All posts by George Boulden

Building High Quality Training Sessions

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”
Designing training programmes

A Short History of NLP

Neuro Linguistic Programming – NLP – has its origins in the early 70’s, with John Grinder, who was a professor of Linguistics, and Richard Bandler, a physicist and mathematician.

Bandler was Grinder’s student, and in addition to his studies, he had a part time job editing books and technical journals. One of the books he edited was by Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy. While he was doing this Bandler realised that he could model (or analyse) Perls’ methods, and achieve similar results as Perls with patients, despite his lack of true therapeutic training. He involved Grinder in this analysis, and they eventually had a team of researchers who modelled not just Perls, but also other therapists, who were noted for bringing about a change in their patients. One of these therapists was named Virginia Satir, a highly regarded family therapist. As they modelled Satir, Grinder was able to use his linguistic background to label the various questioning skills that Satir used to get patients to reflect on their actions and attitudes and so bring about a change in outlook. These were somewhat technical labels, taken from the language of linguistics – this was called the ‘Meta Model’. The early NLP work was all based on the Meta Model questioning system. Grinder and Bandler then met Milton Erickson, a very well-known hypnotherapist and from him they identified the structure of hypnosis and the ‘language’ of trance.

The Trail of Techniques

As work on NLP continued, the ‘modelling excellence’ process moved beyond understanding counselling and therapeutic interventions to also include top sales, business, and sports professionals.

If fact, one description of NLP is “an attitude and a methodology that leaves behind a trail of techniques”. Where the attitude is curiosity, the methodology is ‘modelling excellent performers’ and the ‘techniques’ are the many and varied ‘tools’ that the modelling uncovers.

For example, David Gordon developed the concept of therapeutic metaphors. Christina Hall further developed the use of language patterns for change. Lesley Cameron Bandler developed the NLP concept of meta programmes (which describe common thinking patterns).

Training Design and Modelling Excellence

Most training design is based on (i) ‘mapping’ or ‘modelling’ what good performance looks like in a given area e.g. selling, leadership, skiing, baking, accountancy etc. and then (ii) assessing people against that ‘gold standard’ before (iii) designing a programme to ‘close the gap’ between current and good performance. With NLP the system most people use to design training events was developed by Robert Dilts and it’s called ‘Neurological Levels’, or sometimes just Logical Levels.

Of course, there are people from other disciplines who have (quite independently of NLP) developed their own methods for modelling excellence. For example, Professor David McClelland (1917-1998) developed the theory of behavioural competencies. His technique involves selecting two samples: people who have been rated as outstanding in their jobs and those who are just average performers. Interviewees are quizzed in-depth about the way they do their work, focusing in particular on occasions when things have turned out well or badly. Transcripts of the interviews are made and each separate behaviour is noted. These “behavioural indicators” are then clustered together into “competencies” that differentiate the two samples. Finally, the competency model is validated using new samples. So, McClelland found out, for example, that good sales people typically exhibit 11 key competencies, which include: Resilience, Seeking Information, Showing Empathy, Driving for Results, Displaying Initiative, and having a Problem-Solving Focus. It is a lot of work (and expensive) to develop competencies in this way, but the results are robust and reliable. Also, for many training projects it’s not necessary to build a whole new model; it is sufficient just to adopt an existing competency profile.

But in NLP we tend to focus on using Dilts system…

Dilts’ Neurological Levels Model

In Dilts’ Neurological levels theory there are five interconnected topics that need to be covered in sequence if a person is to learn a new task or skill effectively.

To develop a model for a particular topic (sales, leadership, presenting etc.) top performers are identified and then interviewed to uncover their responses to the 5 topics. It is also possible to identify published research that can cast light on each of the 5 areas, and that data can also be included in the model.

These 5 topics are:

  1. Identity – who the person believes themselves to be; their self-image or role perception.
  2. Beliefs – the values and principles that the person applies when carrying out the task in question.
  3. Capability – the process that the person uses to carry out the task and the knowledge they possess.
  4. Behaviour – what you can actually see or hear the person do when they carry out the task.
  5. Environment – where the person carries out the task (e.g. an office, an
    oil rig) and the systems and ‘tools’ that are involved.

Using the Neurological Levels Model

To use the model for training purposes, we decide on a learning goal (e.g. to Develop People Management Skills, to Master Problem Solving Techniques, to Facilitate Sales Meetings etc.) and then model what is required, against each of the 5 levels, to achieve that goal.

