The importance of reflection in learning and leading

Throughout my leadership learning journey at University, we were encouraged (and marked) to keep a learning leadership log. We were encouraged to keep notes on the things we said, the questions we asked and the answers both given and taken. In and amongst all the information we collected we were instructed to reflect on the spoken and unspoken emotion, things we might do differently, and of course to reflect on what leadership literature had to say about our journeys. I found the impact of doing this allowed me to not only retrieve my true self but helped me to truly see, hear and feel those that reported to me.

As my reach in my business grows, I find my notes deepening and my responses to my client’s learning needs strengthening.

There is plenty of literature to substantiate the benefit of putting into practice quickly what you learn. The image above comes from information in a short article in the Havard Business Review on the implementation of new learning and the benefits of documenting and reflecting. It only takes a short 21 days for most of what you read, heard or saw to fade away. You have probably heard about “Lean” philosophies in operations. In his article, Steve Glaveski, the author applies it to learning.

Lean learning is about:

  1. Learning the core of what you need to learn
  2. Applying it to real-world situations immediately
  3. Receiving immediate feedback and refining your understanding
  4. Repeating the cycle

Leadership Learning is no different to technical learning.

Let me be my best me. Not your picture of me.

I was listening to a friend describe and experience with their coach the other day and as I listened it reminded me of one of my own from more than 20 years ago. It reminded me that we do still have a long way to go in terms of creating an environment where we are all truly free to explore and embrace our true selves at work. And, even in the face of presenting mentoring and coaching it can be more about the coach or the company than truly the transformation of the coached.

When I was first starting out in sales, I had just left nursing and little experience selling much outside of working as a waitress, when I was partnered with a Sales Manager acting as my coach and mentor in the business. He was nice enough, and had a lot of experience to share with me. His experience however was his, from his perspective and related to his reality, which as it turned out was significantly different to mine as a woman. In those early years (the 90’s) as a sales rep I was full or enthusiasm and ambition and even put in a application for my boss’s role while he still had it. My problem, I was told, was I was too assertive and too ambitious (for a woman) and that made them uncomfortable. This always made me question the very nature of my relationship with my Sales Manager. If we were to never be equals, would I always be the “lesser” the “child” or the “servant” in the relationship? The construct of this relationship was uneven in both position and perceived potential transformation power. You have to then surmise that if I was not to perceive myself as having enough power to transform, how was I going to stretch out beyond the horizon and transform not only myself, but the organisations that I worked for? I left that company shortly after this conversation, but this wouldn’t be the last time I would face a limiting mindset to femininity and organisational leadership. It frustrates me that even today in 2020 I am still having conversations with talented woman who are limited by expressed bias in workplaces.

If we are to challenge the constraints and power that asserts its hold over our current position then we need to observe and challenge the view we have of our perceived reality.

Anne Brockbank in her book “Facilitating reflective learning through Mentoring and coaching” has mapped this intersection of learning and reality and has it brilliantly summarized. It asserts that the learning outcome is likely to be influenced by the motivations of the person or company offering it.

Learning contexts like mentoring and coaching are social constructs and sometimes in engaging in them we have a tendency to create ourselves rather than discover our true selves. Unless, we, you, me, have a evolutionary mentor, someone who through pointing to the reflective process can offer us an alternative discourse we are most likely to remain constraint by the power of our existing reality.

A discourse is about what can be thought, and said, by whom, and by what authority. Discourses embody meaning and social relationships. They constitute both subjectivity and power in relationships. They are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Such as terms like “attitude problem”, “On Message”, “Unionized” or “Eco- warrior” etc.

Reflective learning will drive both improvement and transformation through the shifting of the power horizon.

So when is it good to have a outside Coach or mentor?

When a mentor or coach couple ( you and them) are aware of the power in the relationship ( such as me and my manager) , and the political dimensions (they own relationships that can influence your progression), and walk in the relationship openly and knowingly both are likely to benefit from learning. Without recognizing this political dimension, both collude with power relations and limit the effectiveness of the coach/mentor relationship. The couple simply mirror what is implicit in the relationship.

Does your Coach or mentor drive positive emotion?

Positive emotion is critical to learning and political power in the relationship impacts on its effectiveness. If we assume that responses to learning are simplistic or uniform we miss the opportunity to maximize learning. In the book Freedom to learn (Roger, 1983) it is revealed that we are influenced by how we are nurtured from the day of our birth. All humans are reared under condition of worth. Our self concept is based on conforming behavior that is approved by significant others in our lives. This idea and its relevance to the person receiving coaching is subjective and requires that the coach know and understand their reality. Our self esteem, which stems from how we know ourselves, is directly linked to our authentic presence and so through its reciprocity enables further our self esteem. If you are not exploring your true self, your capacity to lead both self and others is limited and limiting.

