Thought Leadership: In Search of Your New Big Idea

Putting your name out in front of a big idea for your company is a great feat of courage and originality. Yet, it doesn’t always last forever. When the fire of your big idea has gone out, it’s a signal that the business is entering its second act and needs a new one.

Big ideas shape discourses in companies and in industries, are the source of bold innovations and give purpose to what people do. Many companies were founded on a big idea that fueled their success. For some, those big ideas were original and exciting, and when companies were winning, they felt invincible.

A few companies I know well and whose leaders I have coached were the first to market with a new service and some with a new product that became very successful. The foundational big idea was significant and attracted lots of warranted attention. It became easy to attract and keep talent with the magnetic pull that being first and dominating the market offers. Yet as time passed, with competitors entering the marketplace and the accomplishment of a driving goal, being first was no longer enough. What was fresh and new and purposeful became ordinary. Nothing lasts forever.

A big idea is tied to you and your company’s thought leadership. I first heard the term “thought leadership” in 2009 when it came into usage. Those few people who talked about it then did so in hushed tones. That was because as attractive as it seemed to aspire to it, no one was sure what it really meant or how to make it happen.

When thought leadership became more widely known in marketing and strategy circles, it was unapologetically ridiculed. That’s what led me to run multiple Kitchen Table Conversations with a colleague, inviting leaders to explore thought leadership and its meaning and utility. The consistent view from one group to the next was that it was a bloated concept and that those who dared to claim themselves thought leaders did so undeservedly.

With time, its popularity gained ground globally, and it became mainstream. We can now agree that a true thought leader has earned their authoritative voice and is recognized for their ideas in a way that engages a following.

So Where Do You Start to Create Your First or Next Big Idea?

Think of your own mindset. It’s up to you to have enough belief that you can create your first big idea or something equally as exciting as the original big idea. It’s a mental mindset that is part audacity and part creativity. With the right attitude to start, it’s possible.

Have Patience

It’s called the slow hunch. Steven Johnson’s presentation “Where ideas come from” is still my favorite TED Talk. I’ve watched it more times than any online video of its type. In it, he popularized the notion of the slow hunch, that ideas develop slowly. Any speed less than warp today sounds like it’s not productive enough to be useful. But what we know about breakthrough ideas is that slow hunches are the start of the thinking process. There are many heroic narratives in our culture that suggest that ideas come fully baked as flashes of brilliance. Anyone known for a big idea will tell you they are developed over time if they are being honest.

Look For Relevant Ideas

The best big ideas that get traction are attractive, credible and relevant. When I look at the books I’ve read and listened to in the recent past, they cover ideas on preparing for a changing world of work, ways of promoting greater thought diversity, and machine learning and its impact on politics, to name a few. Each of these is either about new challenges or intractable long-standing problems. Whether you sell services or products, look to shape the future by naming, explaining, pattern-making, recommending and predicting.

It’s Not A Plot; It’s A Garden

It’s best to avoid isolating yourself when you want your thinking to develop, not only when you’re at an impasse. Ideas grow in conversation with others to become more fully formed. When we talk about our ideas, the idea grows, is enriched, pruned and finally buds. Spending time with people in your company may surface a new big idea; learning the dreams your customers have can also help you to imagine what’s next. We are in the connection economy, and your next big idea is more than likely going to come from having conversations with others.

Go Way Outside

If you’re looking for deep expertise to work out the feasibility of your idea, that’s one thing. You can seek out a specialist for that. But if you aim to originate bold new ideas, then you’re better off reaching out to people from different industries and fields. Novel information comes from bridging across groups, not sticking with your circle. “Going outside” enables new information and the combining of ideas from different sources, some of them unorthodox. Opinions are more homogeneous inside groups than outside and across. That’s why being at the intersection of several worlds is a good idea to generate new information. Getting immersed more widely to get a hold of the zeitgeist is very helpful.

Becoming or continuing your distinction as an authority with a compelling, unique perspective advances your industry, begins new conversations and gives people reasons to fall in love with you and your company and what you stand for all over again. Crafting a big idea that is timely is an act of creativity and, most of all, divergence. It’s also about reinvention.

 

This article first appeared on Forbes.com here. Photo credit, Geordanna Cordero-Field.

How to Reach Better Collaborative Solutions in Less Time

Everyone knows cross-group collaboration doesn’t happen nearly enough in most organizations. Though for many companies, it has been the holy grail. It’s been understood as a vital approach to problem-solving as companies grow larger and more become global. Collaborative problem-solving is essential to avoid critical mistakes in decision making and to facilitate greater engagement. Yet there are plenty of reasons why it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

For one thing, group leaders and their teams may not admit to the limits of their knowledge. They imagine that their problem-solving and planning don’t require input from other groups.

For some, it’s arrogance. Others may feel threatened by having to partner with another function.

And for others, it’s a blind spot. Whatever the reason, unlike those who are attuned to reading the wider field to acquire greater understanding, they may be overconfident about what they know and presume they can solve a challenge or complete a task on their own. Unfortunately, their decision making isn’t likely to lead to innovative solutions without input from others who have different knowledge and perspectives and may fail in the execution phase down the road, especially for those the change affects who weren’t included.