Then it’s a question of assessing the delegates against the criteria in each of the 5 levels and deciding what interventions are necessary to raise their capability to the required standard i.e. do the proposed participants need to be trained in all 5 levels, or is it enough to just work on one or two of them?

Of course, there may be some important success factors that the Dilts’ Model (or any other model you might be using) reveals for which training can’t be used to improve people e.g. if there are certain physiological requirements needed for high performance in a given topic, for instance, some sports require people to possess exceptionally good eye sight, or an extraordinary lung capacity etc. and you are either born with that attribute or you’re not. The same is true for innate intelligence, some people are just smarter than others, and if the task requires a high level of intellectual capacity (e.g. a brain surgeon, or maths professor) then you have the necessary IQ or you don’t. However, for most tasks, most people can be helped to improve their performance with the appropriate training programme.

The 5 Levels In-depth

1 Identity

We begin by considering the Identity (or role perception) that a person needs in order to be effective at a given activity i.e. what does the person think they should be trying to do?

For example, effective managers think of themselves as “achieving results through the effective use of resources (classically those resources are; men and women, money, methods, machines and materials).”

Poor managers, in contrast, may want to get results, but they don’t identify themselves as doing this by positioning the resources they have available to do the work: they want to do the work themselves. So, for the expert manager, involving staff in decision making is important because their knowledge is a resource that can be drawn upon to get good results. To the inexpert manager, involving staff is a time-consuming nuisance that gets in the way of prompt action.

So, in this instance, training would begin with a conversation about what the manager’s role is about, and why it is important to have clarity around what the primary focus of the role should be.

2 Beliefs

Once the issue of Identity has been addressed the next step is to move onto the subject of beliefs. In the first few years of life people make decisions about the rules by which they will live their lives. As they grow older they become only dimly aware of these ‘rules’ or ‘beliefs’ but they still apply them to their home and work life. Sometimes the beliefs that people have directly contradict the requirements of being effective at some task or activity. When this happens, the person can understand what he/she should be doing but finds himself/herself unable to apply ‘good’ practice.

For example, some beliefs of expert problem solvers include:

  • Take the time to understand the root cause of the problem
  • There may be more than one right answer, so be open to exploring the options
  • Use a method or process to guide your efforts in a systematic way

In contrast some of the more common ‘in-expert beliefs’ which hamper problem solving are believing that it is important to:

  • Look for the ‘one’ right answer to each problem
  • Never make a mistake; always be seen as getting things ‘right’
  • Act quickly at all times

Thus, for example, someone may implement solutions without first obtaining a clear definition of the problem because the principle of ‘gathering the facts before you act’ conflicts with their ‘belief’ that says ‘I must act quickly’. Or, if the person has a need to ‘be right’, he/she may react badly to any suggestion that he/she hasn’t done something properly.

So, part of an effective programme is to explicitly consider what underlying assumptions, principles or beliefs the delegate currently has about the topic in question, (bearing in mind that these might be subconscious thoughts) and then examining the principles that underpin and support the tools, techniques and methodologies that will be taught on the course.

3 Capability

The third step in the Dilts’ training design model (Capability) concerns knowledge about tools, systems and techniques as they apply to the topic in hand. For example, in problem solving this would include having a problem solving process to follow (e.g. Kepner Tregoe Method, Means Ends Analysis etc.) and some analysis tools such as: Process Maps, Brainstorming, Data Checklists, The 5 Why’s, Failure Mode and Effect Analysis, and Ishikawa Diagrams. These methods can be taught through the use of lectures, case studies, demonstrations, role plays and simulations. The content can be delivered in the form of pre-work (completed via an e-learning or an on-line training package perhaps?) or delivered ‘live’ via a standard lecture format. It’s also possible to ask participants to carry out their own research on specific topics and report back their findings.

4 Behaviour

Understanding a technique or process is one thing; being able to do it is another. The fourth step in Dilts design is about physically being able to perform the task or technique, especially under pressure. For example, in boxing, you might know the mechanics of ‘slipping a punch’ but that doesn’t mean you are able to get out the way of a ‘right cross’ when someone starts an attack during a bout. Or you may have been exposed to sales methods for handling customer objections and/or hostile questions, but that doesn’t mean you can find the words you need in a ‘live’ customer meeting with a million-dollar sale on the line.