Anne Brockbank reflects that in order to both learn, grow and transform 3 types of reflection are needed:

  • Instrumental: This is concerned with the achievement of goals or finding solutions
  • Consensual reflection: Questioning both the end as well as the means to the end.
  • Critical reflection: Challenging of assumptions and the prevailing discourse.

True transformation happens when your learning is evolutionary.

  • You question the tfgs (taken for granteds)
  • You analyse the power relations
  • You collaborate in your learning.

Transformation learning helps to expose unequal power previously hidden beyond the power horizon, it challenges what is deemed “natural”, and yet it accepts the reality of conflict through dialogue while appreciating the power of language and the prevailing discourse.

Learning needs to be in context with and connected to a recognition of the social, cultural and political contexts as part of empathy and unconditional positive regard.

If your coach or mentor didn’t leave their judgement at the door, it might be time to open it back up for them.

Get your Game on!

Back in November last year when Donald Trump was being impeached, I was on a learning journey bringing art and leadership together in both my writing and drawing. My drawings are intended as a way for me to listening to the narrative from both sides, and then to contemplate and present the subject in a different way. This metaphorical interpretation is meant to encourage a deeper exploration of what was really happening, and how it was possible that politics in America had inspired so many satirical night shows.

To be fair, comedians like Trevor Noah, Seth Myers, Samantha Bee, Saturday Night Live etc are extremely funny, and clearly very smart. They saw and said things that politicians and journalists either couldn’t or wouldn’t say. I found myself seeking out the source of their material more and more. The unbelievable obsession with celebrity in the US ( and globally) had given momentum to something that should never have been given the oxygen it needed to grow.

I got 13 drawings in, and inspiration dried up. The sheer severity of the calamity of what was unfolding in the US and the lack of leadership from the top sucked the creativity right out from under me. All I can do these days is sit and shake my head. What is even more terrifying is the permeation of this absurdity across so many levels and the realization that the enablers in congress had lost contact with their public purpose a long time ago. This global pandemic amplified this point and it seemed incredulous that it could be contemplated that the lives of the elderly and infirm are of less value than others. As if filling the hospitals with Covid-19 patients won’t impact on us catastrophically eventually when the nurses and doctors die unnecessarily.

 3-5 years from now the leadership books will be pumping out the “How to” “How not to” “Lessons learnt” etc. Academic scholars will dissect the trajectory of this pandemic and white papers will tell us how we “should have could have” done it. There is a simple reality though, very few people were really ready and as a global community, we hiccuped, coughed and then pretty much chucked.

 In among the worlds’ tremors and rigors are some truly inspiring people leaders, a number of them on our doorstep and showing us just how to roll in our egos, roll up our sleeves and start caring about us all.

There are many good ways for leaders to take charge in dire situations and bring the collective strength of a team into play. It’s likely, given that no one really has been left untouched by the lock-down, that things are not currently great for a lot of people or organisations. We could say with hindsight, there are probably choices made that if they had been different would have yielded a different outcome to our current position. However, we are where we are and the future lies ahead of us, not in our review mirror. These are 2 things I have learnt from the satires playing out on Youtube each night.

  1. You need to stop the blame game
  2. You need to be responsible for each person at your table

It’s time to reframe the blame: There is a fantastic book on leadership that I am currently reading “Leadership Team Coaching” by Peter Hawkins. In this book he refers to reframing the blame. A great example of this would be instead of saying “ you haven’t supplied any of the test kits” is to say, “ I need you to supply the test kits so that we can…” You reframe blame as a request and then you get confirmation that the request is heard and accepted. It takes the blame and shame out the game. Neither of these are important in leveraging your collective strength.

No matter who you are, choose to be responsible for each person at the table. For a team to leverage its full power, the individuals in the team need to each recognise that they need to leverage their strengths for the benefit of the team and not the individual. In being accountable to the results, there is no place for status or ego at the leadership table.

I am feeling optimistic about our future. New Zealand has some outstanding leadership and it makes me grateful and happy that I live in this corner of the world.

Game on world!

Get to the starting Blocks. Ready. Set. Go

Are you ready to jump start your business, career and life when the economic restart gun goes? No? As Jacinda keeps saying “Don’t panic, we got this.”

