How to have a fulfilling life

“Would you tell me, please, which way
I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where
you want to get to,” said the Cat…
FROM ALICE IN WONDERLAND BY LEWIS CARROLL

4-keys-to-a-successful-life
Success is, ‘the achievement of something you’ve been trying to do’.
From the Latin, successus, to get an outcome.

So, success is simply about working out what you want to do in life
and then doing it! This allows for a very wide range of possible positive
outcomes; the Buddhist monk, the small business owner, the teacher,
the billionaire entrepreneur, can all be successful in their own way and
on their own terms.

The first step in living a fulfilling life then is (obviously) to have some
sense of what you want to do (i.e. to set some Life Goals) and make
sure that reaching those goals will be a source of gratification.

The chosen goals should be something that will generate a sense of
fulfilment. Pleasure should arise not just in the getting of the goal, but
also the doing of it e.g. the athlete doesn’t only enjoy the race, but also
likes training for the race!

From reviewing the literature in this area, my contention is that
whatever Life Goals you might select there are three topics that
require particular attention if things are going to go well. They are
Relationships, Well-being, and Finances.

Thus, the four key elements involved in living a successful life are:

  1. Set Clear Goals
  2. Foster Healthy Relationships
  3. Look After Yourself
  4. Establish Sound Finances

Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…

Set clear goals

A goal is defined as, ‘something you want to achieve, especially when much time and effort is needed to get it.

Goals help us to focus our efforts on what matters most and help us to clearly distinguish between success and failure. Without goals the risk is that we drift aimlessly and whatever effort we put forth it doesn’t result in the kind of gains we might like to achieve.

Of course, most of us will have work goals that are imposed on us by our employer, but for a satisfying life it helps if we also have a set of personal goals to help prioritise and guide our actions. Called ‘Life Goals’, these objectives are based on things that really matter to us and can cover a wide range of potential topics e.g. career, family, finances, health, romantic relationships, friendships, religion, travel, hobbies, activities, sports etc.

Of course, most people will give some attention to most of these topics but to make real progress it is necessary to give special attention to just a few areas. That means making a conscious decision to hone in on just a handful of topics.

One way of doing this is to:

  • Start with Health, Relationships and Finance, plus 2 additional topics that excite you and are a likely source of pleasure to focus on e.g. foreign travel and playing music.
  • Do some research on those 5 topics e.g. if one priority is climbing the corporate ladder it makes sense to find out what are the key success factors in getting promoted etc.
  • Think about what an ambitious but realistic level of attainment might be in each area e.g. you might want to become the Pope but the chances of getting there are limited if you’re not (a) a practising catholic and (b) male. Also, since 1378, no pope has been elected outside the College of Cardinals, so being a cardinal would be helpful.
  • Note down some ideas about what you’d like your life to look like in respect of those 5 topics in (say) 5 or 10 or 15 years from now.
  • Turn the notes into Life Goals, that is, goals that are: long term; written down, in order to create a fixed point of reference and create clarity of expression; reasonably specific and; kept private.
  • As you make choices on what to do on a day-to-day basis, reflect on whether those choices are getting you closer towards, or further away, from those Life Goals E.g. If having a long term ‘Romantic Relationship’ is important, are you getting out and meeting potential partners? (If you want to find a prince/princess you might have to kiss a lot of frogs first!) Are you quickly identifying/avoiding/rejecting any selfish or ‘emotionally unstable’ people that you meet on dates?
  • Be alert for serendipity (happy accidents) or random events, that might spring up unexpectedly that could help you take a step towards your Life Goals.
  • Review the Life Goals on an annual basis and update them as necessary. There is no reason why the definition and the mix of goals can’t change over time as circumstances and your own perceptions alter.

WOOP Goals

Gabrielle Oettingen (Professor of Psychology at New York University) advocates for a four-stage, research based, personal goal setting process she calls WOOP. The system can be used for both short-term personal goals and longer-term, Life Goals.

WOOP stands for: Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan.

The procedure is to start by making notes against each of the four steps and then (for each stage) summarise those notes in just 3-6 words…

  1. Wish – your goal; what you want to achieve?
  2. Outcome – what you’ll gain/feel when you get your Wish
  3. Obstacles – What is it within you that holds you back from getting your Wish? E.g. a bad habit? An emotion? A negative past experience?
  4. Plan – How can you overcome your Obstacle?
    Use the planning format…“If… (obstacle), then I will… (action or thought).”

The key to the system is what psychologists call building Implementation Intentions. That is, anticipating barriers to success and thinking about how to overcome them when (not if) they arise. This helps to build the fortitude and persistence that are necessary to cope with the inevitable setbacks that occur when attempting anything that’s worthwhile.

Foster healthy relationships

Human beings are ‘pack’ animals. In evolutionary terms success in an oftentimes-hostile environment came from co-operation, teamwork and being part of a family, tribe or nation. So, there is a powerful, innate need for mutually supportive relationships.

In good times these relationships are a source of joy and fulfilment.

In bad times the advice, guidance and perspective that family and friends provide are vital to keeping a sense of perspective and ‘switching off’ the potentially damaging reactions to stressful events.

For the overwhelming majority of people, healthy relationships underpin the ability to both get things done and to feel good when doing them. As such it’s important to have clear Life Goals in this area.

One aspect of building good relationships is to be wary of ‘Energy Vampires’…
i.e. people who constantly generate problems, difficulties and angst. The aim is to minimise exposure to those people and consciously seek to spend time with individuals who give you a sense of well-being and provide mutual support. It is common to suggest aiming to have at least five people who you have a very positive, energising relationship with. This is a reminder to avoid the problem of your friendship pool ‘shrinking’ over time as the staying in touch gets crowded out by work commitments and the daily grind of commuting etc.

