Avoiding Dinosaur Syndrome

Avoiding Dinosaur Syndrome

X marks the spot

X marks the spot

One of the greatest sources of joy for me is reading and writing. I have always loved the chance to disappear into another world, courtesy of a well written book. And writing has been a creative outlet for me for longer than I can remember. Reading and writing is a form of escapism and fuels my imagination.

I have taken my literacy and education for granted for most of my life, because everyone around me is literate and had the opportunity to go to school. And because a life without the ability to read and write seems unfathomable.

However, not everyone is as fortunate as me. And throughout history, literacy and education have been the great divider between the haves and the have nots. Literacy literally lifts individuals out of poverty. It not only enriches an individual’s life, but also then creates opportunity for an enhanced education. That education provides countless opportunities to be self-sufficient.

Global literacy levels

According to The World Bank[1], nearly 14% of the global population is illiterate. That means that over one billion people lack access to information that affects their lives. The World Population Review lists 38 countries where less than 75% of the population is literate. In 13 countries, more than 50% of the population is illiterate. That affects over 125 million people in those areas.[2] 

Even in the United States, the National Assessment of Educational Progress says that only 35% of 4th grade students are proficiently literate.[3]  And from a gender perspective, 15 million girls around the globe will never have an opportunity to learn to read and write in primary school.[4] 

A personal perspective

Sometimes it is hard to personalise those statistics though – they are just numbers. This is especially true for those who live in environments that are abundant with resources and opportunity. But for me, the concept of literacy recently had more of a personal impact. 

I have enthusiastically embarked on a quest to find out more about my Scottish ancestors.  My co-pilot on this journey, Isabel the brilliant genealogist from Bute, continues to find more twists and turns in our family story than I could ever have anticipated. Slowly but surely, scandal, intrigue, romance and tragedy have emerged.

It was a decidedly unhappy discovery to understand that some of my female forebears were completely illiterate. One of the saddest tales involves my great, great grandmother, Mary Woods.  When Mary married William Morris on the first of July in 1878 in Rothesay in Scotland, Mary was unable to sign her name. Instead, she made a small cross, which someone else noted as “her mark”. Although this was not uncommon for that time, to see it was strangely confronting.

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Not surprisingly, her options in life were far reduced as a result of being illiterate – prior to her marriage, she worked in a factory.  No doubt back then, options for a woman born into modest circumstances were fairly limited regardless. After a very difficult life, Mary passed away at the young age of 38, leaving behind 6 children. 

The very real impact on business and society now

Times have changed significantly since the 1800s and the world is different to the one that Mary Woods inhabited, as literacy rates have vastly improved. Overall, the global literacy rate is now much higher than it has been before. The literacy rate for all males and females that are at least 15 years old is 86.3%. Males aged 15 and over have a literacy rate of 90%, while females lag slightly behind at 82.7%.

Despite the increase in literacy, in Australia 14.1% of our population have very low levels of literacy and over 40% have literacy levels below what is considered sufficient.[5]  

This is important for businesses to understand, as it means that a reasonable percentage of our population are not as literate as we perhaps think they are. In a time when there is a war for talent and a skills shortage, this is a problem.  

As poverty is so often associated with illiteracy, this creates the need for an expanded welfare state.[6]  Breaking that cycle by providing the right opportunities for education is the key. And breaking the stigma associated with illiteracy (at any age) is important.

Companies that lead the way to literacy

One of the reasons why I have always enjoyed supporting The Smith Family is because they have a huge focus on education as a way of creating opportunities for disadvantaged Australian children.  If children are provided with an opportunity to be literate and have an education, this gives them a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty.

There are also many global firms that have recognised the need to focus on literacy and are leading the way:

  • Toyota sponsors literacy in American communities through its Toyota Family Literacy Program. These programs connect children to spread literacy.
  • The U.S.-based retailer Target sponsored literacy programs in connection with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This non-profit focuses on children and at-risk youths to address illiteracy early.
  • Facebook sponsored a research grant that focuses on innovative ideas for solving illiteracy.

As organisations become more aware of their responsibilities around ESG, understanding the social impact on communities, particularly in developing economies is vital. This includes literacy.

A final reflection

Today, I feel enormous gratitude for my education and if you are reading this, I encourage you to do the same. I am very much aware that education is such a huge differentiator in life – it provides you with choices, gives you freedom and helps you to dream.  For me, a love of learning has helped me to carve out a life that many of my ancestors could never have dreamt of.

Ps.  This article includes an excerpt from my blog about my adventures in Scotland: www.thekylesofbute.com

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[1] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS

[2] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/literacy-rate-by-country

[3] https://business.tutsplus.com/articles/literacy-worldwide-why-its-important–cms-37947

[4] https://plan-uk.org/blogs/the-importance-of-education-how-literacy-improves-lives

[5] https://www.informationaccessgroup.com/literacy_levels.html

[6] https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED321032



There is a lot to be said for getting out of your comfort zone – for giving yourself an opportunity to grow and achieve something greater than your day-to-day existence. There is a lot to be gained by embracing the concept of “stretch”.

