By Martin Brooks, Programme Director, Boulden Management Consultants
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”
Getting your dream job

Becoming UK Prime Minister and interview techniques

At 10am 8th May 2015 (the day after the UK general election) I was invited by the BBC to do an interview explaining why I thought the public had just voted David Cameron Prime Minister. I was asked; how he had performed better than Ed Miliband, what did Ed Miliband do wrong and how did their communication and impact skills lead to the result that was unfolding that morning? Ed Miliband had interviewed for the job of Prime Minister quite well, but David Cameron had used a better range of well executed communication skills. This helped him perform better in his interviews, look like the better candidate to the electorate and gave him a better chance to land the job of Prime Minister.

Translating the interview skills of politicians into daily life

One reason for studying the party leaders is to translate the communication skills they use into techniques that can enable anyone to communicate with greater impact, especially if there is the prospect of a promotion or a better job at stake. After all an interview for a job is a highly competitive scenario; very often the person that lands the job will be the one with the best ‘impact’, which helps the interviewer make their decision to hire one person over the other candidates. So in many cases having good experience or interviewing “well” is not enough to land your next job – you have to make a “better” impact than every other candidate. In essence your job as interviewee is to make to make it easy for the interviewer to decide you are the best person for the job. If the interviewing panel is still considering other people after you have finished your interview, you have failed in this central strategy. Here are three ‘tips’ for making this happen (i) Anticipate difficult questions (ii) Make eye contact (iii) Reframe your weaknesses.

Anticipate difficult questions

In the first televised debate, in the 2015 UK election, both main party leaders had to handle tough opening questions from the legendary hard-hitting interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. David Cameron was completely blind-sided by Paxman’s first question about Food Banks. He didn’t know how many there were in the UK, how many people were using them and how their use had sky rocketed during his first term as Prime Minister. Similarly, Ed Miliband couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give an upper limit on the number of people per year he would want to immigrate to the UK, despite Paxman asking him the same question a number of times.

Look at your CV critically and put yourself in the shoes of the most aggressive interviewer you can think of and think about the toughest question you could face. Then think of an even more difficult one. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to look at your CV and ask them to create a really tough question for you. Ask yourself these questions and film your answer on your smartphone and then play it back and critique your answer to see how you could be even more convincing under the pressure of some tough questioning. Look at your body language, listen to your voice quality, think about the structure of what you are saying and the words you choose to express your thoughts and see where you could create a “better” overall impact whilst answering the questions. Then, to fine tune your skills, repeat the exercise until you are happy with your responses. Think of other, tougher questions and repeat the process until you are confident you have covered all potential job-threatening questions. This process will not only boost your confidence, but also improve your chances of landing that job.

Make eye contact

Both the party leaders were questioned on their first “difficult” topic for approximately two minutes by Jeremy Paxman. Both leaders struggled to deal with the questions, but crucially David Cameron looked the more confident and credible. Closer examination of his behaviour reveals why. In those difficult first two minutes of the interview, Ed Miliband, broke eye contact 29 times. David Cameron by contrast only broke his eye contact 4 times – a huge difference.

Practice making strong eye contact when answering tough interview questions. Eye contact is also vital to secure that all-important confident first impression. Of course you don’t want to ‘stare’ unblinking at the interviewer and there is a balance to be struck, but breaking eye contact a lot can be interpreted as a lack of belief in the answer you are giving, or make people doubt your truthfulness.

Reframe your weaknesses

In his first televised appearance, David Cameron was blind-sided by Jeremy Paxman’s first question about Food Banks, but he learned from this mistake. In a later debate, he took this issue and turned it to his advantage. Whilst answering a completely different question, a member of the audience shouted out about Food Banks, immediately David Cameron jumped on the issue and said that the best way for people not to have to use Food Banks was by having a job and his government had created almost two million jobs in his first term as Prime Minister. In a heartbeat he had taken an issue that had previously been a disadvantage and turned it to his advantage.

It doesn’t matter how comprehensive your experience and skills are – everyone has a weak spot in their CV; everyone has something that isn’t to their advantage; everyone has had some “failures” in their career. The ‘trick’ to handing this is to consider how those ‘problems’ can be framed as strengths. Rather than hope to avoid a potential ‘problem’ in your interview, consider how you can turn it into the reason the interview panel should pick you. Plan to talk about how much you have learned from the experience. In an instant you have shown humility, an ability to both learn from past mistakes and to think positively about an event – all attributes many employers are actively looking for.

So what’s next?

Use these three tips to boost your confidence, impact and chances of landing that job at your next interview.