It’s not what you know it’s who you know

From the work perspective, social networks, as most people know, are a key success factor in business. With a good range of personal contacts, a person can: get support for projects, influence the strategy of their organisation, get promoted, spot issues at an early stage and react to them appropriately, make life in general easier, e.g. by getting a recommendation for a good plumber or baby sitter etc.

Most people have much weaker networks than they realise, and so often they find out about important matters too late in the day to affect the outcome, struggle to get resources allocated to their projects, find that their advice is ignored, miss out on promotion opportunities etc.

Effective networking requires:

  1. Digging the well before you are thirsty! One common mistake with networking is to wait until there is a pressing need before trying to make friends or get back in contact with people. Effective people build relationships before they need them and make sure they understand the agendas of potential allies, co-workers, contacts, etc. well in advance of asking for support on any given issue.
  2. Consciously identifying and connecting with ‘useful’ people, in an authentic and ethical way. This involves (i) helping people out – networking is a two-way street, and (ii) making conscious choices about when and where to network, e.g. explicitly deciding what conferences, exhibitions, breakfast clubs etc. you should attend.
  3. Nourishing the network once it has been built, this means having contact with people in the network at a frequency that can be counted upon e.g. a monthly catch up. In professional networks, the ‘use it or lose it’ principle applies!

Look after yourself

Achieving things involves taking action, and action requires energy, and energy is developed by taking care of your mind and body. So, making a success of your life involves trying to stay in reasonable shape; physically and emotionally.

This starts with the obvious physiological factors – sleep, diet and exercise.

If you’ve ever had a bad night’s sleep (and who hasn’t) then you know what tiredness can do to your mood, attitude and decision-making capabilities. Similarly Junk Food, Alcohol, Tobacco and all the other things you might (or might not) try from time to time will, in excess, hamper your ability to feel good and get things done. Ditto exercise; your body was made to move and there is a minimum of effort needed to keep the system in good working order.

Maintaining a good posture is also an important (but often overlooked) factor in maintaining well-being. Poor body alignments, caused by hours spent hunched over a steering wheel, phone or laptop can (over time) cause pain, immobility and low mood. You can read about seven benefits of good posture here.

Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has written persuasively of the need to adopt a positive outlook as part of being happy and resilient. Something he calls, Learned Optimism. For him this capacity to be upbeat and avoid low mood has three components:

  1. Permanence – viewing bad things as temporary setbacks that can be overcome in time.
  2. Pervasiveness – compartmentalising bad events so that they don’t ‘bleed’ negative energy into other aspects of your life e.g. work problems don’t impact your social life.
  3. Personalisation – bad things just happen from time to time and the optimist doesn’t take it personally when they do. Of course, they take ownership of any mistakes they make, and take corrective action but they don’t dwell on them.

The Self-Care Philosophy

This sense of ‘looking after yourself’, is formally known in psychology as Self-Care, defined as; “taking time to pay attention to you, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that ensures that you are being cared for by you.”

In her Psychology Today, article – Self Care 101- Dr Maria Baratta points out that Self-Care is a vital component of avoiding fatigue, sickness and burn out. She then lists 10 aspects of Self-Care including: knowing what your limits are, finding a way to decompress throughout your day and giving some thought to changing a difficult work situation.

Self-Care then, is about consciously finding ways to recharge and re-set your mind so as to avoid burn out and stress. Common strategies include hobbies, be it gardening, horse riding, yoga, dancing, running etc. Restful daily activities e.g. going for walk, seeing a friend, walking the dog, reading a book etc., and then more ’therapeutic options’ to stay in touch with your true nature and to understand your boundaries. This might involve approaches such as meditation of whatever flavour you like – Mindfulness, Transcendental, Taoist, Vipassana, Zen etc. – or maybe some psychological methodology like Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

The main thing is to consciously think about how you are promoting a sense of personal well-being and doing something each and every day that helps build your resilience.

Establish sound finances

Obviously, it is not a requirement for a successful life to prioritise earning money. Many people are very happy living a life based on service to others, or focus their efforts around an activity that they love to do. It is also a truism that money per se doesn’t make you happy, and, as Lennon and McCartney memorably reminded us, ‘money can’t buy you love’.

On the other hand, it’s not easy to be positive, relaxed and energised if you are mired in debt, and can’t afford to pay the rent or the electricity bill. Money problems are a fact of life for many people. For example, 49% of American households live paycheque-to-paycheque, and in the UK research by the Investing and Saving Alliance shows that a third of households have less than £250 in savings. Over 50% have less than £1,500 set aside.

So, some level of financial self-sufficiency is a prerequisite for not being ground down by the need to pay for life’s necessities. While beyond that, some level of affluence in order to do (at least some) of the extra things that help to make life enjoyable, is a definite plus. Consequently, it’s important to have clear Life Goals in this area.

In terms of making ‘big’ money (and by way of a benchmark, to be one of the top 1% of UK earners you need to make £120,000+ a year) there are four main ways of ‘getting rich’. None of the options are easy and only a small number of people will have the appetite, ability and opportunity to pursue them. They are:

  1. Climb the corporate ladder and get to the C suite. At the executive level the rewards come not only from the salary but (very importantly) from share options, bonuses, incentive schemes and company pension contributions. You may like to know that the CEO median total remuneration for AIM listed companies for 2019 was £324,000.
  2. Become a virtuoso in some highly paid area e.g. sports star, surgeon, actor, IT guru.
  3. Start a business. For those with the necessary entrepreneurial flair, building a business from the ground up, whether through spotting a gap in the market, or developing a brand new ‘product’, can lead to great wealth.
  4. Marry into money.