In the workplace (and in life), pushing yourself a bit more and stretching beyond your boundaries of comfort can be terrifying – but for me, the opportunity to move beyond complacency is always worth it.

As a manager, one of the best things that you can do for your team is to incorporate stretch into the team goals. The benefits are significant, for both the individual and the organisation. However, stretch goals need to be crafted with care.

Stretch goals

Stretch goals are typically a goal that requires higher effort and sometimes higher risk. They are intentionally set above normal standards to attract greater rewards, opportunities, and experiences. Usually, stretch goals are not expected to be achieved one hundred percent. So, why would you set them then?

Well, stretch goals, particularly when set at a team level, tend breathe new life into uninspired work environments. They challenge a team to create better results. In short, by setting up stretch goals, you will create an environment that fosters more innovation and creativity.[1] In today’s competitive world, this provides significant advantage on many levels.

Stretch goals are also a great way to help hidden talent become much more visible. They tend to help teams to become more committed, and to find new ways of achieving by leveraging their available resources more creatively. They can also be a lot of fun!

The importance of skills, challenge and stretch goals

However, if you do not put the right level of effort into setting a stretch goal, this can cause a disconnect with either the team or an individual. There is an art to setting stretch goals, as well as setting the team up for success. Although the stretch may provide motivation, you need to also provide the required skills.

There is a “sweet spot” for stretch goals – and it is somewhere between the balance of challenge and the right skill set. 

In his book, “Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience”[2]Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the importance of adjusting the level of challenge and the skills to create the right level of stretch. The right level of stretch then leads to “flow”, where you become creative, fully immersed, and productive.

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As you can see, when the challenge is too hard and the skills are too low, the result is anxiety. And when the skills are too great and the challenge is too low, the result is boredom. Neither anxiety nor boredom are a pathway to creativity.

The skill of the manager

It does take a skilled manager to set up the stretch goals effectively in the first place, as well as manage the team (and potential fallout) if they do not achieve success in their quest. Here are a few important considerations for any manager who is setting stretch goals:

  • Remember that stretch goals are different to SMART[3] goals. You need both. SMART goals are more focused on an outcome that is achievable. Stretch goals are more aligned to your organisation’s long-term vision.
  • All goals need to be clear and should be documented – this helps to clarify success when they are achieved
  • You will need a way to track progress against the goals
  • You will need to ensure that feedback mechanisms are in place – feedback is critical and should be delivered in a timely manner
  • Be clear if the perceived challenge is balanced against the skill set – is more training required?
  • You will need to provide an environment that is supportive and safe for creativity to flourish. 

The importance of the culture

For stretch goals to work, the culture needs to support innovation and creativity – and the need to sometimes fail. Without the right culture, stretch goals can be demotivating, overwhelming and unattainable.

The culture also must be managed and safe enough to stop unethical behaviour in the quest to achieve stretch goals. Having a large financial target or reward can be problematic in any culture, as it can lead to questionable decision making. Financial success should be a consequence of excellence, not the stretch goal. Outlandish financial goals are usually in tension with genuine excellence and innovation.[4] 

So, it is important to remember that stretch goals are about innovation, creativity, and human excellence – not about financial targets. Having a culture that provides the safety around those qualities that exist in all of us is critical for stretch goals to work.

When stretch goals are set properly, your team can create awesome outcomes – for the organisation, for the clients, for the community and for the team. This is what Umair Haque refers to as culture of “awesomeness”.   Haque argues that awesomeness happens when creativity is put front and centre. In his view, awesomeness evokes an emotive reaction because its fundamentally new, unexpected and significantly better.[5] That takes a culture that is prepared to be truly creative and safe. And it takes a well-articulated vision that makes everyone think big!

A final reflection

In a world where innovation has become the latest buzzword, I encourage you to keep stretching yourself and your team. Providing an environment where the challenge is in harmony with the skillset not only creates flow, but also creates creativity and fun!  As Ken Poirot, famed author of “Mentor Me” said, “True success is achieved by stretching oneself, learning to feel comfortable being uncomfortable”.[6]

Ps.  The image used is that of one of my favourite toys from the 1970s – “Stretch Armstrong”. Stretch Armstrong was a large, gel filled action figure first introduced in 1976 by Kenner. With a bit of effort, Stretch could be stretched from his original size of around 40 cm to around 1.5 m – a feat that my two brothers and I tried to master on a regular basis. Stretch went beyond the limits of what seemed possible to become so much more – and this absolutely captured our imagination.

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[1] https://www.wrike.com/blog/setting-stretch-goals/#What-are-the-benefits-of-stretch-goals

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/66354.Flow

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMART_criteria

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/04/23/in-praise-of-stretch-goals/?sh=64c301ae7c04

[5] https://hbr.org/2009/09/is-your-business-innovative-or

[6] https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8201501.Ken_Poirot

Image credit: https://www.ign.com/articles/2017/09/01/stretch-armstrong-and-the-flex-fighters-how-netflix-is-re-imagining-an-iconic-hero

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Recently, I decided to take myself off on a journey of self-discovery. To Scotland. Buoyed by the history I re-learned in Outlander[1], I wanted to pay tribute to my ancestors, learn more about where they came from and understand why they chose to leave and start anew in Australia. My travels exceeded my expectations and I felt humbled by my ancestors’ bravery, sense of adventure and willingness to seek a better life.

