To be honest

If you knew you could improve someone’s performance by having a difficult conversation, you would have that conversation, wouldn’t you? Easy. How about if that person was the company Chairman? More difficult, perhaps. Would it be easier if you knew that the Chairman craved honest feedback, and was desperate to hear from you?

So what’s stopping you?

Honesty

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A big day for students

Today is the day when hundreds of thousands of A-level students get their exam results. All across the country they are variously terrified, shocked, delighted, surprised, thrilled, incredulous and disappointed. For some it is simply another milestone reached exactly as expected, on their journey into a career. For others it is certainly a milestone… but perhaps “turning point” would be a more accurate description.

For many students, today marks the end of their dream. Failure to achieve the required exam results means that they cannot progress to their chosen university. It might mean re-sitting exams next year; it might mean going to a different university to read something completely different; it might mean a complete change of tack, and not going to university at all. In most of these instances, students will regard today as a setback, and for some they will feel it is the end of the world, a dream completely shattered. It may indeed be a major setback, but humans are remarkably resilient. Setbacks become opportunities, which become new dreams and new challenges. Over time, expectations change as those new dreams take shape and come to life. What once seemed like the end of the world will soon be just a turning point.

It is easy for wise heads to look back and see many turning points in their own lives – times  at which something significant happened. Maybe a birth, death or marriage; or a job change or sudden opportunity overseas. As we become older and more experienced, we see how these instances present “timeouts” – opportunities to reflect and react. Younger people don’t have that experience, and are not as capable at handling timeouts. After all, apart from deciding which subjects to study, students generally don’t have to make many “really big” decisions before they leave school. They might not agree that today’s results merely mark a turning point, and they will need a great deal of support from friends and family. The quality of that support is likely to be just as important to them as everything they’ve done for themselves until now. It is likely to be a key part of their short-term recovery and longer-term transition to a new dream.

The press will quote pass-rate statistics throughout the days and weeks which follow, explaining how it is all much easier today than it was twenty years ago. Whether they are right or wrong, it is all completely irrelevant to those students. The lucky ones don’t care – their dream continues; the unlucky ones don’t care – they need a new dream. And support.

Inspiration from London 2012

In an earlier post, I wondered what London 2012 would provide in terms of memorable moments – broken records, outstanding achievements, personal stories and inspiration to us all.  At that time, I anticipated that there would be some surprises but I completely underestimated the scale of what it would bring.

On two separate occasions GB medal-winners encouraged others to “go for it” and live the dream, along the lines of “I’m just an ordinary girl; if I can do it, anyone can“.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won gold medal in the women’s pair
Great Britain has an excellent record in rowing, so it was quite likely that some medals would come from the rowing events.  But the remarkable thing is that Helen only started rowing in 2008 and was motivated by watching the GB team winning in Beijing. She was selected to take part in the Sporting Giants scheme, an initiative from Sir Steve Redgrave.
“I remember sitting in a room in Bisham Abbey [the National Sports Centre] and someone saying: ‘A gold medallist in 2012 could be sat in this room. Look around you’. I thought: ‘Right, I’m going to make that me.’ It was quite surreal.”
Immediately after winning the gold, exhausted and breathing heavily she said “I hope my story can be an inspiration for kids in PE or at home thinking about taking up a new sport. Just go on, go for it – you don’t know what’s going to happen”.

She was originally motivated enough to think “I can do that” in response to watching others win gold, and spent the next four years proving that she could. And then she encouraged others to follow her. Totally inspiring.

Samantha Murray won silver in the modern pentathlon
Asked immediately after her final race what she was doing four years ago, she said she was doing her A-levels, having started pentathlon, but she wasn’t competing at a senior level.  As a child she had wanted to be an Olympian, and at the age of 12 had put a poster on her bedroom wall of pentathlon gold-medallist Steph Cook at the Sydney Olympics.
“Honestly, if you have a goal – if there’s anything you want to achieve in life – don’t let anybody get in your way. You can do it. If I can do it, and I’m a normal girl, anyone can do what they want to do”. Again, totally inspiring. I wonder how many posters of Sam will adorn bedroom walls of future Olympians.

I suspect that many of us will immediately think to ourselves “but you’re absolutely not an ‘ordinary girl’, you’re exceptional”, and we’d be right – they are exceptional. In one important respect, they are more exceptional than the rest of us… they believe in themselves.

As these ‘ordinary girls’ showed, achieving great things always involves getting over the first hurdle – believing in ourselves. It might not be the hardest part, but it is surely the most important.

Will it make the boat go faster?

Will it make the boat go faster?”  This was the title of a keynote speech I recently attended by international oarsman, and Olympic gold medal winner Ben Hunt-Davis MBE.

