You say you want open debate and disagreement

Creating a climate where people speak out even when there is agreement is something many leaders say they want. A measure of group and team effectiveness is how it approaches diverse points of view. I find it surprising that I haven’t yet seen a team assessment or a leadership competency model that includes the courage to disagree in the face of agreement as a measure of team productivity. It’s sorely missing. The closest we come to it in organizations is the measure of valuing diverse views, but that isn’t quite the same thing. And it isn’t about generating buy-in either: that is easily achieved by complying. So how do you support an environment that is open to dissent? Consider telling a story.

Just today I coached an executive who was looking to create a vulnerable climate in a group so that no one holds back their ideas or disagreements. My client said he knew plenty of classic b-school stories but he acknowledged that these stories were well known and that re-telling them wouldn’t likely move the dial. Greater rapport building was among his chief development goals so we dove in to search and shape a story of his own that would produce the results he wanted for his team, the business and ultimately, the culture. A story in the recent past where he contradicted agreement in the room provided an example of the positive result that was the consequence of his contribution.

Reversing the train by speaking up

One of my current favourite stories of disagreement comes from the political world during a recent US primary election campaign that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waged in the district that covers the Bronx and parts of Queens NY. You don’t have to follow politics or live in the US to enjoy the story. There was a lot at stake. With the present decline of democracy in the US, the strong distrust in government institutions, persistent polarization and many disenfranchised people who don’t vote or vote contrary to their interests, another victory for her long-seated Congressional opponent would have meant no change and would have generated greater cynicism about politics. This candidate’s platform was different and what she needed were ways to transmit her non-traditional message. Alexandria faced a formidable opponent in her own party, is only 28, unknown, and this was her first political campaign.

When the design studio began the work on creating her visual identity (campaign signs, logo, etc.) they went back in time to research civil rights movements to learn about how others successfully communicated a candidate promoting great change. Just a few days before their finished design was going to press, someone spoke out that what they had created had to be scrapped. It just didn’t resonate in a powerful way. So they started over and their brand new design went to press. The result, like Obama’s hope poster in 2008 by the artist Shepard Fairey, did the job and helped Alexandria win the primary by bringing out the vote even from those who had traditionally stopped voting. Speaking up to nix the design and recommend starting again seemed crazy so close to the print date. But that’s what was needed and that’s what worked.

One way leaders can support the groups and teams we work with to contribute is by coaching people on the skills of dissent. There are people around us who may want to disagree, but who don’t know how and fear embarrassment, uncertain how their view will be received. At the other end of the spectrum, I once asked someone I worked with how she tempers her persistent tendency to question with a concern about being perceived as too negative and it turned out that she wasn’t aware that it was a risk and hadn’t noticed the impact on others.

Here’s what to keep in mind

This list of tips is as useful for the hesitant and cautious as it is for the outspoken:

  • Get out of your way. It’s not about you. Keep your higher objective in mind and let that fuel your courage to disagree and guide you in thetiming of when to do it.
  • Ask a question rather than be oppositional. Become skilled at influencing and negotiating gently and firmly without raising the heat.
  • State what you agree on. And then present your concerns.
  • Call out the ‘sunken cost’ principle when it’s at play so that the group can review it and change direction.  (sunken cost: continuing down the road even though there is evidence that you need to pivot)
  • Build on what’s being said. Show you are listening and taking other’s views into consideration.
  • An effective way of influencing is to tell compelling stories.

The reason you as a leader invited others to the meeting is because of the contributions they can make and the value they can add. Don’t just tell people you want them to speak up and disagree, coach them on the skills to do it and acknowledge them when they do.

Receiving praise: we often shut it out

Leaders aren’t perfect. One common challenge is accepting acknowledgements and praise. I discovered early on that from time to time I had a cynical view about people’s motives when they offered words of appreciation. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I recognized that I had many experiences where I viewed praise as a disingenuous tactic meant to get something from someone else. Perhaps you can relate to that, or maybe you feel undeserving, or you have a belief that you don’t ‘need’ recognition to do a good job, or that you don’t see the reason to praise others because the duty of performing work should be satisfaction enough.