For everyone else (which is almost everyone) establishing sound finances is about balancing spending on the necessities, while investing slowly but steadily for the longer term. The basics of doing this are pretty self-evident, but just for the sake of completeness the main elements are…

Learn a Valuable Skill

Keep that skill current and learn new skills as required. (Like a professional athlete constantly training to improve their race times.) Just to be clear, ‘valuable skills’, in this context, means a skill that can command a premium in the market place. There are rare skills, that are hard to acquire, that deliver great benefits but don’t command a good market rate. Delivering them may be very satisfying, but if they don’t generate enough income to pay the bills, then making ends meet becomes a matter of relying on support from a partner/family member and/or having a second job.

It is also important to note that while a good work ethic is important, many people are willing to work hard, but ‘valuable skills’ are in shorter supply and so command both good remuneration and job security.

Balance income and expenditure

Experts in this area suggest that you don’t spend what you don’t have. Don’t buy things you don’t really need. Don’t try and ‘keep up with the Jones’s’. Do monitor your cashflow and do keep up to date on the best deals for utilities, credit cards, bank accounts, loans, insurance etc.

Save for a rainy day

There will always be unexpected events, and that could be anything from needing to replace a washing machine to being made redundant. The usual advice is to aim, over time, to build up enough cash that you can survive 3 months without working (and a 6-month buffer is better still).

Start retirement planning early

Most retirement plans are highly tax efficient and often involve ‘free’ additional contributions from the employer. Also, the returns accumulate over time, such that even modest investments made very early on can build into something substantial by the time it comes to stop work. To quote Albert Einstein, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it… he who doesn’t… pays it.”

Invest for the long term

Once the rainy-day fund is built up it’s time to think about long term investments i.e. using your money to buy an asset that you think has a good probability of generating an acceptable rate of return over time. Many options are available here, from property, to shares, to mutual funds, to making extra contributions to pension plans etc.

Putting it all together

Success comes from thinking about what Life Goals make sense to you and then taking steps to achieve them. It’s unlikely that you can do everything you might want to do; so, focus in on a handful of topics. Pay particular attention to the quality of your relationships, your health and your finances. Things change over time so review and confirm/update/change the goals each year.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how clear your Life Goals are. Are you continually taking small steps that move towards what you most desire? Are you having positive experiences on a regular basis? What changes might you make to how you live your life?

Reading

Read this article on the Wheel of Life technique for deciding upon what Life Goals to focus on.

On-Line

Watch this four-minute long video by on the WOOP goal setting method.

Courses

Consider signing teams up to our Practical Time Management workshop, run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event – which covers Life Goals, Looking after Yourself, and tools for efficient working.

Coaching

If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you review your networking skills.

Contact

Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, an old adage about making a success of just about anything…

“The secret to getting ahead is
getting started.”
ANON

How to Make a Success of Distance Working

“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much”
Helen Keller
Working remotely

Remote Teams are really just ‘Teams’

Remote Teams comprise people who have to collaborate to achieve a goal, but who are not based at the same location.

Far from being a new concept, people have been Remote Working and Home Working (a specific type of remote working) for decades. Territory Sales people have always worked remotely, going into the office perhaps once a month. Matrix, multinational based teams, have been around since the 1960’s, while IT people have been writing code from home since at least the 80’s.

So, working from home is not unusual, even for people doing highly detailed work requiring concentration. My mum, for example, was a home worker throughout the 1960’s/70’s. She was a master at embroidery. Coats – the world leading thread company – would produce embroidery kits for home enthusiasts to sew. The designs were highly complex; they covered a wide range of scenes from flowers, through to landscapes, animals and, on one occasion, Tutankhamun. As such the new designs first needed to be embroidered by experts to check their feasibility, assess the amount of thread that needed to be in the kits, and provide a ‘model’ for what the end result should look like. This was precise, demanding work, and my mum did it with four rambunctious kids to feed, entertain and get to school and back. I remember Mum sitting in her arm chair in the lounge surrounded by masses of coloured threads, silver thimble on her finger, looking at the cloth through a huge magnifying glass hung round her neck. We were all told to keep out of the way on Fridays as that’s when her status report went in the post, when a kit was completed that went off too, and the following Monday a fresh kit would arrive.

Thus, not only is remote working a common practice, the principles involved in managing a remote team are no different from managing any other type of team, namely: hire ‘good’ people; provide training; set clear goals; give feedback and reward success. The difference between managing remotely and ‘face to face’, is about nuance not substance!

The five key elements involved in running a Remote Team well are:

  1. Developing a Vision
  2. Setting Clear Goals
  3. Creating a Formal Communication Strategy
  4. Actively Build Team Spirit
  5. Helping employees get their Home Working Strategies right

Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…

Developing a Vision

When you are not on hand to answer questions, people have to take a lot more initiative than might otherwise be the case, so it’s crucial to give them a clear frame of reference about what the general priorities are. The simplest way of doing that is to have a clear (written) Vision Statement explaining the team’s raison d’etre. I.e. a statement of 50 words, or fewer, explaining what the team does and why that matters.

An example of a Corporate Vision Statement for an Online Retailer might be: “We provide our customers with the best online shopping experience for ballgowns and formal dresses, from beginning to end, with a smart, searchable website, easy-to-follow instructions, clear and secure payment methods, and fast, quality delivery.”

For (say) the merchandising department of that retailer, their Team Vision might be…“To source the best possible selection of high quality, mid-priced ballgowns and formal dresses, from a wide range of trusted suppliers, so that our customers can find a dress for all formal occasions. From classic to trendy, from sultry to conservative and chique, to elaborate embroidery.”

Will it make the boat go faster?

In addition to the Vision Statement it also helps to have a Motto or Strap Line that can focus people’s attention.

For example, in the 1990’s the GB Eight Rowing Team struggled to win any races. In fact, their usual finishing place was 7th. In desperation, after another poor showing in the Cologne regatta in 1998, they decided to base all their decisions by reference to a simple strap line: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’

Every decision point was tested against this Strap Line e.g. a new fitness regime for the crew is proposed, should it be adopted? Well, “Will it make the boat go faster?”

