Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Humble Inquiry

Sunday, February 19th, 2017 | Books

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling is a book by Edgar Schein. It is a relatively short book and the title gives most of it away: we need to do more asking and do less telling.

Making this change is tough. We live in a culture that celebrates task accomplishment, It is a world where the boss tells and the worker does not. Often, the subordinate will be too fearful to be honest with their superior. This is even true in emergency situations. Fatal mistakes during surgery, for example, or airline crashes can often be traced back to this.

I want you to be completely honest with me. Even if it costs you your job.

As a leader, it is your job to establish an atmosphere where people can speak up. You need to understand the cultural and generation differences regarding the risk of humiliation. People will try to avoid humiliating you at all costs. This is fine most of the time, but not when you are about to give the wrong medication or make a terminal mistake in business.

The best way to achieve this is to create a personal relationship. Professionalism will not win out: it would be unprofessional to embarrass your boss. Instead, you need to build a relationship where subordinates feel they can overcome these barriers. And, as the boss, it is up to you to set how much personal disclosure is appropriate.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Monday, February 8th, 2016 | Books

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers is a 2014 book by Ben Horowitz. Horowitz worked at Netscape before founding Opsware/Loudcloud and later the venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz.

It is mostly a book for people who are running tech companies. This is mostlu obviously from the title. However, it’s appeal outside that setting is quite limited. If you’re not in that situation I would probably say that it is not a particularly useful read.

He covers a wide variety of topics. Primarily these are hard topics with no obvious answers. His conclusion is that some things are really hard and you can only learn to be a CEO by being a CEO. Nevertheless, there is good advice dispensed along the way.

It’s important to draw a line between facts and perceptions for example. It sounds obvious, but is difficult to do in the moment. He also says that if you want to do a successful start-up, you need to be doing things 10 times better than the competition if you want to succeed. It’s a high bar, though perhaps lower than Peter Thiel sets in Zero to One, who makes the case for only entering markets you can have a monopoly on.

What should you do about titles? Mark Andreessen suggests giving them out because they are the cheapest benefit you can provide for employees. In constrast Mark Zuckerberg gives deliberately deflated titles to ensure everyone is re-levelled when they enter Facebook.

He also mention’s the Facebook slogan “move fast and break things”. I have always liked this mindset. I am doing a lot of this at Sky at the moment, usually with a bug fix right behind it, and everyone seems to be happy with my delivery so far. If you want to change the world, you have to be bold.

Horowitz also recommends the film Freaky Friday as a great management resource. When sales and customer support went to war with each other at Opsware, he simply switched the heads of department with each other. They soon understood the other side and began working together to solve problems.


Compelling People

Saturday, October 24th, 2015 | Books

Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential is a book by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut. It looks at what makes particular people, such as state leaders, the persuasive and charismatic people they are.

It claims to draw on the latest scientific evidence, though there do not seem to be any inline citations and the authors are writers and coaches rather than academics. That does not mean there is no good stuff in here – it is just difficult to know.

They put forward the idea that a charismatic person is one who projects strength and warmth. Strength is the ability to get stuff done and warmth is the ability to share someone’s feelings. The top leaders are able to do both.

Stereotypes play a role. Men are seen as stronger whereas women are seen as warmer. Luckily though, character is more important than physical characteristics, so you can soon overwrite these biases.

Lots of little clues project strength. Having your hands in fists or out flat. Vocally, be direct, sure of yourself, and avoid being too polite. In men, a low voice is strong and attractive. You can use method activating to set the tone of the conversation. For example, when I am reviewing restaurant food, I like pretend I am Paul Hollywood, and it makes it a lot easier to say blunt and honest things.

You can apply these things in your prep. Lets say for example that you are about to give a speech. As you prepare to go on stage, ensure you stand tall and smile. This will carry through into the presentation.

Another kind of strength is sated strength. This is when you’re so strong you don’t need to show it. Picture Steve Jobs for example, spread out of a couch, not giving a shit about what anyone thinks because he is the head of Apple. This is a world away from the sharp-suited kind of strength, but rather displays strength in a warm and casual way. It can backfire though – think Mark Zuckerberg turning up at his investor meetings in a hoodie and trainers. People began to question his leadership.