There hasn’t been a leadership program I’ve been a part of that hasn’t addressed recognition as a leadership imperative when working with people. Yet we haven’t moved our point of view to learn what we can about how we receive appreciation from others, and from what I’ve observed, most of us aren’t great at it. Accepting praise so that it ‘goes to work on us’ in positive ways is important because it gets to the heart of people development and creates a culture of learning. We are modelling an attitude one way or another. Appreciating that giving praise is central to causing leadership in others may be more or less widespread if not underutilized, but accepting it when it’s offered is an undervalued art. Let’s start with the 2 types of recognition.

Appreciation as a connective and transformative tissue

By appreciating with praise, we connect by letting someone know that what they did mattered and how. Leaders do this to inspire and develop others by lifting them as they climb. Acknowledging is different. It can be a tool for transformation because you are recognizing not what they’ve done but who they are and that is what makes it far more powerful. It creates a new future for someone to live into. By way of example, when I was a consultant in a Big 4 firm, long before I was a coach who started a business of my own, I was surprised to be told by my manager that I was a talented presenter and seller with potential. Although I enjoyed doing both, I was unaware that this is how I was seen. That moment was big for me. From then on I saw myself as a presenter and a business developer and it was the start of defining myself in new ways that had a positive impact on the long view of my career.

So if the rewards are clear, what gets in the way of taking recognition in? In my many years of coaching leaders, one of the reasons I’ve found is that we can spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others instead of to ourselves and so we feel undeserving against a high yardstick. Misunderstanding humility is also a reason. Leaders who are humble don’t think less of themselves, they concern themselves with others and take care of themselves. And if we apply a gender lens, women can come up short with our own high standards, reluctant to take credit or embarrassed to be seen as potentially self-promoting.

My Turnaround Story

I learned a lot about accepting appreciation from a watershed experience some years ago when my plan to offer well deserved praise to someone special didn’t go at all the way I expected. When I was 12 my parents were in a terrible car accident and my favourite teacher took me in to live with her family while my parents were convalescing. Decades later, I was moved to search her out and thank her for her extraordinary kindness. I adored her as my favourite teacher before this act of generosity, and I regretted not having the opportunity to show my appreciation. It took many unsuccessful phone calls until I found her. She answered on the 2nd ring, I identified myself and quickly confirmed that she was my former teacher from the 6th grade. She told me that she had only taught at my school for one year, something I didn’t know and it made her generous act feel even more special that I had received it. I sensed her nervousness, and I also felt my own as I explained the reason for my call. I thanked her for taking me in, which was met with silence from her. We moved on. I waited until the right moment and thanked her a 2nd time and she met my appreciation with a deflection. This time I knew for certain that the change of topic was deliberate. It was on the 3rd try when she listened to my offering and accepted it. The call turned out to be a crucible moment for me for reasons I didn’t expect.

The sting of feeling my acknowledgement pushed aside, no matter what the reason, was a powerful lesson about the importance of refining how I received appreciation from others. Since then, I’ve been able to respond to acknowledgements by receiving the message given to me more fully, although I’m not perfect. I learned much later that success on our goals holds for a time until the goal post moves, and the goal post continues to move! Then there’s simply more growth possible. It’s not a burden, just part of a life worth living. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but receiving – or taking if you prefer, is a generous act in its own right. Think about it for yourself. Are you receiving praise and acknowledgement in a way that respects the offering and promotes your own self growth and models it for others?


Differentiation: Retail Lux

I’m a flaneur, a florid word that describes an urban explorer who enjoys walking long distances. On my urban pedestrian travels for some time now I’ve noted the number of empty stores in my home city of Toronto that remain without a tenant for long periods. Recently, an IT executive told me just how impressed he was with Amazon Prime’s home delivery service on a Saturday morning after ordering a large portable hard drive for his home use online just the afternoon before. With this sort of convenience becoming commonplace, it’s no wonder that there are fewer stores in our cities so the question becomes what’s coming next?

Water with your book?

With online shopping gaining more popularity I’ve been noticing what stores are doing to compete. The expansion taking place at the commercial real estate intersection of Bloor & Bay signals a trend. The Manulife building is undergoing a $100M renovation. In this challenging retail climate, the owners are delivering more luxury as their solution to how to get people to leave their homes. Some are out to deliver an experience that will draw us in to shop and the bar for novelty is getting higher. Take the Indigo bookstore at the same location, for example. Sitting here on a Saturday morning, the place is busy despite the fact that half of the store is closed for renovations and they are a successful online retailer. I’m curious if people are here for the extra loyalty points that in-person shopping affords from time to time? The piano player certainly adds to the atmosphere. The vanquish of independent retail bookshops is hardly news, but for the large-scale victor here in Canada, Indigo Books, sustaining their lead is what matters now. As with any industry, the colossal disruptor isn’t immune to disruption itself. What we are learning is that when a company stops being the disruptor it gets disrupted.