Groupthink Challenges

Yet inviting others to collaborate is often the cause of another problem. It’s been said that the first casualty of collaboration is the loss of divergent thinking. It’s ironic but true.

More and different views may not be voiced or heard. When you’ve collaborated with others, you’ve likely experienced many instances where everyone in the group follows the views of the person who spoke first. Or they may follow the longest-serving employee, the most senior or the rock star with a stellar track record for getting it right. Although people across groups may think differently, the group may not be receiving the full advantage of diverse group membership. A group can acquire the bad habit of encouraging different viewpoints and discussion to focus on what everybody knows already, overlooking the critical information that one or more may have.

This is why affinity among group members over time is a double-edged sword. It enables trust, but it also establishes routine, and with that, the comfort that’s been created often leads to the avoidance of risk-taking and the disruption of established group norms.

Intermittent Collaboration Wins

I was happy to see that social science research has discovered what some of us have observed in our work – that intermittent collaboration can be the ideal condition to work through complex problem-solving and produce higher-than-expected quality solutions. It offers the best of both worlds by offering the best solutions while avoiding groupthink.

In the study “How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” researchers compared the solutions of group members working on their own to those who were in constant contact and also those groups that collaborated intermittently. The intermittent, collaborative group whose members also worked on their own generated the best solutions individually and as a group.

Perhaps that surprises you. These groups did as well as the constantly interacting groups to produce high-quality solutions on average without the benefit of more time together. The constant collaborators did not find the very best solutions as often. Just as interesting is the finding that there was greater learning among people of different performance levels when the group interacted intermittently than when they worked constantly because they weren’t as constrained by the group’s influence.

Cross-Group Collaboration

The implications can offer us a positive way forward. Whereas it’s a commonly held view that groups that work together closely are more likely to be high-performing groups, these findings urge us to take another look at our presumption and challenge it.

The findings are also encouraging. Whenever we bring leaders across the organization or a sector who aren’t part of each other’s operational networks and don’t work together, we can have more confidence in the quality of their solutions.

As the creator of a cross-group problem-solving program for leaders that produces greater organizational coherence, I often hear participating leaders remark that the solutions provided are at a surprisingly high level.

It also means that we have discovered a useful strategy that could make a meaningful contribution to solving for collaborative overload. Instead of burdening people and taking up their time by asking them to join your committee, it could be more productive for everyone involved to engage select individuals in intermittent exchanges.

This article was first published on Forbes.com here. Credit for the image goes to Paul Talbot.

How To Become An Energizer In Groups

I’m participating in Seth Godin’s Marketing Seminar with a lot of other individuals. It expands on his book This Is Marketing. I’ve been reading his blog and books about modern marketing for years. Similar to good marketing practices, influence and persuasion for change are crucial to leadership.

The seminar is designed so that the value we get is dependent on the exchanges we have with our peers. For me, it’s also a laboratory to observe what people do to help each other break through impasses and nudge their peers in the cohort to go further in their thinking.

That behaviour is called energizing and the people who do it are “energizers”, a term Rob Cross writes about. Whether they have the title of leader or not, energizers are informal leaders. They earn their following because people enjoy asking for their view, and many of their ideas are adopted and because of how they make people feel. Knowing how to energize others is valuable wherever we work interdependently with others.

An Energizer’s Impact

Energizers are vital because they encourage greatness, are able to clear the way to see what’s possible and spark others into action. When I work with energizers I often put more discretionary effort into my work. I aim higher and do more because I see that someone cares about what I do, whether or not they share my particular interests and change objectives. They view what I’m doing is important, and they offer me their attention and encouragement in return.

It’s exciting to be in a group with energizers because their energy spreads and others adopt the same behaviours. This serves to strengthen group performance. It’s easy to understand why.

The Skills Energizers Do Well

  • They show up as positive people champions. They may express themselves as persistently invested in engaging with another person and their success. They also might energize by inviting others to think more broadly and more boldly.
  • They ask compelling questions. I’ve observed that people can ask any question on their mind, generate impossible ideas they want to discuss or pull the conversation to where they want it to go without regard for someone’s forward movement. That approach can miss the mark.

What energizers do well is ask compelling questions that are rooted in what the other person needs. For example, a good question turns your focus on the person’s situation or challenge fully. It doesn’t offer a judgement about what you consider to be good or not so good. Also, energizers ask questions that are stripped down. Too many times, a question is really two or three questions embedded in one. That isn’t as effective because the other person can become unclear about what you’re asking. You also flatten the power of the question by lengthening it.

  • Their view of the future is rooted in reality. With every interaction, energizers show that they care enough to contribute and be helpful, not serve as a distraction.
  • They regularly make introductions between people. Energizers link people together either because they are working through the same problem, or they know one person who could help the other. They are super connectors.
  • They are magnificently responsive. They don’t typically bottleneck decisions. Their responsiveness is exciting.