By relentlessly adopting this approach the team won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A similar clarity and focus can be given to any Team, or Remote Team, with a well thought through Strap Line. What would the Strap Line for your team be?

Setting Clear Goals

It’s hard to discover what a remote worker is doing on a day to day basis, so it’s difficult to assess their work ethic, but you can measure their achievement. As a result, a focus on goal setting (and monitoring the results) becomes of paramount importance.

It is important not to set too many goals as things get confusing and tracking becomes tiresome, the advice that’s usually given is to keep it to no more than 7 objectives at any one time.

The Power of the Weekly ‘One to One’ Meeting

The feedback component of goal setting is significant as people respond to being told how they are doing (in a constructive way).  It is important to praise people if they are on track, and provide advice and/or coaching if they are not.  In addition, if people know they will be rewarded for hitting a target, then that increases their commitment to getting it done.

The simplest way to track performance against goals, and to keep people engaged more generally is to have a weekly, scheduled, ‘one to one’ catch up call. Such calls should make use of a standard agenda so that everyone knows what topics will be covered and consequently they can prepare accordingly e.g. results for the week, any issues, open forum, next steps.

Just one thing – Sharing abbreviated to-do lists

One very effective way of keeping people focused on their goals, while simultaneously promoting team cohesion, is to require all employees to email every evening, at a set time (say 5.30pm), Just One Thing they will do the next day, and a report on how they got on with the task they set themselves for the day before. On Friday they report on how they got on with that day’s task and set a new task for the following Monday.

This short, sharp report should go to all the members of the team as a way of sharing what people are focusing on. It is a very effective method for keeping people in touch with one another.

Creating a formal Communication Strategy

People who work remotely can’t afford to leave staying in touch to chance as there is nothing in the work environment to remind them to discuss issues (e.g. they won’t see each other by the coffee machine). So, formally ensuring that people engage with each other, by having a range of scheduled meetings on a regular basis, is a core leadership function of Remote Managers.

Three important meeting types

The structured meetings plan will, of course, depend on the type of work being done and the experience level of the team, but typically a standard meeting programme would include:

  1. Weekly ‘one to one’ with each employee and the manager (lasting 20-30 minutes) – usually by video conference
  2. Monthly team briefing meeting – to discuss the team’s progress against goals (lasting 20-30 minutes)- usually by video conference
  3. A daily time slot when the manager will be available for ad hoc chats (like a ‘walk in service’ at a doctor’s surgery) – usually by phone

These meetings can be complemented by a weekly (one page) Progress Report – produced by each team member and sent to the Manager in advance of the weekly ‘one to one’ meeting. This will usually cover four topics; (i) achievements during the past week, (ii) any issues that have arisen, (iii) focus for the coming week, and (iv) any other comments or points of interest.

Use Temperature Checks

A ‘Temperature Check’ is a quick phone call (3-5 minutes), usually once a week, just to ask people how they are and how things are going generally.

e.g. “I am just making a quick call to see how things are going”.

There is no agenda, or set format, the aim is to replicate (albeit imperfectly) the informal chats you have with people when you bump into them in the corridor or café.

For new starters, or when people are under pressure, Temperature Checks can be done more frequently e.g. every day for a week.

Skip Level Meetings

If you are a manager of managers, then running remote Skip Level Meetings can be an indispensable tool for monitoring morale and developing team spirit. It simply involves meeting with a group of staff at the level below your direct reports (but all at the same grade) without management present and asking; what’s going well, what isn’t, what ideas do they have, what can we improve on and what are they curious about? This is a surprisingly effective method for taking the pulse of the organisation and developing team spirit.

Adapting to Time Zone challenges

It is important to reflect on the locations of the team members and any ‘inconvenience’ involved in attending sessions; share around that inconvenience by varying the meeting times.

For example, consider a team with members in the USA, Denmark and Singapore.

In this case if a meeting is held when it is 2pm on the west coast of the USA, it will be 11pm in Northern Europe and 5am in Singapore.

In this scenario then, maybe every other meeting should be scheduled so (say) the US based people attend at 11pm (it being 8am in Denmark and 2pm in Singapore).

Actively build Team Spirit

When people haven’t met face to face (as is often the case with remote teams) it can be hard to create the openness and willingness to share knowledge, ideas, suggestions, worries and concerns that is an aspect of the best teams. Even when people have met one another, the sense of isolation that remote working can create may erode trust over time. This means that special attention needs to be paid to creating informal ‘social networks’, both between individual team members, and the team as a whole ‘community.’ As a result, effective Remote Managers run regular team building activities. There are a myriad of ideas for this on the internet, so there is no excuse for not taking a few minutes each month for a team building activity e.g. you can find a list of ideas here.

However, popular Remote Team building options include:

  • Taking it in turns to talk about hobbies/pastimes.
  • Taking turns to describe a typical day.
  • Team members take turns to run short (typically 15-minute-long) training sessions. This can be on their specialist area, their territory/market segment, or some new developments in the field.

Helping employees get their home working strategies right

If an employee is going to work from home for the first time then it is best practice to give them some guidance on the do’s and don’ts of making it a positive experience. Naturally, any suggestions need to be tailored to the needs of the specific employee and take account of the corporate culture/procedures, but points worth covering include…

Make the most of it. Working from home means improvising (depending on what’s going on at home) and juggling work hours accordingly; which can be tricky. However, it also allows people to flex what they are doing to take the maximum advantage of being in the home environment, in order to do more of the things they enjoy; including spending more time with family and friends.  So, there is no reason that the home worker can’t take a few minutes and put some laundry in the washing machine, or mow the lawn in their lunch hour, or have a coffee with their mum, or schedule home deliveries for during the day etc.  Also, there is no commuting time, so prompt the new home worker to think about how to make the most of that e.g. an early morning yoga session, maybe a run at the end of the day?