What’s the concern with retail? Some point to the emergence of the internet and others argue that it’s because of an oversupplied marketplace. Regardless of your view, the pressure is fierce to meet and exceed customer expectations. What’s planned for this bookstore is extraordinary. An ample kitchen for cookbook authors to perform demos, a water bar, early morning access to the Starbucks located in the store, a harvest table for book clubs, book engravings and adult gift wrapping. Wait. A water bar?! Keen to learn more, I enquired with the young woman at the counter about the changes and I was told “It’s because you are a fancy person.” I bristled a little. Ok, I thought to myself, I am? I guess so. Clearly the shopper profile of Indigo at Manulife is fancy folk enjoying fancy digs and unique services. And they want to fancy it up more. Make no mistake, this store isn’t going down this posh road alone. Toronto was ranked in the top 10 cities in the world last year for luxury store openings. The plan is to have the bookstore fit in with the building’s new image as an urban hotspot with lots more new retail shops. (More retail stores!)

As for me, if the featured changes in the bookstore are appealing, I’ll go back to shop. Maybe I’ll stay for a cooking demo or participate in a book club discussion and meet other readers. I won’t forfeit going to my local funky book reseller either, or my local neighbourhood library renovated in the shape of a single family dwelling house (the library’s own response to disruption). And I’ll shop online when I want to. Convenience is important, but not always. I admit that I enjoy it all. I, like the younger demographics after me, mostly like to spend money on experiences I value over products I want to own. That too is part of the presenting challenge for retailers. It won’t be long into the future until we learn if people will enjoy getting excited about interacting with human-sized robots introduced in stores as sales associates and product recommenders to get us out of the house and into the store.


I’m Being Chased by Facebook

Facebook is in the news because it looked the other way for 2 years while others were harvesting the data of 50M of its users. Its daily active usership is down as I write this and the #deletefacebook trend is gaining momentum. Where this will end is anyone’s guess. Even before the privacy disaster, I did what until recently was unthinkable by some. I closed down my Instagram and Facebook apps on my device because the enjoyment I was getting wasn’t nearly as great as the anxiety I felt on the ‘look at me’ platforms. Now I have more reason to move on and Facebook isn’t happy about it. It’s been trying to get me to come back.

When I initially felt the twinges of anxiety about my Instagram activity, I justified my pastime by telling myself that I was nurturing my interests and staying in touch with friends. I enjoyed looking at images of far away countries, people I did and didn’t know, exploring the insides of unusual homes, and the occasional nonsense Insta stories. Then, when I had a few time-sensitive deadlines that began to loom larger when I hadn’t done much work, I began logging my time, curious to get a true picture of how I was spending it. As a leadership coach, I’ve asked my clients over the years to log where their time is spent for many reasons, for example when strategic thinking drops out of how they perform their job. I was astounded about how much time it was taking up in my day. There was also the opportunity cost, and I began ruminating about lost time and what I could have been doing. I had to make a choice and I did. I closed the 2 apps down.

If the tax on my own willpower wasn’t enough of a drain, Facebook, Instagram’s owner, began to coax me to return with messages sent directly to my inbox.

“Sheila, see what’s been happening…”
I resisted.
Instagram 0, Sheila 1.

When that didn’t bring me back, I received notifications when someone liked my photo. I didn’t budge then either. So they adjusted their strategy, this time waiting until a bunch of people liked my photos before they sent me a notification. Of course I could only learn more about which photos were being favoured by logging in. It was like missing the party held in my honour.

Nope. Not now. Not coming.
Instagram 0, Sheila 2.

As time passed, I started to ask questions about what people were looking to get from posting on FB and Instagram. I wanted to discover what may have been my own drivers. In tones that were part protest and part aspirational I was told “I’m living out loud”, “it’s my lifeline to the world” and “it’s how I stay in touch with friends and family”. Thinking back to my feeds, I know that there were many moments that inspired me and that were meaningful. But I wasn’t missing it.

Is it Live or Memorex?