Cultivating A Culture That Promotes Energizers

So how do we create a climate where energizers proliferate? As leaders, we have the opportunity to design group gatherings to deliberately promote energizing behaviours as the group norm.

I lead a group series called Give & Get, for leaders across functions. As the name suggests, participants are guided in an activity to problem solve together, build trust and generate better solutions. They behave as energizers because it’s built into the design of the unique group gathering. You don’t need to have a close relationship with someone to energize them. Energizing behaviours themselves facilitate trust.

In the book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker discourages people who lead gatherings of any type from being what she calls ‘chill hosts’. She goes on to describe situations in which hosts abdicate their role with the purpose of creating a power-free dynamic, though that’s not what actually happens. Power remains, and confusion sets in.

Who Gets To Be An Energizer?

You might marvel at where energizers get their energy. To find the source of it, we can learn from an outstanding musical performer Jimi Hendrix. At Woodstock, band drummer Mitch Mitchell, having never performed in front of a large crowd before, looked out and the audience and was overwhelmed by the sea of people in front of them. That’s when Hendrix invited the band to focus on the audience’s energy – to take it, use it and then “send” it back. They performed for a full two hours without stopping and closed the festival. Energizers like Hendrix draw from what is around them and recycle energy to others.

Anyone can be an energizer. You don’t need to be a charismatic “rah-rah” extrovert. There are many ways to capture people’s imaginations, create a positive connection, and get people to feel hopeful, leading them to action.

Energizers help us to see how easy it is to affect others, one person or a group at a time. Any of us can energize; it’s easier than you think. Visionary leadership is having people see what’s possible to move them to take action. So many of us are seeking to be sparked.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Forbes.com here.   Credit for the image goes to Park Troopers.

How Mentors Can Turn Around A Failing Mentoring Program

Having mentored many people over the years and advised plenty of programs, I’ve seen their uneven results. Few people today are surprised that mentoring is offered as a structured program rather than just organically and casually. That’s because there are so many more mentoring programs now than before. Women in the technology sector, startup founders and those in financial services are among the professionals who are benefiting from programs that have become almost ubiquitous. Many more women and men could benefit from having a mentor available to them, yet let’s not confuse greater numbers of programs with greater quality.

Not All Programs Are Equal

A mentor is someone who takes a personal and professional interest in someone with less experience and is committed to their growth. They offer them encouragement, challenge them to go further and give them tools and advice, some of which may stick for a lifetime. People often ask me where they can find a mentor to support their career and develop their leadership. Workplaces have them, some were started by professional associations, and others are offered by schools. Not surprisingly, there is a great variation in how they’re designed and managed. Some are well considered so that participants are carefully matched and fully supported. Others are too laissez-faire about how matches are made, and inexperienced mentors are left on their own to figure it all out. And there are programs that are far too prescriptive to allow for a variety of approaches about how to mentor, the frequency of meeting and even the domain of what to talk about.

Whatever the case, many programs don’t get renewed after their inaugural year because too many pairs stopped meeting beyond their first or second time. Or, less obviously, some programs continue to chug along year after year without much oversight or evaluation. The sponsoring business or organization is just pleased to report that they have a mentoring program.

Here’s my advice on how mentors can turn around a failing mentoring program.

Give Them Appropriate Resources

Among the other reasons why mentoring programs fail are that too often they’re resource-poor, with coordinators taking on the management of such programs in addition to all their other tasks, or they’re without the right number of administrators to manage the number of mentorships. It may be easy to pay lip service to leadership’s good idea to have a mentoring program to increase engagement, accelerate the talent pipeline or enable professional success, but it can often fall short of realizing real impact and leave people with the view that mentoring isn’t meaningful.

Of course, success isn’t all about the program specifications. Mentors themselves can benefit from learning how to elevate their game and be at their best.

Clarify What’s In It For You As A Mentor

Surprisingly for some, good mentoring doesn’t usually start with the mechanics of how it’s done. That typically comes later. A good mentoring relationship usually begins with a mentor who is clear about their reasons for offering their time. If you’ve participated in a program yourself, you know that the focus is often on the mentees, who are asked why they would like to be mentored and maybe encouraged to set goals. But what about mentors? If participating in a mentoring program is strictly charitable work, a mentor is likely to drop their commitment as soon as they seek to recover time in their busy schedule. What seemed like a good idea at the start might not in time with competing priorities and without an understanding of what motivated them to participate in the first place. That’s just disappointment for everyone waiting to happen. And it happens a lot.

Mentees deserve better and many mentors could be far clearer about their interests. Not only will it increase the probability that they’ll keep their commitment, but it also will likely translate to their greater satisfaction.

Mentors are usually motivated to help others, but they sometimes focus on the needs of the mentees to the exclusion of recognizing needs of their own. When people are encouraged to think about what drives them to be a mentor, too many mentors don’t know. Look at it this way: Wanting to be helpful might be the foundational reason for your involvement, but there are many other reasons to want to contribute in this way. Here are a few common ones. See whether any resonate with you.