Being able to actually do something in real life means practise, and lots of it, via case studies, role-plays, exercises, worked examples, simulations, etc. It also means providing people with structured feedback and coaching as they do those exercises, so they have the chance to judge the progress they are making and to make timely corrections to any weakness that might be uncovered.

5 Environment

The fifth and final part of the model is Environment. In the training context the environment is that of the training room or lecture theatre. So, we explicitly think about how to create a safe, relaxed space for people to feel comfortable as they learn the task in hand.

However, participants want to be able to use the new skill in the work place. This means that some support and encouragement must be provided to help them to bridge the gap between the ‘safety’ of the training course and the ‘hurly burly’ of the office, shop floor or retail outlet. Typically, this will involve some kind of project-based activity to help the delegate to practise the new techniques until they become second nature.

This support activity will also mean helping them to use their tools in the context of their organisation’s culture. Also, making sure that (before any training actually runs) the culture will encourage them to use the skills they’ve been taught. There is little point (for example) in training Team Leaders in how to run Staff Appraisal Meetings but then never letting them run one because they are always conducted by the Departmental Managers.

Putting it all together

When faced with the need to develop a group of people, the first step (as it is with most things!) is to have a clear objective in mind i.e. who specifically do you want to train, and what specifically do you want them to do? E.g. to make sure our managers are managing employee performance professionally; to make sure our sales people can defend our pricing structure and aren’t conceding unnecessary discounts; to make sure that managers know how to identify and hire good quality staff etc.

The second step is to appreciate what’s involved in doing that thing well, and this is where Dilts’ Neurological Levels Model helps to map out precisely what good performance looks like.

Step three is to assess the participants against the model and work out where the gaps are.

Then step four is to build a training intervention that will close those gaps!

So what’s next?

Reflect on how effective your current training design is; are you identifying needs across all five of the Dilts’ Model Levels (Identify + Beliefs + Capability + Behaviour + Environment)?


Read this article on the fundamentals of training design (4 minute read) Designing a Training Program


View this 12-minute-long video of Robert Dilts Talking about the Neurological Levels Model… NLP Logical Levels of learning & change


You may be interested in how we can help you design and run a Bespoke Training Programme…

And finally, remember…

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

“For an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment.”
Action Learning meeting

The Art of Learning by Doing

Action Learning; a definition

Action Learning is a flexible, dynamic, peer group coaching based method for solving problems and developing people. It involves taking action to address a real-life issue or problem and reflecting upon the results achieved, with the support of colleagues, who are also attempting to solve their own problems.

The Origins of Action Learning

Action Learning was developed by Professor Reg Revans (1907-2003) in the
1940’s. It was inspired by his work as a research scientist (when studying
astrophysics) at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University in the 1930’s.

During that time, he was struck by the way that the scientists (many of whom were Nobel prize winners) were, in their regular weekly seminars, completely open about not understanding fully the work they were doing and were welcoming of their colleagues’ questions, suggestions, and observations. Consequently, he formed the belief that people learn best when working together to help each other with their problems, and then taking their answers away and implementing them in the workplace. To explain the collaborative aspects of action learning he would often quote Leonard Cheshire (the philanthropist); “The best way to deal with your own troubles is to go help someone else.”

Furthermore, his experiences at Cambridge also led him to make a distinction between being ‘clever’ and ‘wise’.

So, clever people know things (which is good), but wise people understand that there are often unforeseen factors associated with real life events (that can be very complex) and are always ready to ask themselves testing questions to make sure that they really do understand what’s happening. That is, they don’t feel the need to come up with the right answer immediately, or to dominate a discussion, and they realise that, in a volatile situation, it’s very easy to make mistakes. Revans noted that when asking these ‘testing questions’ in the company of others (as happened at the Cavendish Laboratory) real insights and learning can occur.

Revans’ Law

Revans’ Law is the principle “that for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment”. And for that to happen (in a volatile and uncertain world) people have to be willing to (i) experiment and crucially, (ii) learn from the results they achieve. The increasing rate of change that was occurring throughout the 20th century made Revans think that the ability to respond to change was a key success factor in business and life, and that Action Learning Programmes could help people to meet that challenge.

The Action Learning Equation

The formulae Revans’ used to explain Action Learning is: L = P+Q

This means that Learning [L] is based on Programmed Knowledge [P] (the things that can be formally taught) plus Questioning Insight [Q] (the ability to apply what has been taught to ‘messy’ real life problems, across a wide range of situations). Questioning Insight matters where there is no fixed body of knowledge that commands a strong consensus, or where the situation is subject to constant change.