Similarly, different things project warmth. Tilting your head to the side. If you have a local accent, that can help project genuineness. Warmth is very easy to lose so be careful. To maintain trust ensure you do not lean away, cross your arms or touch your face.

Clothing can be a mine field too. Generally smart black clothing presents strength and casual white clothing projects warmth. However, clothing also affects how you feel, so if you want to feel confident and strong, a suit may not be the best play if you feel uncomfortable in it.

Smiling is important. You have to do it right. There is a big difference between a fake smile and a Duchenne smile, which involves using your whole face. Smiling makes other people smile, which makes them feel happy.

They also touch on a few areas that are controversial, public-speaking wise. They recommend using the magic ball hand position (put your hands as if you are cradling a ball around your belly button). I often get told off for this at Toastmasters. Similarly, we discourage the use of filler words. Neffinger and Kohut point out that they have their place as it signals to the audience you are not done.

When it is time to apply the persuasion, you need to identify with your audience and emphasise with them. The trick is to get yourself inside an imaginary circle with them, and get the opposition on the outside. Obama is very good at this when talking about gun control. He acknowledges that people have the right to bare arms (a nod to the opposition) before pointing out that responsible gun owners support him in some controls (get everyone inside the circle) and it is just the NRA that want everyone carrying automatic weapons (push the opposition outside).

The old saying “ask for money, get advice; ask for advice, get money” is also relevant. By deferring to people and making them feel important and knowledgeable, you are more likely to win their support. In contrast, once you begin having an argument with someone, persuasion ends.

Two topics the book ends with are both nice examples. The first is “it is a leader’s responsibly to define reality”. This came across strongly in Walter Isaacson’s biograpbhy of Steve Jobs. Jobs redefined the industry by insisting it would be that way. Of course you can argue that people like Dennis Ritchie were doing actually useful things while Jobs was churning out over-priced junk. But Mac, iTunes and the iPhone have shaped our society.

On a more local example, the entire committee laughed when I said were going to put on a week-long event in a marquee for Atheist Society despite having only been running for a few months. But just six weeks later we did it. Reality is malleable when you have the determination to see it through.

Finally, the most important message of the book is “be worth of being looked up to”. If you want to be someone people think is a caring, determined, hard-working leader then the best way to achieve that is to be a caring, determined, hard-working leader. The rest is just dressing.


The Virgin Way

Saturday, September 5th, 2015 | Books

The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead is a 2014 book by Richard Branson in which he dispenses advice.

Some of it reads like a Toastmasters manual. He encourages readers to make notes constantly, and develop their listening skills. Cndense your message down to be short and to the point. Twitter is a great format for this. Keep emails short. Make a pitch document one A4 sheet at the most. Do the same thing with presentations.

Avoid “that said” as it destroys any argument you have just built up. Avoid “no comment” either as it just annoys people.

Be your own customer. He often goes around the Virgin businesses both to talk to his staff but also to play at being a customer and often to make phoney complaints to see how they are handled.

I disagree with him on some things. He is not a big fan of mission statements. I like them because they keep you on purpose. Also, I think the mission statement they came up with for Virgin Mega Stores was nonsense. He said keep it real but theirs was actually full of jargon.

He also cited Kodak as a case of when they were not forward thinking enough because they did not embrace digital. This is probably true. As Steve Jobs pointed out if you do not cannibalise your own market, someone else will. However, Kodak was really killed by the rise of camera phones, something it was difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to predict in advance.

Luck is also a tricky subject. I agree with the phrase “the harder I practice the luckier I get”. However, as Branson himself admitted it is difficult to know where the luck ends and the skill begins. Capital breeds capital so once you have been lucky one, it is a lot easier to be lucky again. That is not to say it doesn’t involve hard work as well though – it is probably both.

He discusses Netflix’s policy of not tracking holiday. I am not sure I would like this as an employee as it kind of admits there is no work life balance outside of the office and forces you to strike an awkward balance between getting your fair share and not taking too much. However, I could definitely be sold on the idea.