Some called my travels and time away from my children indulgent. Others thought I was on a quest to find a Jamie[2] equivalent. But mostly my friends and family were supportive. I needed to restore my faith in the general goodness of others and rediscover my purpose. This went well beyond work and home. This was about life. 

The giants

One of the most interesting parts of my research into our genealogy was discovering almost all sides of my family originate from Scotland. Aside from a wee dose of Norwegian, English and Irish blood, we are descended from the Scots.   

According to a genealogist I encountered in Edinburgh, one branch of my family only moved to Scotland 600 years ago, so it is apparently debatable about the Scottish heritage on that side.  I am unsure as to how many more centuries will need to pass before they will be considered Scottish. 😊

I discovered stories of immense courage, about the power of hope and the desire for a better life. I learnt about how many sacrifices were made by so many, that ultimately led to my existence, my current opportunities and those of my children. These giants paved the way for me to have the life that I now enjoy.

My family story is not a unique tale. So many others throughout history have also made sacrifices in the desire to find a better life. Remembering this is important, particularly as we often take our modern-day privileges and opportunities for granted. As celebrated British author Anthony Burgess[3] said,

“it’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it. To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going”.

Where are the women?

As I dug deeper into my family history, I found a veritable treasure trove of information on both of my grandfathers and their families. There were plenty of documents, records, photos and newspaper clippings about them. I could easily trace their sides through a variety of means.

My grandmothers and their ancestry proved to be much more challenging. Two things struck me about this. My grandfathers both came from relatively wealthy families, whereas my grandmothers did not. And my grandfathers were (obviously) male. 

Raised on a small island in Scotland, my maternal grandmother, Mary Jane, was virtually impossible to find. Her history and that of her mother Margaret mainly constitutes stories passed down to me – documentation is proving to be far more elusive. And yet, their bravery was immense. As I spent time in my Gran’s beloved Rothesay[4], I marvelled at their decision to travel to Australia. They travelled without a husband and father – my great grandfather did not join them. And yet they prospered and created a life in Australia. Surely this is a story that deserves to be told. Perhaps it was one that they didn’t want to tell? It was a different time and society had different opinions then of strong, independent women. It is different now, right?

As we currently watch decisions about women’s bodies and choices being debated and protested around the globe, I cannot help but wonder how much has changed since Margaret and Mary Jane made that voyage to Australia in 1920. As I reflect on my own career and life, has being outspoken and strong like the Scottish women that I am descended from proven an advantage or disadvantage in a world where mansplaining[5], gender pay gaps and casual misogyny at work still prevail? Perhaps being courageous as a woman today is still not as celebrated as one would hope. 

Re-writing history

On my travels, I picked up many mementos for loved ones and voraciously read books and information about Scotland and its history. I wanted to understand how my ancestors lived and immerse myself into the culture of this ruggedly magnificent country. I talked to locals, learnt about the clans and their traditions and tartans. At the urging of one amused friend, I even sampled haggis.

As I tried to find the women in my own history, I realised it was also simply harder to find women in history.  This is particularly true of those that were not wealthy or noble. Obviously, there are some significant exceptions to the rule, such as Mary Queen of Scots[6]. It was in a small gift shop connected to Mary King’s Close[7] in Edinburgh, that I struck gold. My friend pointed to a book and suggested that this was something that I would love. He was right. 

In “Where are the Women – a Guide to an Imagined Scotland”[8], author Sara Sheridan takes us on a journey through a re-imagined Scotland where the women are commemorated in statues and streets and buildings.  An alternative history where streets, buildings, statues and monuments are dedicated to real women, telling their often-unknown stories. In short, a portrait of Scottish history through a female lens rather than the traditional male lens.

Sara Sheridan articulates a message not just about Scottish history, but about all women and our contribution to society. As Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland (and an incredible leader in my view) neatly articulates about this book,

“women deserve to be celebrated and commemorated”.  

This is true in terms of history, work and life. 

Lessons from the women giants

Reflecting on my travels through Scotland and my family’s own journey, and especially that of the women, I can see lessons for me to always embrace and share.

Continue to have an opinion – and voice it! 

Regardless of the repercussions, being strong, courageous and having an opinion is important. Being fearless about this is critical if we want to make a difference. From my own experience, I can confirm that sometimes there will be repercussions to voicing your opinion. But I am also clear that not using my voice today is disrespectful to my ancestors, their sacrifices and their courage. 

Take risks

Although this can be hard and downright terrifying, taking risks is part of really living. With risk comes reward. If my ancestors on each side had not taken the risks that they did, I would not exist today nor have the opportunities that I have been afforded. 

We are not there yet

There is still much to be done. This applies to equality in all its forms. Although I have great hope that my children’s generation will make further progress than my generation and those before, we all have a responsibility to keep moving toward equality for all. Everyone has a story and that deserves to be told – regardless of your wealth, status or gender.