So, Programmed Knowledge makes you ‘clever’, but the ability to develop ‘Questioning Insight’ makes you ‘wise’. Of course, both aspects of Learning, (P+Q) are important. Clearly, acquiring a good understanding of a topic is vital to success, for example, no one would hire an electrical engineer who didn’t understand circuit analysis – but Questioning Insight is the more difficult of the two ‘learning components’ to acquire (and that’s what Action Learning helps with).

Question Insight itself is a function of (A + R) i.e. [A] ‘action’ – actually doing something in the real world – and [R] Reflecting on the results achieved, and discussing your observations with colleagues.

So, in summary, advocates of Action Learning believe that people learn best from trying things out in practice and reflecting on what happens as a result of their actions and why. (At its heart Action Learning is about taking real world action to solve a real-life problem; it is not about recommending an action; it’s about owning the implementation of an action and learning from what happens as a result.)

The 7 components of an Action Learning Programme

An Action Learning programme consists of seven key elements. By changing the shape of these elements, it is possible to use Action Learning to achieve a variety of different outcomes. E.g. develop high potential managers or grow business leaders, or implement a change programme etc.

1 The Problem

The focus for any Action Learning programme is the problem or problems that are to be tackled. It follows therefore that problem selection is crucial to an effective programme.

The three main issues to consider here are that the:

  • Problem(s) must reflect a real business need.
  • There must be a genuine willingness by senior managers to have the problem(s) ‘fixed’ by the programme participants.
  • A specific senior manager must be prepared to ‘own’ each of the problems selected and be willing to use his or her influence to ensure that any changes are actually put into practice.

2 The Sponsor

The Sponsor is the person who has the authority to ensure that the Action Learning programme runs its full course. In a large-scale programme this person will normally be the COO or CEO.

3 The Client

The Client is a senior manager who takes ownership of a specific problem and its eventual solution. His/her role in an Action Learning programme is to delegate the responsibility for tackling the problem either to a specific individual or to a team of people. He/she is often defined as the person who ‘knows and cares’ about the problem and who can implement any changes that are suggested by the nominated problem solver(s).

4 The Fellow (or Participant)

The term ‘fellow’ is used to describe the people who are tasked with solving a problem on behalf of a ‘client’ i.e. they are the programme participants. The term ‘fellow’ is a reference to Revan’s University experiences (i.e. research fellows). Identifying the people with the right mix of skill and experience, and at the appropriate level of seniority to participate in a specific Action Learning initiative, is one of the key factors in determining the success of the programme.

5 The Action Learning Set

Participants in an Action Learning programme are assigned to a self-help group or ‘Set’ of around six to nine people. The Set meets once per fortnight and members tell each other about how their work is progressing and ‘bounce’ ideas off one another. In the Set ‘fellows’ learn with and from each other, and as a consequence the development that they experience is greatly strengthened. The importance of the Set is based on three key beliefs, namely that:

  • Human beings learn best from reflected practice. That is by stepping back and thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
  • The best test of any learning is trying it out in action.
  • The process of learning is greatly strengthened by regularly sharing the experience with others who are also learning by doing.

The Set provides an environment in which these beliefs can be put into practice.

6 The Set Adviser

Each Set has a ‘set adviser’ whose job it is to sit in on the regular team meetings to (a) help the participants to work effectively together to achieve the goals of their projects and, (b) capture the individual learning that is taking place. This is a highly skilled mentoring and facilitation role.

7 Programme Coordinator

For large scale programmes there is a Co-ordinator who monitors progress of the Action Learning Sets on a day-to-day basis (e.g. checks that the meetings are taking place, assesses what overlap, if any, is happening with work in the various Sets) and offers help to the team with their administrative arrangements e.g. timetabling meetings.

Types of Action Learning Programme

There are 3 variables that can be manipulated to build an action learning programme (Internal/External + Familiar/Unfamiliar + Individual/Group). The choices that are made will depend on the desired outcome and the available resources.

Internal Vs. External Participants

Action Learning Programmes can either be External, where participants from different organisations are involved, and where meetings are rotated around the participating organisations (or meetings are hosted by an organising entity, often a University). Or they can be Internal, with managers from the same company meeting together to discuss their progress on their project work.