Try watching Harvey MacKay’s interview tips on You Tube

Try reading: Persuasion Skills Black Book of Job Hunting Techniques: Using NLP and Hypnotic Language Patterns to Get the Job You Deserve, by Rintu Basu.

Think about hiring an expert Boulden Coach for a ‘one to one’ Executive Coaching assignment or commissioning an in-house Impact & Presence programme

Happy, impactful and successful interviewing, Martin Brooks.

“The only limit to your impact is your imagination and commitment”
Tony Robbins.

“By union the smallest states thrive. By discord the greatest are destroyed.” Sallust
High performance teams

High Performance Teams (HPT’s) can generate superior results because of the levels of creativity and collaboration they generate, but they are not easy things to build or maintain.

Personal wins and team losses

For a group of people to perform as a cohesive team, they must:

  • Have a clear goal (and a real desire to achieve that goal)
  • Appreciate what the respective roles of the team members are
  • Possess a level of trust in one another, based on ‘buying into’ certain norms for how to work together e.g. how information should be shared
  • Be competent (i.e. each person must have the ‘skills set’ needed to be able to contribute to the work of the team)t

In many organisations, however, there is a focus on individual reward systems (e.g. personal goals in the annual appraisal) that not only fail to support team wins but actively encourage acting against the ‘greater good’ in favour of individual successes. Hence there is a conflict between holding an individual to account, and getting the best team performance.

Similarly it is common for individually motivated senior leaders in an organisation to set the tone that their people will follow, i.e. recognition comes from individual merit and individual achievement not collaboration.

Culture clashes and personal conflicts

Conflict within groups is to be expected as different personality types or different views on priorities cause tension between people. Also top performers are typically very competitive and that competition also applies to relationships inside, as well as outside the team. HPT’s find ways to manage these tensions creatively and constructively e.g. by accepting conflict as a way of testing ideas and concepts. However very often team conflict is ignored, unacknowledged or suppressed; resulting in lack of information sharing and poor coordination of efforts.

Professor Lindred Greer of Stanford University describes four types of conflict that commonly occur within teams…

  1. Task Conflict – what the goals should be, e.g. should we pursue option X or option Y. This is often the most useful type of conflict as it can help to clarify the issues and expose ‘problem areas’
  2. Process Conflict – about how the team will work together, e.g. when to meet, what the roles should be etc.
  3. Relationship Conflict – personality clashes, lack of chemistry
  4. Status Conflict – about each person’s place in the hierarchy, or level of authority (this type of conflict is often difficult to address because people typically don’t declare their issues openly, but more often than not use a ‘process complaint’ as a surrogate for what is really concerning them e.g. they don’t feel they are getting the level of respect they deserve so they argue about where to meet.)

These effects can be compounded by cultural differences and by the extra strain generated by remote or virtual team working. Left unaddressed they can cause high levels of stress, poor performance and even lead to the team dissolving.

Defusing conflicts

The warning signs for problems within an HPT, aside from the obvious of the work not getting done, include strong displays of negative emotions (as opposed to rational discussion) e.g. people getting angry. Also when team members bicker about small things that don’t really seem important and/or form obvious sub groups that constantly challenge one another, then the team is likely to be in trouble. Handling these issues involves (i) being clear about what the disagreement is about i.e. task, process, relationships or status, (ii) checking if the real issue is the subject of the disagreement or if something else is being used as a proxy e.g. is there a ‘hidden agenda?’ and (iii) understanding the emotional state of the people involved; just how agitated are the participants? Then it’s a question of getting the issues out into the open for explicit discussion and negotiation. This may well involve some type of team building activity, personality inventories, and the use of an external facilitator (and sometimes, in severe cases, a mediator.)

Transitory teams and permanent team building

Teams are typically fleeting things because in most companies staff is always turning over, so for a group of (say) six people to stay together more than 6-12 months in an organisation is rare. What this means is that teams are continually going through the ‘storming, forming, norming’ and (if you are lucky) the ‘performing ’ group development cycle first proposed by Tuckman in 1965. What also typically happens is that those who have been around longer create a team within a team – an ‘inner circle’ – which is very apparent to those not in it, and so tensions can easily arise. Unless the leader expects these sorts of things to be the norm and takes actions to counter them, then the ‘HPT’ will be a very temporary thing. Hence there is the need for ‘team building’ activities, of various kinds, to be an on-going process and not a one-off event.