Learning is good for your soul 

So often we get caught up in vocational learning. Learning in all its forms is so important for personal growth. And when the learning is personal, it seems to have a greater impact. Read, travel, listen and watch!

So, what an enormous privilege it is to have such incredible, interesting and fearless forebears.  My travels to the UK provided me with a much-needed sense of perspective about my past and my future. It is up to us to live a life that our ancestors would be proud of, and to provide our future descendants with even more opportunity and good fortune. To the giants that went before me, I will gratefully strive to do my best.

Ps. The image used is from the opening credits of “Outlander” and is a shot of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands near the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie started the Jacobite Rising[9] of 1745. Image credit: Getty Images

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outlander_(TV_series)

[2] https://outlander.fandom.com/wiki/Jamie_Fraser

[3] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Burgess

[4] https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/bute/rothesay/index.html

[5] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mansplain

[6] https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Mary-Queen-of-Scots/

[7] https://www.realmarykingsclose.com/

[8] https://www.sarasheridan.com/where-are-the-women-2019

[9] https://www.visitscotland.com/about/history/jacobites/

The Favourite

The Favourite

Make no mistake, we have a deep and abiding fascination with favouritism. It starts in childhood and only deepens as we move into adulthood.   And although we know it shouldn’t feature in the workplace, we also know that it does.

From a work perspective, what does this mean for us as leaders? How does our favouritism impact our ability to lead effectively? How does favouritism impact our reputation? And what about the favoured one? 

I have worked closely with many CEOs and executives for over 25 years, and I can absolutely attest that favouritism is alive and well. Sometimes it is subtle, almost trivial in its application at work. Other times I have seen galling favouritism, with zero concern for the inevitable repercussions.

Favouritism at work (or elsewhere) causes jealousy, creates rumour and innuendo, and can erode a leader’s effectiveness and their ability to engender trust. The more senior the leader, the more powerful an impact this has on culture.

What is favouritism?

Favouritism is defined as “the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.”[1] 

Whilst it is human nature to have favourites, as leaders, it is critical that we actively try our best to reject any actions or behaviours that are seen as favouritism. The more senior you become, the more important it is that you are conscious of this. Ultimately, it is the leaders who are creating the organisational culture. So, if favouritism is a consistent feature of their leadership style, this will flow down through the business, diminishing trust in the process.

A culture of favouritism

A culture of favouritism can also be reframed as discrimination. “Favouritism is non-merit-based and can be considered illegal if it discriminates against a person or group or poses a legal risk for the organisation.”[2]

Once you start to think of favouritism as discrimination, then it suddenly seems to take on a more serious note. It becomes something that has legal implications, as well as an impact on productivity and morale.

Both favouritism and discrimination don’t play fair and ultimately erode trust in the culture. And when it comes to trust, it always impacts the bottom line – teams that show high levels of trust perform better.[3]    

How can you spot favouritism?

Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. I have often found that it is usually a topic of conversation around the water cooler. And particularly if the favourite is less than worthy of their special status.

However, if you are not connected into the grapevine, there are still many ways to identify a culture where favouritism is thriving.[4]:

  • There is a “favourite” in mind for promotion well before the formal review process begins 
  • The leader spends more time talking with certain employees
  • The leader has an open-door policy for certain employees more than others
  • The leader uses their authority to cover up certain employees’ mistakes
  • The leader allocates certain employees lighter or more interesting work
  • The leader allocates certain employees more resources (budget, staff, technology)
  • The leader praises certain employees more for their accomplishments – others do not get praised for similar or more impressive accomplishments
  • The leader favours certain employees when making decisions or recommendations regarding promotions or pay
  • The leader assigns desired tasks to certain employees
  • The leader assists certain employees with career development and not others
  • The leader gives certain employees performance evaluations that they do not deserve
  • The leader gives certain employees more frequent and timelier feedback
  • The leader lets certain employees get away with actions that other employees would be reprimanded for
  • The leader considers the suggestions of only certain employees
  • The leader reviews certain employees’ work more quickly than others’ work with similar priority levels
  • The leader looks the other way when certain employees waste time
  • The leader is more flexible in terms of absences (ex. tardiness, vacations, sickness) for certain employees and not others
  • The leader sides with certain employees when conflicts at work arise
  • The leader passes along important work-related information only to certain employees

Hopefully you noticed a common theme here. Every sign of favouritism starts with “the leader”. That is because in these examples, the leader is responsible for creating a culture where favouritism is thriving. So, good leadership means managing behaviours that might lead to favouritism.

To make this more real, let me provide an example of blatant favouritism that I witnessed first-hand. A male CEO that oversaw a group of companies started to have coffee catch ups on a regular basis with one of the female managers (not a direct report). Apparently, they formed a “book club” of sorts.  However, there were only two members in said book club. More importantly, the female manager’s counterpart (who happened to be male) was never invited to the book club nor invited to have regular coffee dates with the CEO, despite having a significantly larger remit.  This book club of two met on a regular basis and was well observed by many.