External ‘Own job’ Action Learning programmes were designed for those organisations wishing to develop managers by exposing them to people from quite different backgrounds. The idea being that people from different industries could challenge each other’s views of what was ‘normal and acceptable’ and thereby help to generate creative solutions to the problems that were posed.

Internal programmes, on the other hand, are attractive because they are cost effective, and easy to manage. In addition, if each ‘Set’ or team of people who are attending the Action Learning meetings has a good mix of managers, then functional barriers can be broken down.

Familiar Vs. Unfamiliar Tasks

The Familiar Task format involves the participants working on tasks that they would normally be expected to tackle e.g. A Marketing Manager works on a marketing problem.

The Unfamiliar Task format involves the participants working on tasks that they would not normally be expected to tackle e.g. A Marketing Manager works on a quality problem.

Individual Vs. Group Projects

Individual Projects means that you have one person for each problem to be addressed and (obviously) Group Projects involve a team of people looking at each of the chosen problems.

The Most Common Format: The ‘Own Job Model’

The most frequently run type of programme (because it is the cheapest and easiest to do) is the Own Job Model. This is based on: Familiar Task + Familiar Environment + Individual Project format.

As the name suggests, the ‘problem’ is based on the participants getting better at their current jobs e.g. to develop their leadership skills, or to improve the productivity of their department, or to get into a position where they can be considered for promotion etc. The Client is typically their Line Manager (or sometimes the HR VP). So, the ‘scope’ of the problem being addressed is relatively small, but that doesn’t mean that the personal development (and the impact on the business) can’t be substantial. And (with a good mix of people in the Sets) there are additional benefits through improved internal networking and team building.

Other formats are much more difficult to organise logistically and consequently are much rarer e.g. An Unfamiliar Task + an External Participant + Individual Project format, might see a senior manager from (say) a steel plant working on an issue presented by a textile mill or electronics company. This can be a very powerful form of development but the commitment in time and energy (plus the amount of trust needed to share confidential company information) means that it is not a commonly adopted format.

Putting it all together

When faced with an unpredictable situation (or ‘unknown, unknowns’, as they are sometimes called) it is the ability to ask Insightful Questions that will determine the success of your efforts. And that process of asking questions, taking action, reflecting on the results and learning from your experiences is greatly strengthened if you have the support of a small team of colleagues as you do it. You help them and they help you and, as ‘comrades in adversity’, you are better able to keep learning and adapting in the face of high rates of change; this is what Action Learning was deigned to deliver!

So what’s next?

Reflect on how good you are at learning by doing? Is your rate of learning keeping pace with the rate of change in your industry? Who do you help navigate difficult problems, who helps you? Would a formal Action Learning Set be helpful to you (and them)?


Read this article on Scoping Action Learning Projects


View this three-minute long video of Professor Revans talking about
Action Learning in 1984


You may be interested in how we can help you design and run an Own Job Action Learning Programme…

And finally, remember…

“If you think you understand a problem, make sure you are not deceiving yourself.”

The ‘Master Competency’

“Effective Leadership is defined by results not attributes…”

Sprinter off the blocks
Professor David C McClelland (1917-1998), inspired the development of a Competency Dictionary that identified the specific behaviours and attitudes of top performers, across a wide range of industries.

It turns out there are around 21 competencies associated with outstanding
performance. However, only one of those competencies is vital for success in every industry type and every market sector, and that’s the ability to Drive for Results.

Drive for Results involves: setting ambitious targets, focusing on what really makes a difference (not being constrained by past methods), and being
optimistic and tenacious in the face of difficulties. It involves anticipating
obstacles and being ready, willing and able to overcome them.

This desire, energy and ambition to make things happen is at the heart of all truly successful business leaders’ psyche.

So, what does it take to master this ‘master competency’? Well, let’s start
with a word of caution, and then look at the 10-step process that is central
to success in this area…

Avoiding the dark side of ‘making things happen’

Drive for Results, if taken to extremes, can lead to negative consequences e.g.

  • Going for results at the expense of good ethics
  • Having high staff turnover or sickness due to pressurising/bullying employees to get things done
  • Compromising on quality in order to hit the deadline
  • Being stubborn and sticking to efforts beyond reason, even in the face of overwhelming odds

So, it is important to be on guard against becoming too self-absorbed and pursuing a goal to the exclusion of all other considerations.