Team size and ‘social loafing’

Another factor affecting team performance is known as the Ringelmann Effect, or social loafing. Ringelmann (1913) found that having more people work together on a task (pulling a rope) actually results in significantly less effort than when individual members are acting alone. Eight people, he found, didn’t even pull as hard as four individuals. Ringelmann thought that this loss of effort was due to lack of coordination but in the 1970’s a researcher from the University of Massachusetts (Ingam) found that the effect was actually due to people in the larger group feeling less responsibility for the end result. Of course the real world of work is more complex than the simple experiment of pulling on a rope, but Ingams’ research suggests that, all things being equal, smaller teams are generally more productive than larger ones. Counter balancing measures to reduce ‘social loafing’ include defining individual responsibilities that precisely measure each person’s contribution and/or making individual performance public so that each team member knows exactly how the others are doing.

The Physical Environment & Encouraging Teamwork

The physical space that a team operates in can also have a major impact on their performance. In Better Teamwork Through Workplace Design the writer Anat Lechner suggests that companies ‘design in’ spaces into the physical office environment to help promote collaboration. For example:

  • Vary the types of workspaces
    Employees need group spaces for co-creation, but there should also be areas for concentrated work (unassigned individual workstations), emergent social exchange (free-flowing hallways), and learning (rooms equipped with technology and tools).
  • Provide the right tools
    Make sure meeting rooms include tools like whiteboards that allow employees to record ideas and create a visual, side-by-side review of alternative solutions.
  • Give project teams a dedicated space
    Returning to the same workspace each day, keeping meeting notes on the board, and leaving work on tables between meetings can help team-mates maintain a shared mind-set, sharpening their focus and speeding up the collaborative process.

So what’s next???

    • Reflect on how accountable people are for their actions (or lack of them.) Does more need to be done to highlight the ‘value added’ work that each person does for the team?
    • Read: ‘Building Conflict Competent Teams’ by Rundle and Flanagan
    • Watch: Mark de Rond, professor at Cambridge’s Judge Business School talk about conflict and teams

And to end with a quote from a US polymath, Benjamin Franklin, on the pressing need for effective teamwork.

“We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately”


“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises” – Mae West

Holding People Accountable for their actions involves measuring performance against a standard, then acknowledging successful outcomes and confronting shortfalls.

What does ‘good’ look like…

Holding People Accountable starts by making sure that people know what they are supposed to be responsible for. It is self evident that without clear, documented standards that set out what is expected of people, “holding them to account” is very difficult, because we have no benchmark to hold them accountable against.

Having standards at the company level involves implementing procedures that describe what people should do and how they should behave. This will include written Job Descriptions; an Employee Handbook; Standard Operating Procedures; plus a Performance Management System for goal setting and regular reviews. Also useful is an Organisational Chart that shows the chain-of-command to clarify where in the organisation each person ‘sits’ and to whom they are responsible.

And does it actually matter what ‘good’ looks like…

The correct policy documents (e.g. Job Descriptions) are necessary for holding people to account but not sufficient. The missing component is Culture. In many organisations it is seen as just too much trouble to make people accountable when managers are rushed off their feet. Also some HR departments make the process of ‘holding to account’ so time consuming and arduous that the ‘default’ for managers is to just pay off the poorly performing person with a compromise agreement. For example, if very poor performers are subject to months of on-going ‘review meetings’ and repeated but fruitless ‘coaching sessions’ without ever being dismissed, the clear message is that performance management is something that managers best not waste their time on.

Stand up and be counted…

Silvermann, Pogson & Cober (2005) identified three key actions that individual managers need to take to drive accountability within an organisation (these actions are especially important where there are employees who wish to avoid keeping their promises to complete tasks on time and to the correct standard.)

  1. Modelling personal accountability (leading by example)
  2. Securing clear agreements about what people should be doing (setting good quality goals)
  3. Conducting effective on-going performance conversations that are focused on learning and improvement (give people regular feedback on how they are doing and, when necessary, provide additional support.)

No management without measurement…

On the individual level each manager needs to agree with each member of their team ‘what specifically’ they should deliver as part of their role. Ideally each employee will accept the goals they are set and be committed and motivated to achieving them. Some of these goals will be formally recorded as part of the Appraisal or Performance Management process, but others will occur as part of the normal work routine e.g. actions that result from a meeting.

Usually staff members accept personal responsibility for delivering on their goals, so gaining ‘buy in’ to an objective, together with a shared understanding of what good results look like, is relatively straight forward. Of course there are also employees who resist being set targets and who reject or discourage feedback, in which case the manager will need to take decisive action to get them to meet their obligations to the company and work colleagues.

Setting high quality goals…

Dr Edwin Locke’s pioneering research on goal setting in the late 1960’s clearly established a link with employee motivation and clear, challenging goals that are accompanied by effective feedback. Tasks or requests that are too vague demotivate employees e.g. saying, “work to hit an 80% accuracy level” is more effective than saying, “do your best”. The feedback component is also significant as people respond to being told how they are doing (in a constructive way.)