Get the ‘set up’ right. It is easier to work from home if the physical space is conducive to concentration and focus. The ideal thing (obviously) is to have a dedicated ‘office’ but people can work on the kitchen table if they have to. If the Home Worker doesn’t have a dedicated work space encourage them to clear everything away at the end of each working day e.g. have a work cupboard, or a chest/crate that they can put their laptop and papers in. This helps to create a clear separation between ‘home’ time and ‘work’ time. Be sure to encourage them to follow the appropriate Health and Safety protocols e.g. ask them to make sure they have good lighting and a work position that won’t result in RSI or strained neck etc. Have them get an excellent broadband connection, a good quality headset and microphone, an ergonomic chair and (maybe) a separate monitor, plus a table at the right height (and don’t work on the sofa or in bed!)

Time Blocking. Having a structured schedule when home working becomes a key success factor; because people don’t have colleagues or commuting etc. to give shape to the day. Time Blocking simply involves someone listing the tasks they need to do and then allocating a specific time to do them. Using this system, every minute of the working day is assigned a task e.g.

09.00am – 10.00am – Task X
10.00am – 10.30am – Task Y
10.30am – 10.45am – Coffee Break
10.45am – 11.15am – Deal with unexpected tasks that have come in during the day
11.15am – 12.00 am – Team Meeting (Zoom conference)

Of course, the schedule can be modified in the face of ‘events’ and some of the estimates of how long it takes to do a task will be wrong, but this format provides a ‘shape’ to the day that will maximise productivity.

Agree ‘House Rules’. If the new Home Worker lives with house mates or a partner and/or have children it may be worth them sitting down and just agreeing some ‘rules’ for how they will share the space together. The idea is to avoid the irritation that comes from things like people playing loud music, or busting into the room when you are in the middle of a call with the CEO, or arguments about who is supposed to be looking after the kids. E.g. someone might agree with their teenage children that they won’t yell when they want something, but will quietly come and check if you’re on a call before making a request!

As an aside, Jon Gottman (a leading researcher into marriage and relationships) notes that couples are always making ‘bids’ for each other’s attention, affection or support. These bids can be minor (asking you to buy some milk) or major (help with an elderly relative). On getting a bid the other person can ‘turn towards’ the person i.e. responds positively or ‘turn away’.

Gottman did a 6-year follow-up study of newlyweds. For those who were still married, the partners responded positively to each other’s bids 86% of the time. Those who got divorced only responded positively 33% of the time.

In the context of home working an inability to ‘switch off from work’ – or even social media – by constantly checking emails, or scanning twitter etc. leads to a persistent ’turning away’ and a resultant damage to the relationship. The lesson is (obviously) to give your partner/family your undivided attention when you’re not working and to be ‘present’ during your ‘home time’.

Putting it all together

Remote Working shouldn’t be seen as a necessary evil in response to the current pandemic; it can be a perfectly valid method of normal working with many advantages. The essential elements of making a success of this way of working are to: give people a clear Strap Line to work to, set Clear Goals, have a formal Communications Strategy, actively build Team Spirit and help people new to home working to get their setup right.

What’s next?

Reflect on how you are performing as a Remote Manager. Are you doing enough team building activities? Are you providing people with enough feedback on their performance? What changes might you make?

Reading

Read this article on how one company (Buffer) makes use of a range of Remote Working Tools.

On-Line

Watch… this four-minute long video by Kellogg School of Management on 4 rules for running a virtual team.

Courses

Consider signing teams up to our Managing Remote Teams workshop, run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.

Coaching

If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you improve your skills as a Remote Manager?

Contact

Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, a quote by Henry Ford about the development of a great team…

“Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.”
HENRY FORD

“Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.”
OLD MILITARY ADAGE
managing the team

Proper planning prevents poor performance!

Successfully defusing a crisis situation (such as the spread of COVID-19) requires a structured response in the form of a Crisis Management Plan (CMP). Such plans can essentially be viewed as a type of Change Management Programme. For sure the ‘change’ is unexpected, unwanted and damaging, but the essence of the situation is that we find ourselves at point A and want to get to point B as soon as we can. These CMP’s can encompass the whole organisation and/or simplified versions of a CMP can be produced for individual departments.

The ‘good’ news is that Crisis/Change Management Techniques are well understood, while the bad news is that those techniques are often poorly applied e.g. research by the Gartner group suggests that 28% of change efforts are abandoned before it is completed, and 80% are not used as initially planned or intended.

In a crisis that sort of failure rate can’t be tolerated. The successful execution of a Crisis Management Plan requires that leaders demonstrate confidence, commitment and courage. While the actions that come out of the plans themselves have to be quick, based on good data, detailed, and demonstrate a level of empathy for those affected by the crisis. There must also be the right frequency and level of communication to all key stakeholders based on clear, truthful, consistent messages.

The main elements involved in doing this well are:

  • Responding to the crisis with a sense of proportion
  • Developing a Vision for the future beyond the crisis
  • Scoping the projects needed to realise the Vision
  • Getting the communication plan right
  • Being a role model for how to cope in a crisis
  • Managing employees’ stress reactions

Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…

Responding with a sense of proportion

The COVID-19 pandemic creates many challenges for managers and their employees, including; enforced changes in work patterns, sudden shifts in priorities, and disruption to business models. All of this creates doubt, uncertainty and stress. In this type of scenario, the role of the manager in creating a sense of calm and forward momentum is of crucial importance to ensuring the sustainability of the company and the wellbeing of employees.

The primary challenge is to avoid either:

Intervention Bias (over reacting) – making rash decisions, setting overly ambitious or unachievable goals, proving an overwhelming ‘avalanche’ of information.