Of course, the optics of these catch ups proved to be less than ideal for both the CEO and the female manager, as they became the subject of salacious gossip. That, in itself, should have been enough warning. However, it was the level of opportunity, remuneration, discretionary bonuses, access to the board and praise that the CEO bestowed on the female manager that provided a bounty of favouritism indicators. The male counterpart was never provided the same opportunities, despite the significantly larger size of his responsibilities. That, my friends, is favouritism.

In this example, the impact on the culture was pervasive, as it was the CEO exhibiting such poor judgment.  You cannot get more senior than the CEO – so if they exhibit favouritism, then all bets are off!  Dr Ruchi Sinha, a senior lecturer in the school of management at the University of South Australia, says one of the critical effects of favouritism in the workplace is that it can break down trust because it is in direct conflict with values that workplaces espouse, such as equity or inclusion.

“Favouritism at work can destroy trust in organisations and leaders, and become a source of distress for employees, leading to low motivation and productivity loss,” she says. “Fundamentally, favouritism shows a disregard for competence and attributes such as dependability and reliability – all of which are signals of trust – while favouring personal friendships and instrumental reciprocity.”[5]

What happens when the favourite falls?

Having highlighted the importance of the leader and their behaviours, what about the favourite? Although some may argue a case for the tall poppy syndrome[6] here, let’s assume that the favourite is not necessarily a complete super star. They have simply been provided with more opportunity, more visibility, more rewards and more support than others, due to their relationship with the leader.

In some cases, I have seen the favourite use their power for good and facilitate more visibility for others. These are the exception, unfortunately. More often, I have seen the favourite jealously guard their status and happily reap the rewards that accompany it.

As you can imagine, when such a favourite falls, there is typically little sympathy or compassion. If I may, let me use a current example that is playing out on the global stage, to illustrate this. During Prince Andrew’s recent fall from grace, countless articles cited him as the “Queen’s favourite son”. It made his predicament and reckless use of his royal power and prestige all the more salacious. It was all far more interesting to know that the favourite one had been caught behaving (very) badly. Somehow, it made his banishment from Royal Life more satisfying. In some macabre way, his favourite status made his downfall more appealing.

There are many others that have enjoyed favourite status and then suffered greatly during their downfall. I think the key here is how you handle favourite status, if this is bestowed on you. Maintaining humility and helping others is important. “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”[7].

Ways to weed out favouritism

In my opinion, you need to actively critique your own leadership and seek out feedback.  You may not like what you hear but try to be open to how you can improve. If someone is courageous enough to provide you with feedback, listen!

A few ways to start include:

  1. Just because you may not gel with an individual, doesn’t mean that they are not competent. Be prepared to take risks and give opportunities to those that don’t immediately spring to mind. Critically looking at how you manage your team is important, to ensure that you give equal airtime and opportunity.
  2. Look at organisational network analysis – map out close ties between members and leaders and see who is being excluded and where the relationships exist, well beyond the organisation chart.
  3. Look at how you are allocating resources and time – are you always spending time with the same members of your team? What about those that have different views to you or different interests? Do you really encourage diversity of thought?
  4. Participate in unconscious bias training on a regular basis – this is not a one-off type of training. We all have deeply ingrained biases, and it is important to keep learning about those.
  5. Ask all of your team for input – not just those that you get along with, have drinks or coffee with, or play golf with!
  6. Seek the independent support of an executive coach. A coach can provide you with advice and guidance that is not impacted by politics or reporting lines.

In summary, favouritism can derail your best intentions as a leader. Left unchecked, it can breed resentment, create conflict and undermine the fundamentals of trust. It may not be the result of malicious intent, but the implications are significant and should not be underestimated.  

Ps. The image used is from the film “The Favourite”, which is a brilliant period black comedy about two women vying to be the favourite of Queen Anne. It is a tale of ambition, manipulation, personal agenda, exploitation, rise in power and an illustration of what happens when the favourite falls. I highly recommend! Image credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Like what you have read? Feel free to share!

Follow me on Instagram: kyliesprott_professional and Twitter: @kyliesprott

[1] Oxford dictionary definition of “favouritism”

[2] Dr Carys Chan, lecturer in organisational psychology at Griffith University. 

[3] https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/13527590310493846/full/html

[4] https://www.niagarainstitute.com/blog/signs-of-favoritism-at-work

[5] The ripple effects of favouritism in the workplace – HRM online

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

[7] Wilson Mizner, Playwright, Entrepreneur

Lessons from Elizabeth

Lessons from Elizabeth

I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a bit of a history nerd. And one of my all-time favourites is Queen Elizabeth I, who not only survived but went onto thrive as one of the greatest leaders of all time. 

One of the remarkable things about Queen Elizabeth I are the many lessons she can teach us about leadership in the business sense. These lessons apply just as much today at work as they did back in the 1500s. 

A former colleague in the US, without knowing my admiration of Elizabeth, once kindly gifted me a book “Elizabeth I CEO” by Alan Axelrod[1]. This book is filled to the brim with stories of her leadership style, and it explores how we can take strategic lessons from her reign and apply these at work today. I have read it many times since gratefully receiving it.

There are countless sources of information available about Queen Elizabeth, as she continues to provide inspiration even today in the 21st century. After much consideration and ongoing research into her reign, I have compiled my top ten lessons for us to heed as leaders at work.   