By his own admission, Ben’s crew had a poor track record in the years leading up to the Sydney Olympics, and they were not favourites to win a medal in the 8+ races.  The spotlight was firmly focussed on many other medal hopefuls (most notably the coxless four, of Stephen Regrave, Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster).  What we didn’t know at the time was that the entire crew had become dissatisfied with their performance and had decided to do something about it.  Their reward/ work ratio was just not good enough.  International athletes make a massive investment in their time and their personal lives in order to compete at the highest levels, and this all makes a great deal of sense if there are rewards.  But without the rewards – winning medals – it just doesn’t make sense.  It’s absolutely not about taking part.  For these people it is the winning which counts.

The entire crew had had enough, and following the old adage “if you keep doing the same old thing, you’ll keep getting the same old results”, they decided to do something different.  Every element of their training regime was analysed; every personal motive was questioned; every plan was scrutinised, each time answering the same basic question – Will it make the boat go faster?  See more from Ben here and get his excellent book:It is all too easy to lose sight of what’s important in a business, in our everyday lives or in a sporting pursuit – there are so many distractions, little details which throw us off course.  So it is particularly important to keep the original objective in mind.  In the case of Olympic oarsmen, it is clear – it’s making the boat to go as fast as possible.

Many people have used the phrase “No campaign plan survives contact with the enemy”, but Helmuth von Moltke the Elder seems to have a reasonable claim to its origin, so the concept is more than 150 years old. We all know from experience that despite painstaking plans, things derail us, distract us, irritate us and cause us to lose focus. When that happens, we divert energy into the wrong thing, often changing tack completely. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we ask ourselves the question “now, where was I?” or “what was I doing?”, before dragging ourselves back onto the original course. It is so much easier if we have a simple objective to focus on: making the boat go faster; selling more icecream; reducing the costs; designing the thinnest phone.

The key is to get the clarity of thought needed in order to distill down what the underlying objective is, so that everyone can keep it in the front of their minds where it can survive contact with the enemy.

In the meantime, read this excellent book by Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge.

Hidden (collective) talent

The latest much-talked-about show on UK television is Hidden Talent (a Silver River production for Channel 4, sponsored by American Express).

In Episdode 3, 19-year old James Whinnery emerges from a battery of aptitude test undertaken by a large group of participants, appearing to have a particular talent for languages.  The show followed his journey from having absolutely no language qualifications to the point where he appeared on Jordanian television, fluent in Arabic 19 weeks later.  It was all the more fascinating since James was a down-to-earth, likeable character who hadn’t had the best start in life, and was an A-level drop-out who was living in a hostel for the homeless.

Whilst it was utterly compelling viewing, it was hardly surprising – after all, we know from past experience that many people have hidden talents.  And when those talents finally emerge from the “right people”, we are humbled and delighted.  What makes this series so interesting though, is the process by which the talents are uncovered.  The initial group of 900 participants took a series of aptitude tests, each of which had been carefully designed to identify specific talent potential.  James Whinnery performed particularly well in the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) which has been demonstrated to be an effective predictor of such talent.  Identifying and nurturing talent are, of course, two completely different steps, and James was lucky that not only was his surprising talent identified, but that there was sufficient motivation from him, and resource available from others, to nurture his incredible talent.

Can similar tests uncover hidden collective talent, and could they be applied in organisations to deliver exceptional results?  There are notable examples of what a group can do collectively – the rescue of Apollo 13, Mars Rovers, Concorde are obious examples – but are these the result of hidden collective talent emerging, or are they a potent combination of sheer hard work, huge resources and a large dose of luck?  Even though Gene Kranz never actually uttered the words “Failure is not an option“, and unpalatable though it was, it was surely the most likely of all the options.  The collective talent which saved the mission was not hidden, only emerging during the crisis – actually quite the opposite.  The eventual outcome was exactly what had become expected by the public who had become accustomed to witnessing great things from an extraordinary bunch of people.  Yes, for sure, there was delight and relief.  But surprise?  No, none – it wasn’t a surprise.

Personality type indicators such as MBTI and Belbin can be used to distinguish between different behaviours in individuals, and knowing this for each member of a team can sometimes be an indicator of how a team is likely to behave.  But this is very different from an aptitude test which detects hiddent talent within a team.

There are no doubt examples in organisations, where exceptional results have been delivered by teams to their great surprise.  Perhaps the results are only surprising because the initial challenge was so far outside the team’s normal remit that it was always inherently infeasible.  Such challenges are often delivered by inspiring leaders who can sense hidden collective talent.  Is there another mechanism for identifying hidden collective talent, or must we rely on those inspiring leaders?

By contrast, when leaders who are dictators, tyrants or bullies demand exceptional results, success or failure follow the deployment of massive brute force and huge resources – an effect which is altogether different.

James Whinnery demonstrated that once his talent had been identified, the nurturing of those talents could follow “standard procedures”.

If we could somehow identify hidden collective talent without recourse to the all-too-rare inspiring leaders, perhaps “standard procedures” for nurturing the team’s collective talent would deliver exceptional results?