The core of The Virgin Way is people-centred. Put your staff first, be fun and develop a great culture in which people are empowered to take a lead. Have lots of staff parties.

Stay nimble and small. Collaboration tails off after you get more than 20 people in a team, so try nd keep projects down to that. Whatever you do, do it with passion.

The Virgin Way

Lessons from the Purpose Driven Church

Sunday, July 27th, 2014 | Thoughts

I recently wrote about Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church. Today, I wanted to share some of the ideas that I really identified with in the book, especially with those I can provide examples of here in Leeds. I imagine these ideas are mostly for faith & belief groups such as Humanism and Sunday Assembly, but can also have wider applications to all community groups.

Of course, the central tenant of the book is that a group should do things with purpose. This can be seen to varying degrees in such groups. Leeds Atheist Society always had a clear threefold purpose – to provide education on, fellowship for and open debate about the non-religious. It’s the first thing on our about page.

West Yorkshire Humanists is perhaps less clear, and probably in need of a mission statement. Sunday Assembly is a bit of mixed bag. We have a great slogan: “Live better. Help Often. Wonder more.” However, because we’re not allowed to use the term Humanism, it does not really connect to anything. This has lead to some of our attends describing it as “like playing church without for no reason”, and others as a cult of Sanderson Jones.

Toastmasters is the organisation with the clearest mission of any organisation I am involved in.

We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.

With a quarter of a million members in 122 countries, I think it is fair to say we are doing pretty well.

Having a clear purpose is critical because then you can then measure everything you do based on that. Everything else is derived from your purpose. That is true of any organisation you will ever be involved in and is probably the most important thing you can learn when it comes to running organisations effectively.

However, I think these points are also interesting…

Do away with committees

Committees decide things, doers do things. Which does your group need? Doers! Sunday Assembly Leeds does not really have a formal committee. We have monthly organisers meetings that are open to all members. There is no election process, you can just turn up and start helping.

Give the power to people implementing the plan. Rather than having committee approval for something, empower people by giving them to decision for the area they are working on. That way you will get much more engaged volunteers.

Provide stability

Warren talks about having a pastor for decades. The best churches are the ones that have the same pastor for a long time.

I am not advocating having the same person lead the group permanently. As secular groups we like to bring in new ideas, new people, have an open democracy. Having a leader-for-life is incompatible with these views. However, we do need to build trust that the organisation people invest their time into, and the friendships that they make, are not suddenly going to disappear.

In my personal life, I often feel more included to people who are more likely to stick around. I would suggest that a community is the same. If you are trying to decide whether to invest a significant amount of time and money into a community, you do so because you think you will get a return out of it over the long term. Therefore are you going to be more predisposed to give to a stable community that looks like it has solid leadership and a strong future, or a community that is constantly scrambling to find new find new leadership?

Write to people

Warren wrote and hand-addressed 15,000 letters to people in the local area. Today, targeted mailings will only get you a response rate of around 1%, untargeted even less. But even if you only get a quarter of one percent, that is still 38 people turning up. Of course, the stamps would now cost you nearly £8,000. This could be a good strategy if you happen to have a postman (we need a British-sounding gender-neutral term for this) in your group.

When I was at GRAM a few years ago, a member of a local Humanist group spoke about how they gathered a group of volunteers and went around posting leaflets through peoples doors. They did thousands of them, and in the end got two members. That does not sound like a lot, but actually for a relatively low-cost exercise, in a group of 20 people, is a 10% growth.

Ask people for a commitment

Saddleback allow people to attend their church every week. But they do not become a member of the church until they make a commitment. This involves taking a membership course, an initiation ceremony, and agreeing the support the church with your time and money. The more he asks them to commit, the more they are willing to do it.

Probably because it offers people real buy in. At Toastmasters, we charge £180 for the first year. There is a £30 sign-up fee and £12.50 per month dues, which by the end of the year adds up. I tend not to mention it when responding to emails about people coming for the first time. I am scared it will put them off. But once they see Toastmasters in action, most of them join. It doesn’t put them off. If anything, it inspires them to turn up to meetings and process through the educational programme.