• Wanting to learn about another generation — their drivers and choices and what they think about the work they do

• Seeking exposure to new ideas

• Believing that influencing the new up-and-coming leaders is vital

• Believing that mentoring a younger person is invigorating and that it can renew a sense of optimism and enhance work life

• Having curiosity about a different part of the company that’s innovating at a rapid rate

• Wanting to expand the ties between your own function and another area of the business

• Wanting to enhance your skills as a people developer

• Wanting to learn the barriers that members of underrepresented groups face and champion them

The more that mentors know about their genuine purpose for getting involved, the less likely they are to communicate mixed signals to their mentee about their availability, which is a constant source of misunderstanding across programs of many types. Mentors may also find sustaining their involvement right through to the end without distraction far easier, no matter what shows up to compete for their attention.

Naturally, good mentoring means putting your focus on the person you’re supporting. But first, get straight about your motivations and what you want out of it.

 

A revised version of this article appeared on Forbes.com on Feb 8 2019. Thank you to Christopher William  Adach for the photo.

What Stops Women From Mentoring

I enjoy speaking on panels about women leaders. There’s often a feeling of colleagueship and sisterhood among the panelists and a sense that it’s not just us, that we’re surrounded by our tribe.

During a panel I was moderating about mentoring as a means to promote women in industries and occupations where women are under-represented, a young woman asked a great question, “Are our expectations of senior women too high?” The young lawyer in the early stages of her career went on to tell us about a time where she sought out guidance from a senior woman lawyer at her boutique firm and was rebuffed. It caught her off guard. It just wasn’t at all what she expected would happen, nor what she thought should happen, and there were plenty of women there who seemed to feel the same way.

Is it fair to expect that senior women take an active interest in other women’s careers? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since I heard it being asked.

I’ve been a mentor to plenty of women and men and I’ve known lots of senior women who find joy in being allies, advisors, mentors and sponsors. They seek it out and find it rewarding. Yet there are women who don’t initiate or accept the responsibility to actively participate in other women’s career development. That shouldn’t be surprising. Just as not all women think alike, they don’t all act alike either. Just look at election results, for example. We know that women don’t vote as a block and they don’t act the same at work.

There are many reasons why some women don’t offer the developmental support that mentoring provides. They may be closed to it because they aren’t natural givers or don’t have relational savvy. They may not have the bandwidth to take it on, and not least of all, their understanding of how they see their role as women who’ve achieved a great deal in their career may not include opening the door wider for others to follow. And there’s much more to it still.

Some younger who look to senior women for the connection and learning and career benefits that a high-quality give and receive relationship offers expect to get support because they share the same gender. But that isn’t how all women see it. Some may have minimized the significance of being a woman in a company or industry where they have until recently been ‘an only’. Many feel scrutinized for being female and may take pride in their hard work “without anyone’s help”. If they are the only woman, racialized person, or individual with a disability, they may want to downplay their ‘only’ status. They’ve have gone out of their way not to view themselves through a gender lens. Instead, they worked hard to fit in, not stand out. I know of many cases where women insist on exceptional performance from everyone and drive very hard to get it. Women can sometimes hold both genders to a tougher line because they’ve had to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard to garner credibility and respect from others.

This may not make sense to you if you haven’t faced or witnessed discrimination early in your own career. But for those who have, they can find themselves distancing themselves from other women doing what they can to prove they made it in the workplace because of their performance, not because of any special treatment. Having their gender define a good deal of their identity is something they go to great lengths to avoid, not embrace. This is just one of the several ways gender bias can fuel conflict between generations of women.

Women are more likely to put their job before their career. This explains why some senior women show a disinterest in helping high-performing women who show promise. Senior women may neglect the importance of growing their networks and of building currencies of exchange with others who are junior.

Think too about the impact of those senior women who lacked having a mentor themselves. Or possibly for those who did have mentors or sponsors, it’s likely it was an older male supporter because there weren’t many women at the top. They didn’t have the experience of receiving a woman’s mentoring on the unique challenges faced by their common gender.

We need to also look at the greater context of work today to understand why some women don’t want to mentor.

Women persistently find themselves on an uneven playing field. There are so few women in the C-Suite and on boards, that scarcity can often place a chill on woman-to-woman dynamics. Without the reliability of equal pay for equal work, and far fewer opportunities to reach senior leadership levels, the workplace dynamic can set women up to compete with one another.

At the same time that women are frustrated that the salary gap hasn’t closed and we’re living with many examples of poor workplace practices related to sexual harassment, things are changing for the better too. We can’t overlook that there have always been women who support one another. Today, there are far more conversations about how to close the gaps of inequity at work sparked by the #Metoo movement. There are many more diversity and inclusion indexes and many more mentoring programs in the workplace. Women in male-led industries are organizing events where women are given a platform to speak on issues that affect women at work.

Women supporting other women is powerful. There are legacy reasons why it doesn’t happen everywhere and consistently across industries. Nevertheless, when women raise each other up there’s reason to be hopeful. Long may this continue.

