the images all show leaders in a sort of exalted status that I’m not comfortable with.

I’m drawn more to a version of leadership that relies on inspiring people, of helping them to be the best they can be.  As John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”. Academics describe leadership as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (Chemers M. (1997) via wikipedia). I’ve always liked that wise quote from the Tao te Ching  “When a good leader is finished, the people think they did it themselves.”

None of the images I found in common search seemed anything like my version of leadership, although I did recognise the truth of  Gaping Void‘s brilliant cartoon.

Leadership_gapingvoidSo I decided to make my own image on leadership.

I wanted to convey that for me leadership includes the idea of “we do this together”, that there’s a team of individuals who bring their differences to the table, that we’re equal and the contributions of all in a strong team are valued.

It’s hard to get all of that into a single image, here’s what I’ve come up with (which you’ve already seen if you came here via twitter – sorry for the recursion).


How would you visualise leadership?

(And for those of you worrying about the gender depiction in my image, you needn’t).

Repeated Social Media Fails

fail whaleIn a month where a “beach body ready” campaign hit the news in the UK with people taking to twitter to protest,  an ANZAC campaign went wrong in Australia and Baltimore erupted over every media outlet, not just the social ones, I spotted two social media fails that were not just stupid, they were repeats of earlier fails.

People make mistakes, I get it, I have a long list of my own mistakes that I’m not publishing. This is a reminder to pay attention to your social media posts, and to think before you post.

1 Bad Reaction

A burger bar owner lost his cool with a customer on Facebook. His rant is laden with insults, bizarre comparisons and swear words.

What did the customer do to deserve this?

She sent a private message saying that her son had had an upset stomach with vomiting following a meal at the burger bar. She finished her message with “Just wanted you to be aware. We thought the burgers were fantastic and know it’s probably a one-off”.

The reaction is about 20:1 in favour of the customer, with many commenters declaring they’ll never eat there.

We’ve seen this before, back in 2013 Amy’s Baking Company was visited by Gordon Ramsay in his show Kitchen Nightmares. The restaurant in question responded in flurry of furious facebook posts and it all went downhill from there. As Forbes later pointed out in their lessons on social media; Don’t Insult People. I’d go further; don’t tweet when you’re mad.

2 Fired Before you Start

A single mum landed a job at a daycare centre but before she could start the centre changed their decision and she’s out of a job. Why?

She complained online about hating working at daycare centres and she doesn’t like being around kids all the time. It didn’t take long for those comments to reach the day care centre, and they rescinded their offer.

This has happened before, famously a young woman tweeted;

ciscotweetShe learnt the hard way that companies monitor social media, that what you say on a social media channel is public – and permanent, and what you say could be damaging.

These incidents were all avoidable if the posters had thought through the impact of their words. A former colleague who was expert in digital security used to say that everything you put online is “public and permanent”. That means that the list of people who can see your post isn’t just the friends you tag; it’s your boss, future boss, future girl/boyfriend, brother, colleague, journalist, neighbour and your mum.

Think before you post.

Image: LEGO Twitter Fail Whale | Tveskov | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Day The Earth Shook

2015_Nepal_earthquake_ShakeMap_version_6I am writing this in Lisbon, a city whose history includes an earthquake as a defining moment. In 1755 the city was devastated by an earthquake estimated at 8.5 – 9. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami and widespread fires across the city. Thousands of people died and more lost their homes. Even the city’s geography was changed as foreshore was pushed up out of the sea. Economists estimate that the immediate impact cost the country between 32 to 48 % of GDP (source; The Economic Impact of the Lisbon 1755 Earthquake (pdf) )

Contemporaries described the city following the triple disaster as an apocalypse and it took years to recover and rebuild. In the rebuilding and recovery phase there was significant innovation; new buildings had to include techniques to withstand future earthquakes. And the seeds of scientific thinking around earthquakes is in evidence in a parish survey following the earthquake.

I grew up in New Zealand, a country with a history of earthquakes, I have an enduring mental image of railway tracks flicked into two steel ribbons through the force of the 1987 Edgecombe earthquake. So this is a subject of long-term interest to me.

We know from history that it takes years after a big earthquake to recover and rebuild. So I’m watching the news from Nepal, looking at the devastation and thinking how challenging it will be for this relatively poor country to recover. It is frightening. On social media I’ve seen all sorts of coverage; drone footage of the damage, statistics in updates, and endless photos of rescues, devastation and tent cities.