In other words, effective people have enough good judgement to know when to be courageous and continue on the road they are on, and when to take a detour.

Thus, though, “winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win” – and for sure perseverance is at the heart of driving for results – it is also the case that the only thing you get from hitting your head against a brick wall is brain damage.

This means that having the ability to ‘take a reality check’ on your ambitions, and adjust them according to events, is also central to a healthy, productive results focus. Budgets set during an up-cycle in the economy are highly unlikely to be achieved if a sudden and unexpected recession hits due to (say) a pandemic or political crisis. It also means taking a moment from time to time to make sure that you are not putting pressure on employees to work long hours or bend the rules.

A 10-step strategy for Driving for Results

The basic process for achieving results is simple, though not always easy to apply:

  1. Prioritise your goals. You can’t do everything, so pick your battles.
  2. Make sure the goal is well defined, ambitious and with a clear ‘pay off’. Consider ‘benchmarking’ objectives in relation to what ‘best performance’ looks like in your market sector (and maybe look at what other, non-related, industry sectors are doing for inspiration).
  3. Get support or ‘buy in’ for the goal from key decision makers (if appropriate).
  4. Break the task down into 4/5 main phases, blocks of work or activities.
  5. Identify possible risks associated with each of the phases (i.e. ask, “What could go wrong?”) and develop corrective actions. Anticipating problems or difficulties and giving some thought as to how to deal with them, is a key success factor when Driving for Results.
  6. In a team setting, present (and maybe actively ‘sell’), the goal to your staff.
  7. Take the first small step to move toward the goal. Keep taking the next small step, until the goal is reached.
  8. Accept obstacles and difficulties as inevitable and adopt a problem-solving mindset to overcoming them.
  9. Keep the key decision makers up to date with progress (if appropriate).
  10. Celebrate success. Take the time to really enjoy your achievements. Publicise your success, not in a boastful way, but let your peers and managers know what you’ve been able to achieve, so they know what you’re capable of.

Bringing the team with you

One aspect of Drive for Results is motivating a team effort where a group of people will be needed to get to the desired end state. This is about correctly executing step 6, of the ten-step strategy, outlined above.

It involves getting the team together and explaining clearly and concisely:

  1. what the goal is (the desired end result and the time lines)
  2. what the main phases or activities are
  3. why the goal is important (and what the ‘payoff’ is for the business and for the individual team members)
  4. who, specifically, is responsible for which aspects of the goal (consider the need for any coaching to support staff in tackling their assigned tasks)
  5. when progress will be reviewed.

It is also useful to establish a climate of trust, where: honest disagreements are expected and encouraged, team members help one another, and creativity combined with a problem-solving outlook, is rewarded.

The power of the next small step

The idea of just taking ‘the next small step’ is an important one in Drive for Results (step 7 of the process). With large tasks, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the size of the challenge. However, by simply focusing on the next small action, progress is made quickly, continuously and without strain.

Harvard Business School Professor, Teresa Amabile in her book “The Progress Principle”, notes that it is highly motivational to have a sense of moving forward, so asking, “what did I get done today?” and celebrating that success (no matter how small) is a key factor in productivity and results focus. Also, research (Sparrow 1998) shows that people who ‘keep going’ despite difficulties spend twice as much time thinking about what they’ve already accomplished and using that as ‘proof’ that the task is ‘doable’ – as compared with those who give up easily.

Overcoming obstacles and the STOP model

Encountering difficulties is inevitable when working to achieve goals (step 8 of the process). Sometimes these roadblocks will have been anticipated as part of the planning process and sometimes they will be unexpected, but in any event some level of disruption is sure to occur.

Discouragement, sadness and anger are common emotions that people experience when faced with these inevitable obstacles. Though ‘natural’ they are unhelpful when it comes to reaching an objective, especially a challenging one.

One formal method for dealing with obstacles is the STOP model.

The model comes from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which was originally developed in the 1980’s to treat people with personality disorders. DBT offers a number of ‘tools’ that can be used in everyday life, including STOP, which stands for…

  • Stop – pause, don’t do or say anything, simply describe what you are feeling or thinking (e.g. frustrated, disappointed) – this is known as Emotional Labelling.
  • Take a step back – don’t make any hasty decisions, give yourself permission to take some time to work out what to do, accept the reality of the current situation (a problem has happened) and move calmly into a problem-solving mode (how can I move round this obstacle).
  • Observe – gather facts, ask other people’s opinions, assess the evidence, really understand what’s going on and develop some options for moving forward, adopt a problem-solving mindset.
  • Proceed – decide how specifically to move forward. Set a goal and take some action. Assess the results. Be sure to remain positive and confident whatever the outcome. Repeat the STOP process as necessary.