But first, here is a mega quick overview of her life before she became Queen, for those who don’t share my passion for history.

A quick history lesson to get you up to speed

Elizabeth was the only living child born to King Henry VIII and his second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. King Henry is famous for having 6 wives, two of whom he had beheaded. One of those was Anne Boleyn for alleged crimes of treason and incest, but really it boiled down to her failure to provide a son for the King. Historically, the union between Henry and Anne was incredibly impactful, as it marked the start of the English reformation.[2]

Elizabeth grew up with two half siblings – Princess Mary[3] (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife) and Prince Edward[4] (son of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife). Following King Henry’s death, Edward became king at the tender age of 9. He died at the age of 15 and for an exceedingly brief time (9 days to be exact), Lady Jane Grey[5] ascended the throne. She was sadly a victim of politics and was executed on the order of Princess Mary, so that she could become the monarch. 

Let’s face it, that is pretty full on for even the most robust of children! However, throughout all of this turmoil, Princess Elizabeth survived. She was held prisoner for much of her childhood, held to account for the “crimes” of her mother and often referred to as a bastard child. Not an easy start.

Upon Queen Mary’s death, Princess Elizabeth became queen. What she inherited was not what she left behind. When she was crowned in 1558, England was riddled with debt and crippled by politics and opposing religious views. It was a victim of itself and was considered to be at the bottom rung of European nations at that point.  It was known as “this unhappy realm”.  From a business perspective, it was a failing business in danger of a hostile takeover.

Under Elizabeth’s 45-year reign, England became one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe and was on its way to becoming one of the greatest empires the world would ever know.[6] So, how did she do it? What are some of the lessons we can learn from her approach to leadership?

1.   Create a compelling vision

Elizabeth knew how to create a vision, communicate that effectively and then realise it. When she took the crown, most of her subjects were wary of another woman ruler, after bloody Mary’s disastrous reign. 

Elizabeth deftly used statement and symbolic gestures to her people to make it very clear that she had a vision – she would return England to the path of both Protestant reformation, but also to greatness amongst its European peers.

She didn’t make any rash decisions. She worked with decisive patience and implemented change, whilst retaining enough of the past to ensure that her people felt comfortable.

2.   Build an excellent team

Although Elizabeth was intelligent and well educated, she understood the power of perspectives and data. She carefully built a team around her to provide her with wise counsel. She kept the best people from the reigns of her predecessors (including some Catholics), but then added the best and brightest political and economic minds in England. This nicely engaged both Catholics and Protestants and helped to create inclusivity.

As a result, she was very well informed about the political, religious and economic landscape around her. Most importantly, she actually listened to these experts. There is absolutely no point in hiring experts to your team and then fail to utilise their skills and experience.

3.   Be decisive and accountable

This was one of her greatest qualities in my view. There is nothing more frustrating than working for a leader who cannot make a decision – a lack of decisiveness is crippling. An even worse scenario is when you work for a leader who finally makes a decision and then backflips. Or blames others if it goes badly.

Elizabeth would consider the input from her team and then make decisive commands. She was bold and held herself accountable for those decisions. The buck stopped with her. Everyone knew it and respected her for it.

4.   The power of image

The Protestant reformation was lacking a critical figure that was pivotal in Catholicism – the Blessed Virgin. Elizabeth deliberately chose to fill this void and presented herself as a blend of both Queen and the Blessed Virgin.  Hence, she became known as “The Virgin Queen”.

This powerful image not only filled a void for her people, but also helped her to navigate the pressure to marry and produce an heir. It is quite remarkable that she managed to change her image with her subjects from bastard child to virgin queen.

Elizabeth understood that she was a powerful symbol and that she needed to send an unambiguous message. No leader of a business can afford to ignore their image and how they present themselves. The image of the leader becomes synonymous with the culture of the business. 

5.   Share the danger with your people

On the eve of the anticipated invasion by the troops of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth appeared to speak to her troops, wearing the body armour of a cavalry officer[7]. She did not talk about herself, her courage or her sense of duty. She spoke about her absolute trust in her people. This is significant and creates respect and loyalty.

Too often staff in an organisation watch the blood letting when things go wrong, and yet the leader continues on unscathed. Elizabeth was very clear to let her troops know that would not be the case and that she would share their fate that day. That is powerful stuff.

6.   Communicate beyond words

Elizabeth was a powerful communicator, but not just with her well chosen words. She also understood the impact of her body language. She was very deliberate with how she engaged with her people and was very attentive to anyone that she was speaking to. She always conveyed the impression that anyone that she came into contact with was important to her.

She was well known for making and maintaining eye contact and for her attentive listening style. She would pay attention to all of her people, not just those at court. She made sure to travel and spend time with her subjects regularly, in a time when travel was less than comfortable or easy. She was known to make regular “progresses”[8] for the hearts and allegiances of her subjects at least once a year. No sitting in the corner office for Elizabeth – she was out there meeting her people.