Or

Abdication Bias (under reacting) – avoiding responsibility, blaming others, underplaying the situation, not taking necessary decisions, providing no information.

The goal, rather, is to respond with a sense of proportion i.e. to take measured action, based on good quality problem solving processes. At the centre of this measured response is the development and implementation of a structured Crisis Management Plan.

Developing a Vision
(Eyes on the prize)

The phrase ‘eyes on the prize’ became popularised by the Civil Rights movement in the US during the 1950’s and 60’s. It means that we should remain steadily focused on an overall goal and not become distracted by side issues. In times of crisis this sense of working towards some desired ‘end state’ or outcome is especially important. People need to have a sense of what they are supposed to be working towards in order to orientate themselves and focus their efforts where they will do the most good. This means that one of the primary roles of the leader is to provide a Vision for how the crisis will be resolved.

Of course, in a volatile and uncertain situation, developing a clear Vision of how to resolve the crisis can be difficult, but the leader’s job is to be able to clearly articulate what people should be working towards. One way of doing this is to break things down into stages e.g. to have a Vision Statement for the first 30 days, and then 60 days, 120 days and 1 year after the start of the crisis. These Vision Statements should be clear, concise and (hopefully) compelling.

E.g. Over the next 30 days we will make sure that everyone is comfortable with remote working practises, has access to up to date information and we will also prepare a detailed financial model of the effects of the crisis on our business. In addition, we will set up a series of Project Teams to work on specific ‘hot topics’.

Scoping projects

The CMP will be made up of a series on interlinked mini-projects, that will usually be scoped and managed by a Steering Committee.

Some of these projects will be Technical Projects e.g. experiments/analysis of specific technical challenges, modelling of financial impacts, developing IT platforms/infrastructure, reviews of legal obligations, Public Relations activities, etc.

Others will be psychological in nature or Cultural Projects i.e. they will be to do with handling the ‘human side’ of crisis management e.g. maintaining employee morale, giving confidence to regulators or other formal bodies that things are under control, managing investor relationships, engaging with customers, suppliers, and (if appropriate) the general public etc.

In addition, these mini-projects will typically cover two broad phases: (a) the Initial Response to the crisis, and (b) Repair Activities e.g. reinvigorating the organisation, reputational repair actions etc. once the crisis has abated.

As with any project, the appropriate staffing, resourcing and monitoring progress of these activities is at the heart of organising a successful response to the crisis.

Getting the Communication Plan right

Gossip, rumour and misinformation can spread like wildfire during a crisis, so having a firm grip on the messages that people are hearing and making sure they are timely, accurate, helpful and truthful is a core competency in a crisis management situation.

One way of organising the communication strategy is to use a Message Grid. This involves taking a calendar and working out who you want to talk to, about what topic, on what days and specifying both who and how to deliver each message.

For example, you might decide upon: talking to all employees, about how the CMP is rolling out, every Tuesday at 10am for 15 minutes, delivered by the CEO, via a video conference.

The messages themselves can follow the Point, Message, Support, Action Format…

  • Point – What is the headline statement?
  • Message – Script the key details of the message
  • Support – Is there an anecdote and/or data points, to support the message
  • Action – What is the call to action

It is also worth noting that research (Taylor and Kent 2007) suggests that having a specific website (or website section) is best practice action in a crisis, as it provides a focal point for people to get up to date, reliable news.

Being a Role Model

People look to their leaders as role models for how they themselves should behave in times of crisis. As such, leaders need to (i) project self-confidence and show a positive mental attitude, and (ii) be willing to coach people when they are anxious or uncertain, guiding them through what is sometimes called the ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’.

Positive mental attitude

If the leaders show signs of panic, delay decisions and/or hide themselves away in times of crisis, then employees are likely to do the same. Thus, the manager or leader should be willing to take calculated risks, personally communicate key messages and do so with a sense of self-confidence and gravitas. Other messages can by handled by other managers, or via other channels, such as text or email or blog posts. The main thing is that the most senior leader sounds confident, stays visible and provides essential information in a timely manner.

Managing the ZOUD conversations

The “Zone of Uncomfortable Debate” or ZOUD is an idea developed by Professor Cliff Bowman at Cranfield University. It covers all those topics that either the leader, or the employee, feels anxious about raising and exploring. Often, they relate to fears, doubts, and worries that have no obvious answers, and where support, reassurance or encouragement is urgently required. The ability of the leader to tackle these concerns head on is crucial to building a positive atmosphere, and is a big part of running a successful Crisis Management Programme. To do this well the leader has to be willing to act as a coach who can work collaboratively with the employee, to jointly develop some possible answers to their questions.

The most commonly used model for this type of coaching is probably the GROW model. The origins of the GROW model are disputed but it was popularised by Max Landsberg in his 1996 book – The Tao of Coaching. When faced with an issue the manager works with the employee to go through four steps, during which, the manager (mostly) asks questions and the employee (mostly) provides the answers. The number and type of questions can be varied, depending on the situation, but the ‘classic’ framework is…

  1. Goals – OK you have issue X and given that is the starting point what is your desired outcome?
  2. Reality – What is the current position? What are the facts of the matter?
  3. Options – What are the choices for moving forward? (Be as open and creative as you can.)
  4. When – What are the next steps and when will they be taken?

Managing employees’ stress reactions

In times of crisis people will (very naturally) be anxious. Often, they will become fixated on the very worst possible outcomes (what is called ‘catastrophising’) and also go over the same fears again and again and again (a harmful process called ‘rumination’).

The skilled Leader needs to:

(a) understand that both catastrophising and rumination are likely to occur, and
(b) act to address them.