Putting it all together

Effective business leaders know how to make things happen. They have a strong ‘results focus’ and pursue their goals with energy; not giving up before finishing, even in the face of resistance or setbacks. They don’t allow themselves to be deflected from their course, though they do exercise good judgement and are flexible and adaptable when faced with significant obstacles.

So what’s next?

Examine your past for how you have gone about getting things done. Assess what has worked in the past that you can apply to the present. Identify your weaknesses and consider how you can compensate for them.

Pick a goal, clarify it and then commit to a timeframe to accomplish it.


Try reading, Collins, James C. Turning Goals into Results: The Power of Catalytic Mechanisms. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.


Watch… this seven-minute-long video on The Kaizen Way – a goal setting method based on taking small steps – by Robert Maurer.


Consider signing teams up to our 90-minute-long Espresso Workshop on Managing Goals, Planning & Prioritising, run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.


If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, on our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you Drive for Results.


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

So, to conclude we end with an old adage…

“You can make excuses
or you can make progress!”

“Authenticity, honesty, and personal voice underlie much of what’s successful on the Web.”
Author of The Cluetrain Manifesto
Online business meeting

“Virtual presence is problematic, but that doesn’t mean that the fundamental skills no longer apply.”

Ladies and gentlemen… your attention please…

Impact, Charisma and Presence are essential qualities in a Senior Executive. If a leader wants to influence peers, enthuse employees, or inspire confidence in regulators, it is vital that they express themselves fully and with a sense of conviction. Presence, then, is a key attribute that effective leaders possess; one that enables them to motivate others.

It is hard enough to build rapport and demonstrate gravitas when working with people face to face, but when trying to do that via a laptop screen many additional difficulties arise. Overcoming those challenges takes hard work and commitment to learning new skills.

Start with the fundamentals of Impact and Presence

Virtual Presence is problematic, but that doesn’t mean that the fundamental skills no longer apply. The basic techniques are still as central to engaging effectively with people as they ever were. Those core skills have a long history. The ancient Greeks highly valued public speaking and over 2,000 years ago Aristotle identified “the three persuasive appeals” that combine together to make a powerful argument that inspires people to act, they are:

  1. Ethos: being credible as a speaker: demonstrating expertise; being thought of as trustworthy and knowledgeable
  2. Pathos: building emotional connection to the audience through establishing common ground or linking to key values
  3. Logos: having logical arguments supported by data, facts and analysis

Much of what is taught today in respect of presence goes back to these
writings on rhetoric (or the art of persuasion) by the ancient Greeks.

For example, in their June 2012 HBR article Antonkis, Fenley and Leichti on Learning Charisma, note that while leaders can pressure people to do as they ask because they have the power to reward or punish employees, it is the ability to demonstrate charismatic leadership that really inspires people to give of their best. They go on to highlight twelve ancient rhetorical techniques as being especially powerful for modern leaders. These include…

Rhetorical Questions to engage people e.g. “So, what does good performance look like?”

Expressing Moral Conviction (setting standards for right or just behaviour) e.g. “This quality problem is damaging our relationships with our customers, it’s our issue to resolve and we need to take ownership for fixing it as a group.”

Reflecting the Group’s/Audience’s Sentiments – even when they are negative – as they show empathy and help the group to ‘connect’ with the speaker e.g. “I know how disappointed and upset you are about this decision…it is a bitter pill to swallow after all your hard work…”

Setting Challenging Goals – giving people a clear, compelling objective to focus on e.g. “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon”, John. F. Kennedy (May 1961)

Two issues with Remote Executive Presence

When working remotely there are two main issues that need to be addressed when demonstrating Ethos, Pathos and Logos:

  1. Building Trust. Getting a ‘connection’ with people has a lot to do with eye contact, facial expressions (in particular smiling) and open body language, but these things are hard to do in a virtual environment.
  2. Establishing Credibility. Power gestures, small talk, looking professional, and demonstrating knowledge all contribute to establishing a professional presence, but this can be ‘tricky’ when trying to do it through a laptop screen.