Someone has collated a twitter list of those reporting on the Nepal Earthquake, and there’s also a Facebook page offering help, and advice.

It’s easy to get the news, it’s harder to know what to do. In this early, emergency, phase the best thing to do is to donate whatever amount you can. The Rubin gallery which focuses on arts from the Himalayan region has put together a list of charities working in the region. Donate if you can. Donate now for emergency relief, and/or in the months to come for the incredible rebuilding work that will be needed across a wide part of the country.

It took Portugal years to recover, and it was at the head of an incredibly wealthy empire back in 1755. For a country as poor as Nepal this disaster could wipe out an entire year’s GDP.

Gaming NPS

recommendI was asked in a survey recently “How likely would you be to recommend this tool to your colleagues?”

At first glance it seems like a fair enough question, and one we’re all used to seeing since NPS (Net Promoter Score) became ubiquitous. But here’s the problem; the tool in question was an internal HR tool. I have no choice but to use it. Whether I would recommend it or not is therefore irrelevant.

It’s not the first time I’ve questioned the use or implementation of NPS. And I’m not alone.

What is NPS?

NPS or Net Promoter Score is a single number that represents how likely a customer is to recommend your product/service/company to their friends, family or colleagues.

People are divided into detractors, passives and promoters based on their score. The number of promoters (those who gave a score of 9 or 10) minus the number of detractors (those who scored between 0 – 6) gives you your net promoter score. So the score can be negative.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 22.49.59It seems that the distribution of responses falls on a bimodal distribution with people scoring either strongly supporting or strongly detracting, with 65% of all scores being either 0, 9, or 10.

What’s Wrong with NPS?

It’s culturally insensitive; I used to see survey data from training courses, we used a 10 point scale and noticed that Dutch people tend to score any survey question on quality 1-2 points lower than their US colleagues. Once famously taking points of because the food was too good! It was incredibly unlikely to ever get a 10 from a Dutch participant. I’m sure this has implications on NPS scores.

Limited use in B2B; because the decision cycle is more complex, with multiple stakeholders and influencers an NPS based on the scores of just the person known to the survey sender is not a useful measure.

It can be gamed; on a  holiday last year I was asked to give a company feedback, and advised that only scores of 9 or 10 would count as positive. As it happens I was happy to score a 9 without the guilt trip, but how accurate are surveys when they come with scoring instructions?

It’s not actionable; it can be really hard to understand what to improved when the NPS score is calculated across a team or across an audience as a whole. NPS Monitoring blog gives a nice hypothetical example about how breaking out an audience according to time spent with the product might help understand what approach to take to improve user experience (and therefore NPS).

Some of the issues above are around implementation; if frontline people don’t benefit indvidually from NPS then the risk of gaming NPS drops for example.

Is it Useful?


NPS can be useful either as a single figure that allows a manager to see a changing trend of customer reaction, or compare businesses or markets across a large company – preferably using trend data rather than absolutes to limit any cultural biases.

If set up properly it can also be used to diagnose areas for attention by drilling into the reactions of specific groups or analysing where a respondent is in the product purchase cycle.

But it should never be used to asses a compulsory tool.

Image; Thumbs Up | MyEyeSees | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


hotwashThis came up on a powerpoint slide of the day’s agenda “4 – 5 pm Hotwash”.

Evidently it means immediate review, according to Word Detective it comes from the US Army where it describes the debrief that occurs immediately after a mission or patrol, possibly from the literal talking while showering, more likely from the practice soldiers have of dousing their weapons in hot water after an exercise.

I’d never seen it before, and nor had any other colleagues in the room. So I’ve asked people what it makes them think of, most people said either laundry or hot tubs (which might say more about them than the subject). But the most descriptive was “hotwash sounds like a painful spa treatment involving large muscular women twisting your body in weird ways”.

In this case it was referring to the last hour of an assessment day, when all teams will discuss their assessments and we’ll check any major inconsistencies.

If I’d been writing the agenda I would have put “4 – 5 pm Review Assessments”, but then, I’m not a management consultant.

Image: Weekly Laundry | Stefan | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Internet Access as a Human Right

UNhumanrightsI am constantly connected, both at home and at work, often via multiple devices. And it’s not just my phone and laptop, increasingly service apps are online – I can control my apartment temperature  from the other side of the world via an app. Lots of services are online, I do all my banking online, I’ll do my tax return online soon. I’ll shop online, including for dinner delivered. At work I’m online all the time. My functional life is online – if wifi goes down I’m really stuck. So internet is hugely important. But is it a human right?