Research your demographics

Who lives in your local area? Are you in a student town or a retirement community? Young and old, single and married, rich and poor, each of these groups will have different wants and needs and if you want to target your marketing and the content of your group effectively, you need to know who you are targeting.

These days such information is easier than ever before to get hold of. The Census data seems a good start but many local and national authorities, as well as NGOs publish information as well.

Play music as people enter

Warren noticed that the louder he played music when people entered, the more animated people were when talking to each other. People like to be anonymous, especially if they are a guest. Having music on allows them to talk without it being noticed.

In comparison, several times in Skeptics and Toastmasters I will stand at the front a little before we are scheduled to start and everything will go quiet. Getting the conversation restarted for the final two minutes is almost impossible after this. You just end up with two minutes of awkward silence.

Imagine through the eyes of a guest

In software development, you should have a developer and a tester. The developer should test their own code, but it is critical to have another eyes look at the software they have written. Why? Because the developer always uses it from a developer’s perspective! The tester looks at it from a user’s perspective. “It broke when I pushed this button?” “You’re not supposed to push that button.” But somebody might!

When doing anything with your group, you should always keep in mind that as an organiser you are probably a long-established member who knows what is going on. Always take the time to try and imagine how things might also look to a first-time guest who has come to the group to see what it is like. It is clear what is going on? Is it engaging? It is welcoming?

Always use plenty of lighting

Often I will go to a talk, and they will turn the lights off so that you can see the slides. This is the last thing you should be doing! Turn the lights on to as bright as they can be.

Firstly, a bright environment is more friendly and welcoming and keeps people awake. A dimly lit room is intimidating to guests and encourages existing members to take a nap. Keep a buzz in the atmosphere by keeping it bright and upbeat.

Secondly, who cares if people can see the slides? It is not important! People who rely on slides are bad public speakers. I can see slides on the internet. I want to see the speaker actually speak! I want to see their face. Lowering the lights encourages me to look at the slides rather than at the speaker, which is the opposite of what you want to do if you want people to find the talk engaging.

People come for the events, but stay for the friends

Atheist Society runs all year round, including now in summer when the students have gone home and the talks have finished. Why? Because people want to see their friends every week. People come to the group, and stay with the group for different reasons. Or sometimes they come because they have a lack of friends. Either way, social connections are the true glue of a group.


Competent Leader

Saturday, May 24th, 2014 | Photos, Public Speaking


Will be adding this to my CV, alongside my BSc (bronze swimming certificate).

Comments policy

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 | Thoughts

One thing I have noticed more and more is that some blogs are publishing a comments moderation policy.

That’s fine, but I just don’t understand why.

Comments on my blog are moderated, if they are good comments (they don’t have to be positive, just not spam, or abusive – and even those I normally let through) I approve them, if not then I trash them. That isn’t a policy though, it’s just what I do. I don’t have to publish your comments, I don’t owe you any legal responsibility, so why would I have a policy on it? It would only seem to complicate matters when I can just deal with the comments without one.

This is perhaps why some people have become incensed over the recently flurry of harassment policies being introduced, especially at student groups where a student union wide one is already in place. You don’t need a second line of harassment policies, you just need to actually deal with the harassment.

Announcing Sunrise Conference 2011

Saturday, August 13th, 2011 | Foundation, News

Sunrise Conference 2011

We’re pleased to announce the launch of Sunrise Conference 2011, our second annual conference on community leadership and activism. Join us on Saturday 3rd September for a day of learning and sharing ideas and experience in running local community groups.

Sunrise ran for the first time in 2010, featuring talks, workshops, seminars and discussions from community groups leaders from across the UK.

This year’s event will be run as a virtual conference, streamed live across the internet so you can attend from wherever you are based. Best of all, registration to this year’s event is free, so it is accessible to everyone.

Registration is now open, so sign up today to reserve your spot.

Sunrise Conference 2010

Sunday, September 5th, 2010 | Foundation

A big thank you to everyone who joined us in Leeds this weekend to make Sunrise Conference 2010 a huge success! Throughout the weekend we had an array of talks, seminars, workshops and discussions on a variety of topics – everything from leadership and organisation to marketing, the meaning of life and transhumanism! You can see photos from the event on our Facebook page and the conference website for full details.