7.   Moderation and a spirit of compromise

More than most leaders at that time in history, Elizabeth was motivated by moderation and compromise.  She managed to skilfully navigate her way through the theological debate that she inherited and spent time building consensus. Consensus building leaders[9] spend energy emphasising the areas of agreement rather than those of disagreement. To do this effectively, the leader needs to show how the areas of agreement vastly outweigh the areas of disagreement. In other words, focus and proportion.

8.   Attack the problem not the person

Elizabeth was excellent at keeping her team focused on the issue at hand, rather than attacking individuals. There was no brow beating, no name calling, no raised voices. Instead, she would give a straightforward summary of the issue at hand, an explanation of the consequences of that issue and a specific and dramatic example. So, no threats but a firm and clear understanding of the consequences of failure.  When Elizabeth would then issue orders, they would be executed effectively by her team.

9.   Exclude no-one

Too many organisations freeze into an inner circle of decision makers who are defensive against the outer circle of the rest of the organisation. At best, this is a waste of resources. At worst, there is conflict between the inner and outer circles, which creates resentment and distrust. 

Elizabeth had an inner circle of advisers, which was very deliberate in size. It was large enough to provide expert opinions on important issues, but small enough for her to manage debate. She had a very clear process around who was promoted into the inner circle, which she communicated effectively. However, she was also careful to not alienate the outer circle, providing they behave as “good and loving subjects”.[10]

Elizabeth also made it her business to know everyone of power, influence or talent in her realm. She did not rely on hearsay but forged her own personal relationships. 

10.  Work on yourself

Elizabeth never stopped learning, even as Queen. She understood that knowledge is power and was focused on being able to speak with anyone on any intellectual topic, particularly political events. As a result, she spent three hours a day reading. 

But her self-care went beyond the thirst for knowledge. Elizabeth was fit and especially loved horse riding, hunting, dancing and long, brisk walks. She was known to sometimes leave tense negotiations to go for a walk to calm her mind. Elizabeth seemed to understand that leadership is not about just the mind – it is also about your physical presence.

It was exceedingly difficult to curate a list of only 10 lessons, as I could easily write another 10 just about her courage, political nous, crisis management and attention to managing the financials. Without doubt, there is a reason that the world continues to have great fascination with her reign – she was an exceptional leader.

Ps. The image used is of Cate Blanchett, an Australian actress, from the 2007 film, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”. This followed the 1998 film “Elizabeth”, which also starred Blanchett.Image credit: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, IMDb 2007

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[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/322055.Elizabeth_I_CEO

[2] https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/anne-boleyn/#gs.5tksgc

[3] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-I

[4] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-VI

[5] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lady-Jane-Grey

[6] Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”.

[7] https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/spanish-armada-history-causes-timeline

[8] https://britishheritage.com/history/queen-elizabeth-i-slept-here

[9] https://www.pon.harvard.edu/tag/consensus-building/

[10] Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”

Words of Wisdom from Top Gun

Words of Wisdom from Top Gun

At first blush it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that Top Gun can provide guidance to those navigating their way through corporate life. However, as anyone who has worked with me will attest, Top Gun provides a true bounty of quotes to help us in our daily dalliance with the “danger zone”.

So, as we eagerly await the release of the long anticipated Top Gun sequel, “Maverick”, I thought it timely to reflect on my favourite Top Gun quotes and the wisdom hidden in those words. Although some haven’t aged well over the last thirty-six years, others seem entirely apt.

Top Gun provides a target rich environment (boom boom), so it was tough to trim down my long list of favourites.  After much deliberation here are my top 5 quotes that seem to be continuously on repeat at work:

1.   Your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash

Without a word of exaggeration, in certain organisations I have used this phrase on almost a daily basis.  It is an excellent reminder to keep your ego in check (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) and to remain humble, curious and respectful. You may not know all of the answers, and that is okay. The best organisations and the best leaders don’t expect you to.

Having enough humility to admit that you are just one part of the team is absolutely critical to success. You cannot possibly be good at everything and ensuring that the team has complementary skills is key.

Ultimately, no one likes working with or for an ego maniac. So, stay humble, keep learning and be respectful of everyone’s contribution. No matter how great you think you are, you can always learn from others.

2.   I feel the need, the need for speed

One of the best lessons I have learnt when delivering projects or complex pieces of work is that if you want to get a quick result, then either the quality will be impacted or the cost. If you feel the need for speed, then be prepared to pay in financial terms or quality terms. 

Put simply – speed, quality, cost. Pick two[1]. To have a fast result that is high quality, it will be expensive. To have a fast result that is inexpensive, the quality will be low. So, if you are after speed, be prepared to pay the price.

No alt text provided for this image

Once you wrap your head around that concept, then you understand the consequences of moving at speed. And no matter how demanding your client (internal or external) is, you simply cannot cheat that triangle. You can only pick two! 

Image Credit: Digital Genius

3.   You can be my wingman any time

Like a lot of the language in Top Gun, the term “wingman” seems outdated in today’s modern world. However, the concept is invaluable. Everyone needs a second, or someone that they can trust at work. To survive and thrive in any workplace, having a person that you can confide in and seek advice from is critical.