One of the most important characteristics of goals, Locke found, is the level of difficulty they contain. Many employees are motivated by achievement, and so judge the value of achieving the goal based on its difficulty. Of course there is a balance to be struck in that unrealistic or unachievable targets simply demotivate people.

Keeping it real…

One problem with goal setting is that the world moves so fast that the objectives can become outdated very quickly. You agree, say six objectives in January with a member of staff and find that by May, two have been done, two have proved to be unachievable, and two are no longer the priorities they were. Instead lots of new priorities have appeared or are appearing. So to keep goals relevant it is necessary to regularly update progress against ‘live’ goals, ‘close off’ obsolete goals and develop new objectives to replace the obsolete ones.

So how am I doing…

Accountability involves telling people how well they are doing in the role. An extensive Corporate Leadership Council research project (2000) involving 19,000 employees was able to statistically validate seven keys that correlated to improved employee performance. Of these, two factors: (i) Informal Feedback and (ii) Formal Review (e.g. appraisal meetings) related directly to giving feedback.

The study showed that employees are particularly motivated by the quick, informal discussions that occurred as they were working on the task (i.e. ‘informal feedback’.) It also showed that being given specific suggestions for how to change or improve things i.e. where there is a ‘coaching element’ to the conversation, energises people. The study also revealed that if feedback is only about possible improvements people start to feel demotivated so ‘positive feedback’ i.e. praise and other more tangible rewards such as pay rises (where merited) are an important part of effective feedback.

Be aware of potential barriers to doing good work…

In his 1999 book Why employees don’t do what they are supposed to do and what to do about it author Ferdinand Fournies identified sixteen common reasons why employees don’t focus on their goals, and these reasons often surface during informal feedback conversations. They range from, “thinking that something else is more important” and “Personal Problems” through to the more challenging, “they are punished for doing what they are supposed to do.” This last case might arise, for example, if an employee makes suggestions and is automatically the one lumbered with the extra work of implementing the idea. It is useful to be aware of and (of course) prevent these problems arising.

Consequences are king…

All actions, in any walk of life, have consequences. If you overeat you put on weight. If you exercise you get fitter. Sometimes those consequences are minor and sometimes they are major; sometimes they are immediate and sometimes they are delayed; sometimes they are pleasant and sometimes unpleasant. The key when holding people to account is that consequences are immediate (and proportionate.)

  • So great performance means that people get pay rises and promoted.
  • Good performance means that people get praise, recognition and exciting projects to work on.
  • Average performance means that people are supported and given appropriate rewards (most people are, after all, by definition, average)
  • Poor performance means that people are managed out of the organisation using a correctly applied disciplinary process.

Where managers have difficulty with holding people accountable then:

  • Objectives are not achieved
  • Good employees are effectively ‘punished’ (because they have to cover the work of the poor performers)
  • Poor performers are encouraged (because there are no negative consequences and other people pick up their slack)

Therefore, the ability to give praise, have difficult conversations, plus the willingness to explain and, if necessary, apply negative consequences to individuals who are not pulling their weight is a key component of being a competent manager.

So what’s next???

Reflect on how much praise or ‘positive feedback’ you give staff and, if low, make a point of developing the habit of acknowledging good work.

Review your team’s goals and ensure that they are relevant to their role, specific and challenging. If not, sit down with them and agree a shared view of what their priorities are and what a successful outcome would look like.

Consider scheduling, and holding, a monthly ‘one to one’ meeting with each team member (for about 30 minutes per person) specifically for feedback, coaching and to uncover what support they want from you.

Try reading: Lila Booth, 2001, Consequences: The Secret to Holding People Accountable. Harvard Business Publishing Newsletters

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our in-house three-day, Managing the Individual Employee workshop

Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services –

And to end with a quote from the well known management author Michael Armstrong…

“The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”

“Man is by nature a political animal” Aristotle

One of the factors that distinguish the people who succeed in business that is not as widely discussed as it might be is the ability to mobilise support for a position, decision or action. (Or as it is more commonly known ‘political savvy’.)


You have to be in it to win it

Some people feel very uncomfortable actively engaging in office politics and consider it to be destructive and unethical. This is a naïve view. Nothing happens in organisations without building a level of support for a given action and the only question is if the objective being targeted is based on an individual’s narrow self-interest or the ‘greater good’. The plain truth is that if you are not actively influencing what is happening in a company, you are at the mercy of someone else who is (and they may not have your best interests at heart!)

How powerful are you?