Growing up, there was a tv commercial for audio cassette tape, called Memorex, with Ella Fitzgerald, an extraordinary jazz singer singing in the background. The idea was that you couldn’t tell if the singing was live or if it was a taped recording. “Is it live or it is Memorex?” it asked when a wine glass shattered from the sound. Despite the seductive immediacy of social media, I began to think of some relationships from my online network as fossilizing from the absence of in-person connection. Yeah, it was live but it also wasn’t. Somewhat like a phone conversation is live but sitting across from someone when you can is even better. I was tired of the perfect life narratives too.

This story ends well. So you know, I’ve replaced my FB and Instagram social media habit on overdrive with being more deliberate about how I spend my time and nurture my network, and I remain on LinkedIn and Twitter with a clearer focus and see no reason to leave. I’ve been lessening the breadth of artificial connection by pursuing the depth of meaningful conversations. Facebook was built on the promise of building community in a techno-utopia that was going to work for everyone and the recent revelations about breaches in digital privacy have shaken my confidence in just whose identity they are protecting. I know now it’s not ours. 


Why Some Resist Collaborating Across Silos (it’s not what you think)

We’ve had a love-hate relationship with silos. How else can we explain their persistence? Silos can be nasty. Unchecked, they promote narrow thinking, duplication, and poor coordination. They can be interminably slow, and frequently contribute to poor alignment and accountability challenges.

One of the reasons for their endurance is that they benefit people. They add an appearance of control and certainty in a world of ambiguity. And they also add closeness and trust in our working lives. Silos fulfill our desire for a sense of belonging because we share a good deal with others who are with us in our silo, and if things are working as they should, high trust relationships develop. To make silos work far better, we know that collaborating across boundaries to coordinate efforts, solve problems and build networks is vital for higher quality integrated solutions and alignment. The overall benefits are that the organization adapts, performs and innovates. Yet for some, reaching out to others they do not know is a risk.

The Unpersuadables

There is something at work that is more visible today than even a year ago in this disruptive global political landscape. It’s about a particular mindset. It comes down to whether or not we feel that we can influence others. Not everyone is open to being influenced, and this can create a logjam. It stands to reason (and borne out by research) that those who have a fixed view about the non-persuadability of others are themselves unwilling to change their minds, and so likely to engage less in discussion and debate. Think about that for a moment. Those who hold this mindset are motivated to initiate engagement only if they feel it’s an opportunity to advance their views by standing up for them, but they don’t seek out opportunities to engage if they expect that others will try to change their mind.

It’s indisputable that influencing is a leadership competency. You can’t lead if you don’t have the tools to persuade others to come along. Yet people who believe that they and others have fixed attitudes and ideas that can’t be influenced are naturally more likely to be pessimistic about collaborating. All leaders want to persuade and influence. What’s surprising is that there are some who are unaware that they are perceived as un-persuadable by those who work with them. They are motivated to have others hear their view and strengthen and protect it. Clearly this is problematic for individuals, teams and organizations.

Merging Lanes

As a refreshing alternative to this problem of positionality, Give & Get for enterprise, a unique reciprocity circle, is a means of bringing people together across silos for mutual gain. In it we engage people by asking for their input and we circumvent the snag that positionality presents. There isn’t the opportunity to defend or push a viewpoint because it’s not the design or the intention. We also make it easy to cooperate with others by curating an independent group of participants instead of hoping people will seek others out with a view that is different than their own. And we connect and inspire by exposing participants to reciprocation where they get immediate evidence of how everyone benefits when people share. Reciprocity is among the oldest of human needs and it’s difficult to resist.

Working with those for whom ideas are entrenched is difficult because they see the world in terms of right and wrong. And they themselves miss out by forfeiting opportunities to influence others and truly lead. It’s a lose-lose game for everyone. Give & Get enables those with this mindset to join others and experience mutual interest as an approach in action. At the heart of it, one positive contribution is met in kind with another and this pulls everyone in without leaving anyone out. Reciprocity makes it possible for collaborative relationships to happen as a natural follow up of a person’s initial actions of generous giving. Further, it offers the opportunity to influence far more than one’s own initiatives and to be part of something bigger.