A revised version of this article appeared on Forbes.com. Thank you to @mrsunflower94 for the photo portrait.

How To Successfully Argue For A Co-CEO Role

Maybe you’ve heard of co-CEOing, two people sharing the same role at the top of an organization. Sure, some founding entrepreneurs are choosing to run their company as co-CEOs but so are others. It’s a small trend that some people are hoping will catch on. If you are searching for a stable governance model and persuasive arguments to a board of directors, there are good reasons to consider this approach.

I spoke with 2 co-CEOs about how they lead an organization together. Jocelyn Mackie and Dr. Karlee Silver are former executive clients of mine. They worked as colleagues for the past 6 years, much of time reporting directly to the CEO. I was introduced to them worked after I coached the CEO and founder who gave them the opportunity to grow and develop with a coach’s help. They now co-lead Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), an ambitious global innovation platform that has been securing low cost and high impact innovations.

If you want to share the CEO role for your organization, their experience can offer up a few persuasive arguments:

1. Good decisions come from divergent thinking. I’ve seen how more deliberate thinking happens when two equal voices work together to create better decisions. Bringing two heads together is even more vital now with the increased pressure to have a broader outlook and creative approach to solve problems.

2. Responsibilities are clearly defined. Jocelyn leads the operations, finance, communications and legal teams and Karlee leads the investment, programs, knowledge management and the innovation marketplace teams. Each works to her areas of experience and strength. There’s joint decision-making on strategic items of top importance to the organization which include strategy, board and primary funder relationships, and shaping organizational culture.

3. Shared and equal accountability. I believe co-CEO model could work without both individuals sharing accountability for the organization’s successes and failures.

4. Greater reach. You can be at 2 places at once with competing priorities because there are 2 of you.

5. A track record of collaborative decision making. Working together for years has groomed Jocelyn and Karlee to be receptive to one another’s ideas and willing to adjust their thinking so that they are reliably able to reach an agreement.

6. Sustainable working lives. In my experience, newly promoted leaders often seek to have work-life balance. Sharing the role means one unplugs over their vacation and family emergencies that come up, while the other takes charge. It’s seamless. The future of work is shifting towards alternative schedules to include life’s priorities, such as a healthy lifestyle and more time for family and friends.

7. It’s less stressful at the top. Having someone to share the burdens of strategy and fiscal responsibility could be less stressful on you.

8. Different backgrounds mean more expertise. Each have different backgrounds: law and business for one and science and programs for the other, which is beneficial for their organization. It’s a great advantage to have two CEOs with different backgrounds, because it’s a challenge for one person to go broad and sufficiently deep in what is demanded from a single CEO in this age of complexity and churn.

Because the co-CEO model hasn’t yet achieved widespread acceptance, people may contest that it can’t possibly work. That’s why it’s worth developing your positioning to address these challenges, too. Here are a number of objections and useful things to consider:

Objection: There will be confusion and chaos if there is no tie-breaker.
Consider: How will you make decisions when each of you has a different view?

Objection: Only someone who will do it all should assume the role.
Consider: Can you demonstrate confidence that you can do the role in its entirety but benefit the organization by having the two of you?

Objection: Collaboration is a nice idea, but only 1 person can fill the vital role of CEO.
Consider: Find other examples of where it’s worked and prepare success stories where collaboration won the day.

Objection: A CEO is always the leader out in front.
Consider: Leadership is multidimensional. Leaders operate not just out in front but in tandem with other leaders where the interplay of leading and following happens organically and authentically.

Objection: It will be twice as expensive to have 2 people in the role.
Consider: What smart economics can you identify to have two people occupy the role? Where are the efficiencies you can propose in the organizational design?

Two Women as Co-CEO’s

Having 2 women in the role is making a difference. Karlee regularly calls out the lack of gender mix on panels on the international stage and both want to work towards greater diversity in Grand Challenges Canada to reflect the people in the countries where they make a difference. They feel pride in innovating a collaborative model that positions the organization well for the future. In Canada, a women-led international development organization is in tune with the country’s feminist international assistance policy (FIAP) based on an understanding that women have unequal access to opportunities. Having two women lead an organization overall is viewed well.

You might want to consider the advantages of sharing the top role with someone else. For CEOs everywhere, the leader role is a lonely one. Two isn’t just far less lonely; it can also provide for more agility to have two senior leaders with distinct backgrounds get the best strategic thinking for your organization.

Thank you to Luke Schobert for the photo.

Addressing the Sponsorship Shortfall

According to a 2010 Harvard Business Review article, more high-potential women reported having mentors than men. Today, women are receiving guidance on how to navigate their careers, are benefitting from having a sounding board, and women in male-dominated industries are getting support from those with more experience in it. That’s all good. At the same time, women are mentored but under sponsored. Let’s have a look at what exactly that means and what we can do about it.