So, if a ‘face to face’ meeting is like a 3D theatre play with actors facing a live audience, ‘in the flesh’, then a virtual meeting is like a 2D TV show, with a presenter, sitting in a studio, and talking into a camera. So, successful Executive Presence in this context, in part, involves adapting the techniques used by presenters on the evening news to build trust and establish credibility remotely.

Look the part – master your production values to establish credibility

As noted above, a key element of Executive Presence in a Virtual World, is to appreciate the importance of looking and sounding professional on the screen.
This involves:

  1. Looking good on screen. Adjust your lighting levels to create a clear, sharp image. Make sure your light source is coming from behind your camera i.e. from in front of you. Use the Touch Up My Appearance and Adjust for Low Light, features to fine tune your image and consider buying a professional photographer’s lamp. Frame yourself as a head and shoulders shot; don’t have too much ‘empty space’ above your head.
  2. Curating your background. Look at your video preview and clear any clutter in camera view; set up a professional looking background, or have an appropriate virtual background e.g. maybe use your company’s logo.
  3. Sounding good. Test your laptop speaker and microphone and use the “Suppress Background Noise” feature. Think about buying (and using) an external microphone that blocks out background noise.

Make friends with the camera – to build trust

Positive body language is a key aspect of demonstrating charisma; especially adopting an upright, relaxed posture, coupled with steady eye contact and a warm smile.

What this means for Virtual Presence is that eye contact has to be simulated by talking into the camera (and not to the person’s image on the screen). So, when talking focus on the camera light and imagine that you are looking at a person and chatting with them as you do so. This feels very ‘odd’ at first but in time you do get used to it, so persevere. It helps to lift up the camera (by using a stand or stack of books) so that the lens is at eye level.

Also, sit up straight on your chair (don’t slouch), and when not talking give active listening signals such as head nods, smiles and (maybe) the occasional thumbs up sign. Act as if you are on show at all times, which you are! Actively manage your reactions and expressions so as to demonstrate courtesy to all people at all times i.e. no eye rolling, or head shaking.

You can’t use gestures as much on-line as you do in a face-to-face setting (it makes you look frenetic), but they are still an important part of the communication mix, and when used to highlight key points they are very effective e.g. doing a ‘two handed chop’ gesture to emphasise a message or statement.

Have a script; make sure you have a message that’s worth listening to!

In their book Leadership Presence Halpern and Lubar make a link between what is required of a top performing senior executive and the actor’s craft. They note that actors don’t expect to be ‘born’ with charisma, but train, using specific ‘drills’, to be able to capture an audience’s attention and to have people focus completely on them.

In addition, they also note that a good performance based on a poor script doesn’t impress anyone: presence captures people’s attention and gets them to take the speaker seriously, but the content of the message must also be compelling.

So effective leaders don’t only make their point with energy and conviction (pathos), they also have something to say that is worth listening to (logos). They plan what they want to say, making sure it’s logical and mentions facts and figures that convinces people of the correctness of the case they are making. This applies not only to a formal ‘key note’ speech, but also to more everyday comments, such as making a point in a meeting. Plus, again like a good actor, they rehearse what they are going to say, so it comes across fluently, without undue hesitation or the appearance of doubt.

Putting it all together

Virtual Executive Presence starts with understanding the classic fundamentals of capturing attention and being convincing, namely; Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

It’s then a question of coming to terms with the media and accepting we are working in a TV style format and acting accordingly i.e. by getting a grip on the production values and becoming comfortable presenting into the camera.

Finally, it’s about taking the time to script and rehearse what you want to say so that you are making points that are clear, logical and supported by facts and figures.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how effective you are at working via your laptop screen. What messages are you sending through your production values and body language? Consider what changes you might make.


Read this Short article giving examples of Ethos, Pathos and Logos in speeches


Watch… this YouTube clip (5 minutes) on 6 body language tips for conducting a video call


Take a look at our Executive Presence in a Virtual World programme (an intensive remote training course, for a maximum of six delegates per programme).


Or maybe review our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services to get some tailored guidance on developing your personal impact in the virtual space.


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

And we end with a quote from the Economist, Author and Expert in Talent Management, SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT…

“There are six elements of gravitas critical to leadership: grace under fire, decisiveness, emotional intelligence and the ability to read a room, integrity and authenticity (people don’t like fakes), a vision that inspires others, and a stellar reputation.”