I often think of myself as the wingman to those that I coach. You are a person that they can rely upon and provide guidance and feedback from the wing. Knowing that you have someone to help you from the side is invaluable and gives you an edge.

I am eternally grateful to those that have coached me during my career and provided advice and support from the wing. As I have grown in my levels of experience, it has given me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to pay that forward to others.

So, seek out your own wingman at work. But also remember to be that person for others.  

4.   You’ve lost that loving feeling

In the early romance of a new job, it is often hard to see the true culture or downside of an organisation. However, over time that rosiness disappears and the reality of how the organisation operates will become apparent. When there is a gaping chasm between what you thought the organisation was and the stark reality of what it is, you may feel like you have lost that loving feeling.

If you are loyal person like me, this can be particularly hard to stomach.  Ultimately, if the organisation’s true culture (not the neatly espoused values on their website) is not aligned to your own view of the world, then unfortunately it will be hard to recapture that loving feeling.  It is a tough one to confront, especially if you feel like you have made a mistake. 

In today’s global, post pandemic environment, there is less tolerance for cultural misalignment and more career opportunities for highly skilled people. So this is more of a cautionary tale for organisations that are not actively managing their culture and underestimate the importance of strong leadership and values. 

5.   I am going to finish my sentence Lieutenant

Having a voice at work is very important and having the courage to use your voice is even more so. Although mansplaining[2] is still too common an occurrence for my liking, that is not what I am referring to here.   Sadly, that is a whole other article!

I am a strong believer in courageous conversations and for everyone to feel psychologically safe enough to have a voice. When your people stop speaking up out of fear of repercussion, this is a dangerous culture signal.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as a culture of open candour. She explains how and why a culture of psychological safety promotes a willingness and courage to speak up, and how that in turn, is a strategic asset.[3]

Psychological safety means that the team feel safe to speak up, are generally more engaged, innovative and productive. You can achieve that through a variety of approaches, but most agree that these are a good start[4]:

  1. Show your team that you are engaged – be present in meetings, pay attention, listen!
  2. Let your team see that you understand – listen carefully and then recap what you have heard
  3. Avoid blaming to build trust – focus on solutions not people, talk about the problem as a shared problem
  4. Be self-aware and encourage the same from your team
  5. Nip negativity in the bud – negativity is contagious
  6. Include your team in decision making
  7. Be open to feedback
  8. Champion your team, always

I like to think that being able to have your say without fear of repercussion is the ultimate illustration of trust. As Patrick Lencioni explains in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, the absence of trust is the very first dysfunction – and without trust, you have no foundation.[5]   In my experience, without trust, you have nothing.

So, bring on Maverick and hopefully a new wave of quotes to utilise in the workplace. Although I think it speaks volumes that Maverick’s original love interest, played by Kelly McGillis, has been deemed to look too old to star in the sequel, I am still excited to see how the story plays out. Will Maverick still be flying by the seat of his pants, like so many leaders out there? I can’t wait to find out!

Like what you have read? Feel free to share!

Follow me on Instagram: kyliesprott_professional and Twitter: @kyliesprott

[1] The Project Management Triangle, also referred to as Triple Constraint, Iron Triangle and Project Triangle, has been used since the 1950s.

[2] Mansplain: to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic (Webster)

[3] Professor Amy Edmondson, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth”.

[4] https://www.predictiveindex.com/blog/psychological-safety-in-the-workplace

[5] https://www.tablegroup.com/topics-and-resources/teamwork-5-dysfunctions/

What becomes of the broken hearted?

What becomes of the broken hearted?

Right now, the world is grappling with an unprecedented foe. COVID-19 has swept through our lives and changed things so swiftly, that many of us have not had a chance to fully understand the implications. It is hard to see the future, when we are still so immersed in this war with an invisible, yet deadly enemy.

It is inevitable that the impact on the global economy will be brutal. Already the unemployment numbers are rapidly rising, governments are desperately deploying stimulus packages, and companies are bracing to fight for survival.

Lessons from Lockdown

Lessons from Lockdown

Like most, the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has been quite a revelation to me on many fronts. It has been intriguing to watch how the world has responded on a political, business and personal level. In many ways, our varied responses to this crisis are as fascinating as the pandemic.

As James Lane Allen once wrote, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” I have found this to be entirely true as I have observed the world in crisis. We have seen remarkable leadership, kindness, creativity, compassion and inspiration as COVID-19 unfolded across the globe. In contrast, we have also seen some of the worst elements of human nature too – poor leadership, finger pointing, lying, hoarding and thinly veiled racism.  All of this has played out around us, whilst so many lives have been lost. 

The dark art of management

The dark art of management

Few consider the incredibly challenging aspects of management as they step into a promotion. One of these is the responsibility of “downsizing”. No matter how you slice and dice it, downsizing a team is a difficult task.

So, how do you approach this with professionalism and kindness, whilst achieving a well-considered result for the business? Importantly, how do you reach the right outcome without creating a lasting, negative impact on several lives in the process?

Sadly, I have been involved in more downsizing projects than I like to remember. From my perspective, there are definitely ways to minimise the angst – for both those directly impacted and their families, but also the “survivors” who are left in the organisation after the process has been completed.