Having someone invested in your career is tremendously impactful, yet women need more than mentoring. They need sponsorship critical to their success. People often confuse the two roles. Sponsors are influential people who are willing to open doors of opportunity so that you can reach the next level of your career. Anyone at any level can benefit from a sponsor. A low number of men and women have sponsors, but because there are fewer women and women of color in the senior ranks to serve as sponsors, these two groups are underserved. This is especially the case in certain industries such as technology and law. There’s no doubt that we need to showcase women and promote them for upcoming opportunities more than we do. But how?

Nothing works to focus the eye like key performance indicators.

People can often fall into the trap of selecting people for opportunities who are most like themselves. This perpetuates homogeneity in many companies. When it’s been senior men choosing the talent for a new, high-profile initiative, it can leave women out in the cold. We need to promote and support women talent more than we do. Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Here’s an example of what one woman who I know did. A large urban land development organization became serious about recruiting and promoting women and established KPIs to measure their success. Although they were eager to get going, the men on the senior team admitted they didn’t know where the female talent could be found. Coincidentally, for years, the only senior woman on the team was also always the only woman speaker at large industry events. As the lone woman presenter, she made a decision that the way to rectify the situation was to give other talented women exposure.

So she reached out to women professionals and compiled a thoughtful list of 100 local women who could be ready to speak on various topics based on their expertise and interests. This resource made finding women talent for speaking engagements far easier. Suddenly the list was in heavy rotation by the senior leaders in her own organization who felt that this is what they needed to discover who the talented women were.

There is a lot you can do to locate a sponsor to satisfy your career ambitions. Here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Speak up to let your ambitions be known. Regarding their careers, research conducted with AMEX and Catalyst Canada (As yet unreleased) report that women’s career ambitions are just as high as those of their male peers. Yet, navigating your career takes far more than working hard. I used to be surprised when the women I coach haven’t yet clearly communicated their ambitions upward, but it is common. Speaking up will get you closer to getting a sponsor. Several clients of mine who are now partners in law and accounting firms had their career goals delayed for years because they were not proactive in expressing their interest in becoming a partner.

Here’s a tip: Observe someone who asks for what she wants, and learn from her. If it’s still a challenge, talk to your mentor or professional coach about how to find your voice. Do whatever you can to develop the courage to say out loud what you are after.

  1. Map your network. You wouldn’t build or buy a business without checking if you have enough funds and support, right? In other words, you need to know your assets. It’s the same with career development. When you know who your people assets are, (the people you know or those you could have access to so you can leverage them), you are far more likely to be successful.

Here’s how: Start first with identifying your career goals and then draw your map. Now stand back and ask three strategic questions: 1) Is my network effective in getting me where I’m going? 2) Do I have the right people assets to achieve my career goal? 3) Are there any suitable allies who could act as my sponsor? If yes, go ahead and meet with those people.

  1. Can your mentor be your sponsor? Mentors help define career goals and direction. They provide guidance, feedback and support. Traditionally, your mentor is different from your sponsor, who opens doors and suggests you for roles and high-profile assignments. Yet, mentors too can be sponsors. Clearly, they have to know you and your work.

Here’s a tip: Give some thought to which of your mentors could also be a strong sponsor. This could be a topic of conversation to raise for discussion the next time you get together to see if this is a role best done by them or someone else.

Let’s all address the sponsorship shortfall.

A senior woman on a panel about success and growth for women leaders in male-dominated industries said it best: “Women are in the limelight, but aren’t always in the spotlight.” In other words, they can be overlooked for opportunities — even if they’re experienced — because their performance is being scrutinized when they are the minority.

One of the ways we can correct this is by addressing the sponsorship shortfall. As a woman seeking to move up a level of leadership, you can avoid the trap of being overlooked by leveraging your relationships. A sponsor will champion you so that you are rightfully in the spotlight to be seen by others who also can elevate your career.

Photo credit: Tim Gouw. Thank you.   A version of this article was published by Forbes here.

How Leaders Can Accelerate Innovation Through Networks Outside Their Industry

To come up with new ideas and ways of doing things, it isn’t often conversations with our own close workplace colleagues that push our thinking the furthest. Those we already share a lot with can tell us what we want to hear. That’s why, when we want to promote greater creativity and innovation, it’s more likely we will gain divergent thinking when we stretch outside our usual groups to our larger networks and the people we see irregularly.

For years I’ve invited the leaders that I coach to immunize themselves to disruption by making connections outside their natural business, field and professional boundaries. Many resisted. It isn’t that they didn’t think it was a good idea, but as the rate of change accelerated, reaching out fell to the bottom of their list. They didn’t consider it a priority. Since then, more of the executives I coach have come to recognize the benefits of spending time away from the pressures of operational tasks to meet with people outside their day-to-day work to get an infusion of fresh ideas. They seek out people outside the networks they meet with regularly to get work done in favour of building a strategic network with people they don’t often see. Meeting with contacts they see irregularly offers benefits such as hearing how others are meeting their business challenges, gaining insights about the marketplace and having useful exchanges that help them to recognize trends.

Surprising for some, what is going on outside your industry can spark fresh ideas for your own. “Going outside” also reduces groupthink and can lead to greater diversity of thought, a far better situation than the impulse for conformity that can push away new ideas.