The original UN Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention the internet, but then it was written in the 1940s so that’s not surprising. However it does list a number of rights that are increasingly accessed via the internet, including the right to;

  • take part in the government of his country,
  • equal access to public service in his country.
  • work, to free choice of employment
  • education.
  • participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

These are all available online

It’s only a matter of time before these are available only via the internet. It’s such a clear trend that in 2011 the UN declared internet access a human right, noting;

The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.

But what action follows this declaration? How can governments ensure that access is fair? And what happens when fair access does not exist?

There are a lot of government and business initiatives to ensure universal access to the internet, although in many cases the individual would still need to provide the device;

  • Costa Rica, Greece, Spain, France, Finland and Estonia have taken legislative steps to enshrine internet access as a right in law.
  • India plans to roll out wifi to 2500 cities.
  • The UK government aims to turn thousands of public buildings into free wifi zones.
  • In the Netherlands network providers are finding ways to open use of customer hotspots.

But not all governments are doing so well. The Syrian regime seems to shut down the internet for hours or days at various times. China famously has “The Great Firewall“, which uses a range of blocking techniques to filter sites and content. And governments of democratic nations aren’t immune to the temptation to turn off internet access in times of crisis, as UK’s PM David Cameron showed during the London riots in 2011 (in this case it did not happen).

But even outside these extreme examples internet access remains very unequal. Jon Gosier, who has worked on some of the big issues of technology inequality, talks about how our thinking around technology as an improver of lives is flawed and asks the vital question – how do we include everyone?

There are a few organisations around the world working on ensuring full internet access, including A Human Right, which in 2012 campaigned to have a planned undersea cable moved 500km south so that it could serve the isolated island of St Helena. Their site and twitter feed appear somewhat moribund so it’s hard to judge real progress.

Alliance for Affordable Internet is a public-private partnership that works to provide affordable broadband and mobile access to the internet for everyone.

But the most interesting “bet” on securing global, universal access to the internet might come from the private sector. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has a vision of creating a “space internet“. And Google have a mad idea involving balloons, called Project Loon, that might just work.

Image: Human Right | Zack Lee |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Burning Platform

4350193475_f1c96d4a51_z“We need to define what’s the burning platform”.

We’ve probably all heard this term, and the mental image conveys a sense of crisis and urgency. The origin is even more explicit, it comes from a (possibly apocryphal) story of a man faced with an urgent choice of certain death on an oil rig that was burning or potential death from hypothermia (or sharks) by jumping into the water below. According to the story he jumped and survived.

However the decision facing us in the meeting when I heard the term used was not a crisis, nor was there any urgency (except that imposed by our own project), nor was their a fire, and whatever the decision no lives would be lost.

So what does the term mean now?

In this case, judging by the context, the sentence meant “we need to define the business reason for this change”. But that’s far less exciting than leaping flames and swirling smoke.

Image: Fire man!  |  Paul Chaloner  | CC BY-ND 2.0


Setting Annual Goals

goalsettingAt the beginning of each year most large companies ask all employees to set goals for the year. The tools and process vary widely between companies but there are some elements that are really consistent.

I’ve outlined the principles to follow, with background examples where I can find them.

Set S.M.A.R.T goals

The S.M.A.R.T acronym is often used as a guide or even a requirement by companies. Even if it’s not required it’s a good way to think about goal setting. Here’s how the acronym breaks down.


Set out what the goal is including purpose or benefits, geographic scope, business scope,  and dependencies or constraints.

  • roll out programme B in EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • increase sales across T category of products
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements.
  • build network of experts in field P, across European markets
  • increase customer satisfaction


Explain how progress will be measured. Measurement may be quantitative or qualitative. You could use sales data, website traffic, lead generation, marketing reach, survey data (including internal surveys). I encourage my team to focus on impact on the company, rather than counting tasks completed, but I try to make sure it’s still something easily measured and unambiguous.

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • increase sales by 30%   across T category of products
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements, goal is met when plan is delivered and 3 improvements have been made
  • build network of experts in field P, across European markets, with participation rates in online community reach 70%
  • increase customer satisfaction as measured by quarterly online survey by 5%

You can also include some “stretch” in the goals, particularly if your pay system has a variable component;

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets, stretch goal = 80%


The goal should be something the you or your team can reach in the time frame given. It should not be extreme, as this would be demotivating. It should not be to easy, as this could reduce the drive and initiative applied to achieving the goal.