People will listen to you if they feel you have a source of authority or ‘power’ that they feel compelled to respond to. In the business context David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron, in Developing Management Skills, identify nine powerbases that the savvy leader can build and use to make things happen. These sources of power are divided into four that relate to the Personal Power of the individual e.g. their expertise, their charisma etc. and five that relate to Position Power (i.e. they correlate to the role the person has.) Interestingly, one of the most important powerbases that Whetten and Cameron identify is that of “networking.” So the ability to build and maintain a set of stable relationships is one of the key success factors in influencing and organisational awareness. One common mistake with the networking powerbase is to wait until there is a pressing need before trying to make friends. Effective people build relationships before they need them and make sure they understand the agendas of potential allies well in advance of asking for support on any given issue.

From power to influencing

To get buy-in for an idea, you need (a) the powerbases to get people to take you seriously and (b) to adopt a range of influencing tactics when actually engaging with people. There are six commonly used styles:

  1. Inspirational Appeals. Making a request or proposal that arouses enthusiasm by appealing to values, ideals, and aspirations.
  2. Consultation. Seeking participation in planning a strategy or activity, in return for a person’s support.
  3. Ingratiation. The use of praise, flattery, or friendly behaviour to get the person in a good mood
  4. Exchange. Offering an exchange of favours, or a promise to share the benefits if the person helps accomplish a task. (You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.)
  5. Rational Persuasion. Using logical arguments and data to persuade the person that a request is sensible.
  6. Pressure. Using demands, threats, frequent checking, or persistent reminders to influence the person’s actions.

Over reliance on any one tactic usually leads to poor results and often a range of tactics is needed for success e.g. combining a presentation of “ the numbers” with an inspirational appeal is a highly effective approach in many business contexts. Of course the culture of an organisation will be an important factor in determining what tactic is most likely to prevail. In some businesses successful arguments are primarily made in terms of business risk, in others it is about ‘trading favours’, and in some the inherent inertia might be such that people might only move in response to ‘Pressure.’

Catching the Zeitgeist – 5 steps to political influencing

Political astuteness when attempting to get a specific point agreed, or policy adopted, typically involves a five-stage process:

  1. Surf the ‘Zeitgeist’. The “spirit of the times” or Zeitgeist refers to the general cultural, intellectual, ethical and political climate and if you can dovetail what you want with the current ‘hot topics’ you can create a sense of momentum that makes a proposal almost unstoppable.
  2. Get to the issue early. All too often people wake up to an issue when rivals have already built their alliances. By then you are reduced to trying to stop what you don’t want and it can look self-serving and desperate.
  3. Stakeholder mapping. Identify anyone who has an interest in, or who would be affected by, your idea. Assess how they are likely to react to your proposal; accept that some resistance is inevitable.
  4. Build a coalition. Start with one or two key people and get them on your side. Then extend the size of the coalition. Explain how people can gain by supporting your proposal and/or make the downside of opposing you clear. Ensure you build a broad consensus.
  5. Take action. Put forward a constructive proposal. Implement the solution and be sure to publicise success. Demonstrate how implementing your idea has helped the organisation e.g. by easing workload, cutting costs etc.

Office politics & career development

Harvey Coleman in his book “Empowering yourself; the organisational game revealed” states that career success is based on the three key elements; Performance, Image and Exposure (the PIE model):

  1. Performance: the day-to-day work you are responsible for and the quality of the results you deliver.
  2. Image: what other people think of you. For example, do you have a positive attitude? Do you propose solutions to issues, or just identify roadblocks when others suggest changes?
  3. Exposure: who knows about you and what you do. Does your boss acknowledge your successes? Does their boss know you and what you do?

Coleman concludes that Performance counts for just 10% of a person’s success, Image 30% and Exposure 60% (empathising again the importance of effective ‘networking’.) So hard work is necessary for success but not sufficient. To climb the ladder it is vital to actively campaign for your career, because it is just not possible to opt out of the political game at work and still win in your career.

So what’s next???

If you want to do more to boost your organisational awareness or political savvy you might like to try reading:

  • Bacharach, S. 2005. Get Them on Your Side. Adams Media Corp.
  • Flynn, Heath & Holt 2012. Three ways women can make office politics work for them

Or maybe take the online self-assessment of your own “organisation savvy” abilities, based on the book by Brandon & Seldman (Survival of the Savvy)

You might also like think about booking an in-house Boulden two day “Advanced Influencing Skills course

Or maybe try our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services for individual guidance on improving your ‘political savvy’.

Until the next time I will leave you with this well known quote from Bismark, which I think, sums up the essentially practical and pragmatic aspects of being ‘savvy’; “Politics”, he said, “is the art of the possible.”