Many industries are facing disruption and/or want to disrupt the marketplace, and so, they are keen to engage in exchanges that explore the peripheral edges of things not directly in their line of sight. Motivated to think more laterally and broadly about problems and solutions, they aspire to become more innovative and competitive. For some, thinking differently is an urgent need.

A place to look for creativity is to identify the sources of your creative interactions.

Some people have the right temperament and personality to help us get unstuck and go further to think differently. Seek out those who are up to something you find interesting at their company, have a strong track record for idea generation or who you expect could be an honest and stimulating sounding board for you. If you are underutilizing these rich connections, make time to meet with them. If you aren’t yet satisfied with the quality of sources for new ideas, introduce yourself to new people.

How to get the most from people you barely know.

I was asked for advice about how to get the most out of these meetings with a person you barely know. The right approach is essential so that the time you spend is worthwhile. It’s about training yourself to listen in a certain way. We don’t always like feedback that doesn’t agree with our views. What’s more, when we share what we’re working on with others we don’t already work closely with, we often drop them from our social network and move on to form new connections with those we hope are more “agreeable.” This cheeky behaviour is suitably called “shopping for confirmation,” and it’s one of the threats to listening for diverse thought. It’s something to be aware of and guard against.

Be receptive to the distinct — and different — approaches of others.

More recently, I was asked by an executive client who returned from her coffee meetings with a few individuals she met at a conference outside her industry what she could do to make her encounters more beneficial. She wasn’t yet successful at retrieving what she set out to achieve from her exchanges. As we talked it through, we saw together that she was inadvertently not giving others’ opinions their due. While she thought she was helping herself by offering more and more context, she was, in fact, shutting down new ideas.

When we layer details of the historical context on top of more details, we are in effect limiting the other person from any hope of helping us. We’re telegraphing that nothing will work or that it’s complicated. Instead, be receptive to their distinct approach and build on what you hear as a spark for a new idea of your own. Resist vocalizing your objections, react less and listen more.

Bringing a mixed group together for a greater diversity of perspectives and expertise is also useful. In Steven Johnson’s terrific and evergreen TED Talks, “Where good ideas come from,” he introduced the concept of the “liquid network,” where different ideas emerge when people of different backgrounds and interests come together casually to bounce off each other, often over coffee or drinks. You’ve likely experienced the stitching together of ideas to create something new in this type of environment. Nevertheless, we all have participated in well-intentioned groups that fell short of stimulating exchanges leading somewhere.

Cultivating the right climate with a good flow of information and productive interactions is more likely to happen with an expert facilitator/leader there to provide guidance. A talented convenor can create a climate where members of a mixed group feel that all their ideas are encouraged so that people offer their best. That’s what we do in Give & Get, a facilitated problem-solving group activity where the special sauce is an authentically diverse group of participants.

Making a practice of bringing people together from various functions or across geographies or industries or program cohorts is just the first step. Paying careful attention to how you model and enable the behaviours you want to promote, such as focused listening, generosity and reciprocity, are the next ones.

version of this post first appeared on Forbes.com Photo credit: Thank you to Castaneda

The Informal Influencers That Are Key To Making Change

Are you successful at persuading resisters to change?

If you are a leader with a vision, you aspire to make change happen. Yet leaders often misdirect their efforts communicating the change they envision because they don’t pay enough regard to resisters and the influencers who may be able to enrol them.

Years of mapping interactions among people in organizations tell us that people in informal networks have a bigger impact enabling or blocking change than those with formal authority.

So if that’s the case, how do we identify these influencers, if not by title? Here is a brief list of four types of influencers in your network who you need to know about.

The Experts: Among the most influential are these go-to people who are sought out by many for their expertise, information and advice.

The Energizers: They leave people feeling invigorated after interacting with them by making things happen and fostering an environment of possibility.

The Bridgers or Brokers: They span the gaps across groups.

The Liaisons: They span boundaries without any allegiances.

I’ve played many of these influencing roles in my career and learned how to deal with resisters by facing them. Take, for example, the time when I was working in a large financial services organization. I was asked to meet with several groups to solicit their recommendations for a list of resources that would be an integral part of a large change initiative. I was astonished by the strong resistance from these groups because I expected that they understood our appreciation for their expertise and input. Instead, I faced discord and misunderstandings that originated from years past. The groups had become isolated from one another with little or no contact, and they appeared to be resisting the planned change.

Then, something unexpected happened. I dropped my hard focus on the task and spent time with each of them. Gradually, I developed a connection between them. What I did worked. As an intermediary among the groups (bridging), I lessened the resistance and successfully influenced by inviting them to look at and begin shaping the future (energizing).

Researchers Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro tracked years of change initiatives in Britain’s large National Health Service to find out where change agents should focus their energy in their study, “The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents.” They concluded that developing or deepening relationships with endorsers of the change isn’t necessary. These people are already committed based on the merit of the argument for change, so it doesn’t make a difference if leaders have a lot of interactions with them.