We have a lot at stake in this age of disruption where there’s an urgent need for innovation fuelling our interest in interdependencies over compliance, collaboration over autonomy, diversity of thought over siloed thinking, experimentation over perfection, and agility over predictability. We can increase the appetite for collaboration if we curate Give & Gets with the right individuals across the organization to promote inclusion and make it convenient, enjoyable and effective to influence and be influenced. It’s how we connect silos. The kind between groups and the mental kinds of our own making based on our beliefs about belief itself.

Being the Disruptor/the Disrupted

There on the gallery wall hung the disruptor. A tiny first-generation Apple iPhone that had a fixed-focus camera of 2.0 megapixels, no flash, no USB, little memory and no editing capability. Even a Sunday photographer could plainly see that this was a technical downgrade from the cameras that came before it.

With the rise of the new technology that made a flat digital camera possible, the analogue photography industry faltered, sputtered and then collapsed. The iPhone had won.

It was only seven years since Apple released the iPhone back in 2007 when I brought work groups through a series of guided tours and talks I was giving at an art gallery. I wanted client leaders and teams to experience the innovative disruption that shredded an industry well beyond the classic Kodak case study that makes its way to the pages of just about every MBA curriculum. The images were the evidence and immediate aftershocks of what happened. They made people take notice of the impact of market disruption. They made it real.

Younger viewers were stunned to learn how colossal Kodak had been and how far it had fallen. Mature leaders who joined me from technology companies, luxury goods, financial services, and regulators, felt the weight of responsibility to avoid insularity, risk aversion and poor decision making that doomed Kodak.

How might Kodak’s future have been re-written if it didn’t avoid the digital camera revolution, the technology which was invented by one of its own and then initially ignored by management? It wasn’t the disruptive forces of technology alone that explains why Kodak collapsed. It was their thinking. They didn’t invest enough resources to embrace the new reality and change their business model. Making that shift is what we call pivoting today.

Spotting emerging technology and adapting to it in the right ways isn’t easy, and it can’t be reduced to a single formula. So what practices are there to take on as an individual, leader or a team to do what you can so you don’t avoid the early signs of disruption?

Do a Pre-Mortum

I’m surprised when people tell me that they don’t undertake a full team pre-mortem at the start of a critical work initiative. It offers the opportunity to ask about any challenges that could derail the results. You stop and question assumptions, voice concerns and get alert to pitfalls, and share the lessons from the past. Perhaps most importantly, you are poised to be on guard for disruption by seeking and bringing in brand new information for discussion that may have only recently emerged that could have a sizeable impact in upending your plans.

Market disruption has large consequences on everyone despite our own master plan in what may be a different direction. Strong execution in ever-changing conditions requires a deliberate effort to avoid insularity. Even and especially when it contradicts our plans. Kodak didn’t expect it’s film-based business model to secede to a digital bit player. But it did. The minuscule camera that merged with the convenience of portable phones was enough to disrupt its core business. And the company never recovered because the business model didn’t change. As it turns out, online photo sharing wasn’t a means to sell more home photo printers, the world had changed and printing keepsakes of holidays and other special life moments was no longer what people wanted. They were happy to see them when they wanted on their computer monitors and devices.

What became of the analogue photo industry wasn’t a happy story for many who enjoy high quality images before digital came along. And for enthusiasts and professionals, it was a disaster. I’ll never forget the voice of the photographer whose images were on the gallery walls as he walked a few of us through the exhibit when it first went up on the walls. He asked us to imagine him as a water colourist walking into an art supplies store to shop and then being told that only 3 colours were now available. There were so few materials left in this medium.

The degradation of quality, especially at the start of a disruptive innovation is what you can expect, and certainly has been true with digital photography. In many ways, except for price and service, it can be a race to the bottom. That’s what surprised everyone. The Kodak story looms large decades later as an augury of much more disruption to come.

Networking Is a Dirty Word


Uncomfortable, dirty, exploitive and inauthentic. And that’s just for starters.

Most of us recognize these associations that people have about networking because we’ve thought these things too. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen people who behaved in ways that were unattractive and then let it define for us what networking is.

“If that’s what it takes, I’m not doing it.”

Maybe it’s because we were led to understand early in life that those who get ahead deserve it because of their hard work. The heads-down, sleeves-up, get-down-to-it, don’t-waste-time kind.

“If I work hard, the right people will notice.”

Having an aversion to networking is common. So why do it if so many find it unappealing? Because to reach your goals, whether it’s influencing, getting promoted, finding allies for an initiative, or transitioning to a new direction, you need new people to make something happen.

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