Methods for doing this include:

  • Emotional Labelling
  • Cognitive Reframing
  • Change Forums

Emotional Labelling

Most people are not fully aware of their feelings or emotional states, and they typically have a limited vocabulary to describe their moods. In a stressful situation this means that people typically feel ‘bad’ but have little sense of control over what is happening to them. One simple, but effective, way to improve things is to ask the person to explicitly name or label their emotions. This matters because the better someone is at labelling their emotions, the more control they have over them.

So, giving the emotion a name, just accepting that feeling for what it is and then (maybe) starting to think differently about (or reappraise) the negative feeling can be very therapeutic. For example, studies by UCLA show that labelling an emotion decreases activity in the amygdala (the brain’s fear centre), while increasing activity in the right prefrontal lobe (the area involved in making judgements) and so lessens ‘emotional reactivity’.

To use this technique the manager simply…

i. asks the employee to say, out loud, how they are feeling, then
ii. validates that feeling e.g. “Yes, it’s normal to feel (anxious/nervous/upset) in this type of situation”, and
iii. just leaves it at that or – if it seems appropriate – asks the person how they might manage that feeling e.g. “Could you find a way to reduce that sense of anxiety/worry/anger” etc. If you want to know more try this article from Psychology Today.

Cognitive Reframing

“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.” Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Cognitive Reframing is a strategy for coping with negative events. It can be used in counselling, therapy, problem solving, creative thinking, coaching and strategy development.

The idea is that when something happens we make a snap decision about what that ‘thing’ means for us i.e. we assess or ‘frame’ the meaning of that event. For example, if you have planned a family picnic and on the day of the outing it is pouring with rain, you might (quite reasonably) ‘frame’ this as a ‘bad’ event and feel disappointed and frustrated.

In this scenario the negative emotions (e.g. annoyance, sadness) release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream that upset your biochemistry and mood, but don’t improve things one iota. Reframing means we take the situation (e.g. a cancelled picnic) and give it a different meaning by changing the way we think about it (e.g. it is a chance to take the family bowling, or swimming, or to the cinema instead).

Thus, Cognitive Reframing is about taking a challenging or unpleasant situation, accepting that event as a given, and choosing to make something positive out of it. This is a very old idea and we find it in many sayings and adages e.g. ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ or ‘it is an ill wind that blows no good’ or ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. It is also at the heart of the psychological theory of having an Internal Locus of Control i.e. the sense that you are not completely at the mercy of events but can (at least to some degree) act to improve your situation.

So, when employees bring up the challenges thrown up by COVID-19, e.g. the disruption to cash flow, the unfamiliarity of home working for many people, the challenges of unclear priorities etc. managers should acknowledge the issues but not allow people to fixate on them. Say to your staff something like… “OK, these issues are real, but we are where we are, and given that, what’s the silver lining here?… What opportunities does this situation present us with?”

For example,

During a cost reduction programme people are often asked to do ‘more with less’. How about ‘Reframing’ that and saying, “No, if we are cutting back on resources then let’s agree that we will do ‘less with less’.” Meaning we will stop doing anything that’s not essential.

Or the enforced home working driven by COVID-19 might be Reframed as an opportunity to drive down costs long term and give a better work/life balance.

The disruption to standard work patterns could be Reframed as a chance to action some projects/ improvements that have been sitting on a ‘wish list’ waiting for the ‘right time’ to address them.

Think about using Reframing to bring people’s focus back to their normal day to day tasks. So, yes there is a lot of disruption, but what can people be getting on with? Working on familiar tasks (to the extent that’s possible) is not only important from a business perspective, but is also reassuring for people and is a calming measure in and of itself.

Change Forums

One key tool for helping employees handle the psychological aspects of the crisis is to create Change Forums. A Change Forum is a meeting place, either face to face or virtual, where employees can discuss the issues that affect them and have some sense of control over what’s happening to them. There are a number of formats for these types of sessions, including the World Café Methodology and Action Learning Sets. Both options are good choices for letting people have a voice about how the crisis is handled, share ideas and build a sense of community.

Putting it all together

Leading a team through a crisis starts with developing a clear plan of action, based on a Vision for what a successful resolution will look like and a series of carefully scoped mini-projects, to address the technical and cultural challenges being faced.

It is also about having a coherent communication strategy, being a calm, confident, reassuring presence, and handling people’s worries and doubts by using Emotional Labelling, Cognitive Reframing and Change Forums.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how you are handling the issues thrown up by COVID-19 in your role as a leader. Are you managing your employees’ sense of worry or doubt? Are you providing a clear sense of direction? What improvements could you make to how you are managing your people in this challenging situation?

Reading

Read this article by the Institute for Public Relations on Crisis Management and Communications

On-Line

Watch… this three-minute long video on Cognitive Reframing, with a very nice focus on the power of the ‘attitude of gratitude’ – as a way of improving mood and outlook.

Courses

Consider signing teams up to our Impact & Presence workshops as a way of developing gravitas and projecting self-confidence during a crisis.

Coaching

If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you improve your ability to handle a crisis?

Contact

Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, remember that managing a crisis situation is never easy. It requires resolve, perseverance and determination if it is to be overcome, as captured in this couplet by the Danish polymath Piet Hein (1905-1996) …

“Problems worthy of attack,
prove their worth by fighting back.”
PIET HEIN

“Logic will get you from A to B.
Imagination will take you everywhere.”
Albert Einstein
Encouraging Creayivity

Creativity involves deliberately using our imagination to produce new ideas and develop elegant solutions to problems. In a high pressure, volatile and uncertain world the ability to come up with innovative solutions to problems and challenges is a key success factor for many businesses. As with most skills or abilities, some people are naturally more creative than others, but it is a competency that can be developed through training and practise.