Globally large tracks of the economy have shut down with only essential services running. If you are one of those working or owning essential services, you are more fortunate than a lot. With the exception of supermarkets who said it was like Christmas time, even these business’s have seen a drop off in customer engagement and in sales. The obvious reality is that if you don’t have an online offering, right now you are probably irrelevant.

Here in New Zealand as we push out to back end the second half of our lock down a lot of small businesses and employees are probably holding their breathe that at short notice level 3 will drop in on us and allow some trade. For many of the over 250 000 sole traders and small business’s there in New Zealand, this still has us sitting at home trying hard to figure out how we make ourselves somehow essential and relevant.

Its not all downside, and how you emerge from this forced hibernation will depend on whether you sleep ( Binge on Netflix) or prepare.

History tells us that through significant downturns like this, there are ways we can position ourselves to come out on the other side better off. Companies that seek to position themselves to capture a share of market in a downturn can inevitably reap the reward of the newly expanding market.

There are in reality only so many ways to approach dealing with a closed or shrinking economy. How you deal with it will depend on both your outlook and how you prepared yourself and or your company for this “rainy day”.

Some ways that companies deal with this is very much the same way winning teams approach sport. They deploy defense or offense, or if they are the long reigning champs, a finely honed combination of both.

Defensive moves: Some companies spend both times of opportunity and recession with a prevention focus. In the upside they are focused on what someone else is doing and working to prevent the competition from eroding market share. These are those companies we are often asking ourselves; “How on earth are they still in business?” The answer is often that at sometime they got lucky and grew without knowing really how. They spend little time or money investing in either their talent, their products or their fixed assets. As recession hits and money dries up, they start to cut costs, reduce head counts and rationalize products. The problem with such a mind set is that the remaining people are lead to a siege mentality, they start to aim low and very soon what quality they might have had evaporates and with it customer satisfaction.

Offensive moves: This is often seen in times of recession as being to aggressive. Some companies see this as an opportunity to grow and force changes that will get them closer to the customer. They dig deep into cash pockets that they have been building to acquire talent and assets. While this is in itself is not a bad thing, when the mindset of these “upside” companies is so focused on growth they can too become removed from the severity of the situation that their customers find themselves in. The signs from their customers that all the money has dried up are missed. When an organisation shows that it is lacking in empathy this to triggers customer dissatisfaction. Companies often demonstrate this by investing in R & D and building new gimmicks into products that don’t necessarily offer better value for money. This overly optimistic position can leave them blinded by dwindling revenue streams and a resulting poor financial result and return.

Finding balance

There is a fine balance both a an individual and a company in getting through a recession and coming out the other side ready to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Companies emerging from recession can be described as pragmatic or progressive. The real trick to leading from the front is to deploy optimal combinations of both defense and offense as you make your way through the mess.

As an individual

Cut the costs in your life, those that you cannot cut on your own, negotiate a reduce rate. For those things where you have some fixed costs such as rent or mortgage, its important to know that even those vendors that you pay, need you to pay something rather than nothing. So it is then that it is in their best interest to engage in these conversations.

Develop new opportunities for yourself. Have you got a side hustle going. That side hustle could be tutoring, an art or craft you sell , a second job etc.

Invest in yourself with courses at either university or online, you can keep yourself ahead of the recruiting pack by investing in and valuing yourself.

Build your network. There are just so many ways to do this. If you are not sure, book an hour with me and I will help you explore what is out there for you for free.

As an Company

If you have not paid acute attention to your operational costs yet, this is exactly the right time to work out how you can be more efficient. A prevention or defensive focus is not necessarily about cutting out costs, but rather trying to figure out how you can do things more efficiently. For sure, there will be things that crept into your business during the good times that now look like a waste of time, effort and space, and these should go. Be ruthless about these. But, there will be ways to deliver more with what you already have. It is this kind of value creation that customers appreciate while they ride out the recession as well.

What new business opportunities could arise out this recession for you. There is a brilliant example of this being offered and asked at a Ministry website.

Invest in your company and your assets (the human ones too). Invest enough to stay ahead of your rivals so that when the economy opens up ahead of you, you are that one step ahead. This could mean investing in a piece of equipment or plant as well as investing in training for staff. If you think about it, if you have access to cash funds then you are in a position to negotiate both a better lending rate, and purchasing price for most products and services.

Stay close to your customers. Listen more talk less.

As a end note, if you don’t have a business continuity plan for things like this pandemic ( we are warned another will come) earthquakes or other disasters, its time to get thinking and writing.

We got this!