If you’re writing a set of goals make sure that the total list doesn’t exceed a year’s work. Make sure that each goal is proportional to the time it will require, if you have five goals each one should be roughly 20% of the time needed through the year.

Defining an achievable goal may include stating constraints or dependencies.

  • roll out programme B in 60% of EMEA markets, provided business case proves value in individual markets
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements, goal is met when plan is delivered and 3 improvements have been made, note that this depends on budget being available.
  • increase customer satisfaction as measured by quarterly online survey, excluding any product recalls.


Relevant goals are ones that deliver value to the company, department and team.  They should be aligned with the goals of leaders, peers and any sub-ordinates. The goals should also be appropriate for your seniority level, both in terms of complexity and impact on the company.

If goals set are relevant they will be meaningful and motivating for you.


Each goal should set out a timeline for achievement, this may mean breaking goal into constituent parts to specify timeline.

  • increase sales by 30%   across T category of products, by end October to meet sales planning.
  • evaluate process X, and plan improvements by end Q1, goal is then to deliver 3 improvements by end of year, note that this depends on budget being available.

It can be a challenge to get this right as an individual, and even more difficult when setting goals across a larger team, but it’s important to do it right. It’s good for the manager to have specific goals and alignment across the team, with each person knowing how they contribute to the big picture. And knowing your individual goals focuses your attention on what’s really important.

On a more practical note; setting up the goals well makes the performance review conversation much easier for everyone.

 Image; Goal and Sky |  Steve 9567 | CC BY-ND 2.0


Just Stop It #4

I wrote about three things that annoyed my digital life, one of those (the first one) has stopped, but now I have a new one; website overlays, like this.
Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 11.07.00
I hadn’t even  seen the article and the site wants me to sign up and to contact them. If this were a date I’d be sneaking out the back door, escaping the overbearing demands of my date. On this site it wasn’t clear how to get rid of the overlay, it took some random clicking to find that it’s removed by a click on the far left of the screen.

I’ve also seen overlays that whoosh into the middle of the screen if you move the mouse towards the upper tool bar, where the book-mark function is, the overlay attempts to entice you back to read more. But it often comes of as begging for your attention, in dating terms it’s the clingy boyfriend/girlfriend of the internet.

Have these been tested for usability? Am I the only person in the world that resents the interference with my reading time?

Please internet; just stop it.

What I learnt from watching tennis

tennis ballI’ve been watching the tennis, at the Australian Open, and there’s a lot to learn that can be applied to my work.

The players demonstrate great skill, fitness, mental strength and athleticism, but that’s not what got my attention.

I found myself watching the ball kids.

At the Australian Open the ball kids are aged between 12-15, and they demonstrate fantastic team work.

  • The have a common purpose, they’re there to serve the players.
  • They know their roles, whether it’s on the baseline, where they pass the balls to the players and provide towels during play, or at the net where they retrieve the balls at net and support players during change of ends. It’s hard work being a ball kid.
  • They communicate, they’re watching each other, making sure they’re ready to pass and receive balls.
  • They demonstrate their knowledge, they know the rules and the system they need to follow. That system makes things run incredibly smoothly.
  • They show good judgement, it’s unpredictable on the court, they have to figure out stuff on the go – but they also know when to ask the chair umpire a question.
  • There are individual moments of genius, in one game I saw one of the net ball kids extend backwards, cat-like, to snap up a stray ball mid-air, she quickly returned to her starting pose. It’s a team thing, and the game isn’t about them.

Throughout the matches the ball kids did their job with pace, focus and attention to detail. Sometimes their attention to detail was so extreme it amused the crowd, and the players, as in the Nadal’s water bottle incident.

These attributes of teamwork apply in a company. When a team has a shared purpose, clear roles, expertise / knowledge, good judgement, and communicates well the performance will be greater than the individual contributions could deliver. If you’re a team leader watch your team and look for those characteristics, reward them, build on them. And take some time to figure out the shared purpose and define the roles and systems of working.

As for me, my holiday is almost over – I can’t wait to get back and start working with my team again.

Image; Glowing Tennis Ball | Lynda Gibbons | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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