Benefits of being more creative

It is fairly self-evident that if you can devise an innovative solution to business problem you can end up a significantly more profitable organisation as you take out unnecessary costs, control risks, and/or gain more market share. It is also the case that when people are engaged in creative problem solving their morale goes up, team work improves and job satisfaction increases because people feel that their work is making a difference and their abilities are put to good use. Team based creative problem solving can be especially effective because diverse group members collectively possess knowledge and a variety of perspectives not found in just one person. Being part of that type of team can be highly motivational, as in the example of ‘Skunk Works’ Teams’ (a small, loosely structured group who are tasked with radical innovation; based on Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s WW2 SkunkWorks Project Team )

Leadership and Creativity

Dubrin, Dalgleish and Miller (2011) identified six Leadership Actions that help to promote creativity within a business…

  1. Match the employees’ expertise, and intellectual capabilities, with the problem in hand
  2. Allow employees freedom to choose their own methodology and approach (set goals but don’t micro-manage people)
  3. Give employees the time and money they need to get things done. Depending on the issues being addressed, funds may not necessarily be an issue, but it is important to give people the necessary resources.
  4. Put together a diverse team to allow for cross-fertilisation. Homogenous teams will probably argue less but they are usually not as open-minded about possible options.
  5. Create a safe environment that allows people to think freely and challenge assumptions and sacred cows. Also evaluate and act on creative ideas quickly so that it is obvious that the work really does matter and that proposals won’t be left to ‘wither on the vine.’
  6. Encourage information sharing and collaboration across the whole organisation with the problem-solving team; don’t allow silos and/or office politics to stifle innovation.

Making time to think

Professor Kets de Vries’ of INSEAD has recently written an interesting article on creativity in business called, “Want More Creative Breakthroughs? Slow Down”

The main premise of the article is that both ‘big C’ creativity e.g. scientific breakthroughs, and ‘small C’ creativity (that gives rise to the insights needed to solve ‘day to day’ problems) are vital to driving business results.

He argues that it is necessary to first immerse ourselves in the problem before letting go, so that ideas can incubate in the subconscious. So, new ideas can’t be ‘forced’ into being, they have to be coaxed out through relaxation and reflection. This means giving ourselves time and space to let ideas ‘gestate’ by doing tasks that are nothing to do with the problem at hand e.g. some people like to walk in nature, while Einstein used to like to play the violin. Then the solutions will emerge as a flash of insight – often at unexpected moments – e.g. in the Bed, Bath or Bus (the 3 B’s of creativity).

You can read the article here…

Getting in the ‘Creativity Zone’

Very closely related to the concept of ‘making time to think’, is the idea of deliberately putting yourself in a creative frame of mind. This matters because it is not easy to be creative if you are feeling stressed, unhappy or depressed. The more relaxed, positive and upbeat you feel the easier it is for your thoughts to ‘flow’ and for leaps of imagination to occur. In contrast, stress or fatigue creates ‘tunnel vision’ and makes it very hard to entertain unusual approaches and ideas.

One important aspect of creativity therefore is to manage your emotional state and consciously choose to put yourself in a ‘creative mood’ or ‘creative zone’. Different people have different ways of doing this, the key is to find a way that works for you. The approaches for doing this are more or less the same as the methods for creating time and space to think and they include; listening to music, playing an instrument, going for a walk (especially in nature), meditating, doing some exercise, deep breathing, Autogenics, thinking of a time when you were highly creative, Tai chi, dancing and going down the pub!

How might we…

Another key to getting in the creative zone is to frame your problem or challenge you want to address by using the phrase…

“How might we….X?”
For example…
“How might we…improve the way we run remote meetings?”
“How might we…make a success of home working?”

The psychological reasoning behind this format is that the “How” assumes there are likely to be solutions and helps to open up a world of possibilities.

The “Might” implies that it’s OK to make suggestions freely; any given option might work and it might not work but either way it is fine just to throw
out ideas.

The “We” signals that it is not all on one person’s shoulders; the creative thinking is a ‘joint enterprise’ and we will build on one another’s ideas.

Four ‘rules’ for being more creative

More generally we can say that there are four elements to developing creativity…

  • Seek out new experiences
    The raw material of inventiveness is the experiences, concepts and values that we are exposed to. By consciously seeking out new experiences, reading things we wouldn’t normally read etc. we can build up a storehouse of data that can help to spark an idea at some time in the future.
  • Separate generating ideas from evaluating them
    Sometimes the silliest seeming option, or the most bizarre proposal is actually the one that holds the most promise. Thus, one of the keys to creativity is to capture every idea without passing judgement and to
    assess their viability only after a large number of possibilities have been written down.
  • Inspiration comes from hard work
    A ‘eureka moment’ where a fantastic idea seems to ‘appear’ from thin air typically only happens when a problem has been worked upon for some time. So, making the effort to consciously ponder an issue and taking the time to reflect, put it to one side, and then returning to it at a later time, is a key success factor in developing creative solutions.
  • Use Creativity Tools
    In trying to develop new ideas it often helps to use a specific ‘tool’, method or approach to help to first kick start, and then shape, the idea generation process. It may well be worth exploring some of the myriad of methods that are available for doing this, including… Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking , Reframing and Osborn’s Checklist.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how creative you are at the moment. Do you reach for the first workable solution that occurs to you? Would it be worth your while ‘slowing down’ your decision making and consciously generating 3, 4, or 5 options before making any firm choices? More generally what improvements could you make to how you (or your team) applies creative thinking to your work?

Reading

Read this article on Mind Popping as a creative thinking strategy

On-Line

Watch this (old, grainy video) of Edward de Bono talking about his lateral thinking concept of Provocation (or PO) and the Escape Process (9 minutes long.)

Courses

Consider running one of our half-day Creative Thinking Workshops

Coaching

Or maybe you’d like to think about commissioning an Executive Coaching Assignment to help people address this topic.

Though perhaps you’d prefer our Remote Coaching Programme to help you develop your creativity.

Contact

Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And to end with a quote from Dr Seuss…

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.”
DR SEUSS