Nevertheless, as an executive coach, I frequently see many changemakers meeting with supporters far more than they need to, burning through the scarce resources of time and energy without a lot of return.

Fence-sitters are different. Innumerable political campaigns have taught us the importance of spending time building relationships with these individuals in our networks because they can tip the balance in favour of the change and in so doing, determine the outcome.

So what can you do with resisters? You could leave them alone, and some do, although it may not be wise because they can actively undermine your efforts.

Anyway, leaders have a responsibility to bring as many people along as possible. According to the above study, staying close to resisters could change their view so that they become endorsers when they understand the change as non-threatening. The probability is low if the change is seen as a threat. This means that gaining insight about the reasons for their resistance is key to taking the right action. That’s why it’s a very good idea right at the start to seek out their views so you can address their objections and be sure to frame the purpose of the change and its execution with them in mind.

Boosting the social interactions of change agents with influencers works with some groups, but not in all cases. Where it won’t make much difference is with the resisters who feel threatened. Focus instead on the fence-sitters, identify the boundary spanners and connect with experts and energizers proactively to seek their input and inform them about the change, persuading them of its urgency.

Formal and informal authority coexist at work, but when it comes to making a change, informal influence can matter more than rank.

A version of this post first appeared on Forbes.com.

Photo credit: Thank you to Pavan Trikutam

Five Useful Ways Leaders Use Stories

Few would disagree that, for leaders, telling stories is useful — or even necessary. We know that stories appeal to people’s emotions — they can spread easily and change people’s minds. That’s why it’s surprising that leaders use stories far less frequently than they could. Many leaders I talk with feel uncertain about the right time to tell a story in order to advance what they want to accomplish. That is one of the reaons why it comes up as often as it does with the executives and high potential leaders who I coach. With that in mind, here are the five top uses for storytelling along with examples. See if it opens up more ideas for where you can use stories.

  1. To Make Change Happen

A technology leader I coached had reason to think that his division’s initiative was losing stakeholder support. Nevertheless, his team was singularly focused on meeting the delivery date by hook or by crook. So, he planned a half-day off-site session to communicate the urgent message to help his team regroup. They had been running hard, and he worried that they would be distracted by the belief that being productive meant being back at work. He knew, too, that whatever he did at the start of the day would need to get their attention. What he did was interesting: He told a vivid story about a time in the company when a high-profile initiative was completed on schedule — but with costly mistakes and the loss of people’s credibility. Telling the story of this situation landed the way he hoped. With a new mindset, the team began to size up stakeholder support and created a plan about how to win it back.

  1. To Build Trust And Loyalty

Personal stories go a long way toward building rapport, because sharing yourself is a means for others to find what they have in common with you. But not everybody has learned to bring their whole self to work. For example, a CFO was asked to develop her executive presence. She was strong on communicating financials but hadn’t yet learned to inspire anyone with her vision of where sales could go. Feedback from her team consistently showed that they wanted her to be “less remote.” I helped her to appreciate that people needed to be inspired to take on bigger sales goals, and they needed to get to know her better. We talked through her life’s accomplishments, and she chose to tell her story of persevering at school while her dad was ill. Sharing this story not only modelled persistence in the face of difficulty, but it demonstrated her ability to be vulnerable over her need to look good.

  1. For Thought Leadership

A Director of Market Intelligence was asked to speak on a panel about people development. She was unsure of how to maximize the opportunity without just offering tips. We had already identified the value of gaining greater visibility for her thought leadership as a goal that would accelerate her career. Once she talked through her views of what she looked for when hiring talent and what she did to boost her team members’ careers, we found she could easily flesh out her examples into stories. The thought leadership came easily by locating the philosophies that guide her decisions about people development.

  1. To Influence Decision Making

Our stories can move people, particularly to influence them in their decision making. When a bank wanted to grow talent across the enterprise, it began a pilot mentoring program. It envisioned senior executives mentoring more junior talent from a function outside of their own. But how could they get the executives to agree to mentor in spite of their busy schedules? Their strategy was to meet one-on-one and invite each executive to share a story recounting their own early experience of being mentored. Remembering these stories generated desire to give to others what they had received. It triggered generativity, and the numbers of participating executives exceeded expectations.

  1. To Unify Across Differences

The Canadian national team of a multinational hospitality company had a new senior leadership team, and employees began to feel they were on shaky ground. Legacy employees feared their hard work would be overlooked, and newer employees worried they weren’t getting the respect they deserved from their colleagues. The company’s leadership wanted to bridge the divide, and I was invited to work with them to make it happen. On the day, everyone participated in mapping a timeline of the company’s presence in Canada through their stories. Newer employees found empathy and compassion listening to war stories about how others managed without must-have resources. The legacy employees listened to stories of why newer hires chose to work at the company. Each group was surprised by what they heard, and it broadened everyone’s perspective.

Leaders can often use little nudges. Stories are undoubtedly ubiquitous, and that’s part of the challenge. Sometimes we need to remind leaders that stories can be a tool used to accomplish many different goals.

A version of this post first appeared on Forbes.com.

Photo credit: Joel Filipe