Making Connections

I was watching Britain’s Got Talent on ITV the other week – and before I go any further, I will say that I enjoy BGT because it is continuing proof that, despite endless attempts to homogenise us all and make everybody conform, there are still plenty of quirky, even barmy, people thriving in the UK. And I think that’s a good thing.

So I was watching BGT and there was a woman on who was a singer, quite a good one as it happens. There is always a bit of VT before the contestant comes on with their ‘back story’ and this particular woman made much of her 5 lovely kids, how much she loved her kids, how she did everything for her lovely kids and now she was singing on national television, and doing it for her kids. This is quite a common theme on BGT and X-Factor, contestants often tell us that they are doing it for their kids, or their recently deceased Dad, or their dear old Mum or their wonderful granddad. And of course, the idea of this is to make us see that they are lovely, caring people who deserve our votes.

The woman with 5 lovely kids didn’t fare that well in the end, the great British public obviously didn’t think she deserved their votes. And that made me think about how we connect to people and what really pushes our buttons. Without doubt we are generally attracted to loving, caring people, but these emotive declarations can also be interpreted by our subconscious in a less positive manner. We can see these people as trying to portray themselves as ‘victims’ deserving of our sympathy, and that can be quite an unattractive trait.

However, when a contestant on one of these shows says “I am doing this for me!” I think it taps into something much deeper in our subconscious.

Most of us live our lives mainly doing stuff for other people. This can be out of love, duty, guilt, peer pressure, convention, work requirements or just habit. Deep down inside most of us have something that we would love to do but always feel that we don’t have the time or the money. Or, to be more precise, we don’t feel that we can justify spending the time or the money out of a sense of commitment or guilt.

So when we hear somebody saying “I’m doing this for me” we identify with them, we connect with them because we see them as somebody who is taking control of their own life, something many of us secretly crave.

So if you want to take control of your life without feeling guilty and you don’t want to embarrass yourself on national television, a coach can really help. Maybe me.

Clint Bull

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Viva La Resolution!

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year?

The celebrations around New Year’s Eve can often be seen as some kind of ‘new beginning’ and perhaps a time to start doing things differently. The ‘New’ in New Year itself conjures up the notion of a clean sheet, a time when old mistakes can be set aside and we can all make a fresh start. This then prompts people into making ‘New Year’s Resolutions.’

This is not a new concept; at the start of each year the Babylonians would promise their gods that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts and the Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus. Medieval knights would take the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry. It has now become more a feature of western cultures, and the modern day practice of resolutions is thought to have come out of a Christian practice of making sacrifices for lent. These days most people make a commitment to self-improvement, and this is why it is of interest to me as a coach.

Maintaining Commitment

Whatever your resolution, there are people out there who want you to fail!

It is a popular notion that you are more likely to succeed with achieving a goal if you share it with your friends and family and ask them to help and support you through the, often difficult, process. The problem here is that friends and family members won’t necessarily be honest with you because they are worried they may cause tension that could potentially damage their relationship with you. And it is often the case that people who know you don’t believe that you can make life changes because they don’t have the resolve to do it themselves. In some situations they can even subconsciously want to see you fail because it makes them feel better/more comfortable about their own shortcomings (especially if they had a similar resolution that they have already failed to keep.) So if you have a little wobble in your resolve they will often delight in telling you that you have failed, which can make it really easy for you to lose focus and give up.

In fact, research carried out since 1933 shows that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen. Apparently, once you’ve told people of your intentions, it gives you a “premature sense of completeness” and subconsciously you think you’ve achieved it.

Friends and family are not the only ones who do not have a vested interest in your success; a popular resolution is to stop smoking, and that is why the tobacco industry allegedly spends half its annual advertising budget in February. The theory is that if you have stuck it out for 4 or 5 weeks, then you will really be craving a cigarette by February! So if that is your resolution, there are powerful forces actively working against you.

Various organisations have researched how many people manage to keep up with their resolutions, and the results show that after a week three quarters of people are still sticking with it, after a month it is down to two thirds and after 6 months less than half of those who made New Year’s Resolutions are still maintaining them. So it’s not a very reliable way to make changes in your life!

Your Resolutions.

So, to go back to my original question, did you make any resolutions this year? If you did, what was your motivation?

Did you make a resolution because it was ‘the thing to do’ and you felt like you ought to, or was it a change that you want to make in your life that you haven’t had much success with and New Year seemed like an appropriate time to recommit to it?

If it was the first case, do you feel like it wasn’t a real resolution and therefore you don’t need to commit to it? Interestingly, in that kind of situation the subconscious mind will often pluck something special from the recesses at the back, something that you have perhaps been deliberately suppressing or just not given form to. So have a good look at it, and be honest with yourself, was it actually a change that you really should be making?

Whatever your motivation, now that February is upon us, it’s cold and it’s raining (at the time of writing!) how is it going?

Unlike those people out there who may want to see you fail I want to see you succeed. I am ready to listen to what you want to achieve without judging you. I can offer you support and empathy and help you to be honest about progress. And I can help you to identify your successes, however minor, and build on them. I will not consider those occasional wobbles as failures, but as minor setbacks and opportunities to strengthen your resolve.

So if you your New Year Resolution could do with re-energising, give me a call or send me an email and we can discuss some options for succeeding in making those changes happen more quickly.

Remember, your mission is to make changes to your life, my mission is to help you to succeed!

Clint Bull

07788 924087

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Are Leaders made or are they born?

Among the many theories on Leadership buzzing around at the moment is a matched pair that identify with both sides of my initial question. There is the Trait Theory that says that leaders need to learn certain traits that will make them more effective and the Great Man Theory that suggests that some people are just great leaders. As ever, I believe that the truth lies somewhere down the middle; a person needs to have something about them, a certain presence to become a really effective leader, but there are skills and traits that one can learn that enhance effectiveness.

So what are those traits and how do you teach them? This is a much harder question and, to be honest, I don’t really have the answer! My previous employer came upon the concept of ‘Leadership’ quite late in life. It seemed as though, one day, somebody decided that ‘Leadership’ was The Thing and that the company needed to embrace it and henceforward all employees needed to be leaders. After that the word ‘leadership’ was liberally peppered through company documents, especially the performance review paperwork, as though in this way all the people in the company would gradually become leaders through some kind of osmosis.

As far as I could see this type of unspecific institutionalised leadership development didn’t really work and there is a strong argument that it was quite counterproductive. I encountered an awful lot of people who found this made them feel in some ill-defined way inadequate. They were busy working hard doing their jobs and trying to keep the business moving along, yet they felt that the company wanted them to do ‘something else’ that they didn’t really understand or have time for.

In my experience, my team generally performed best when I listened to them. So my vote for the most important leadership trait goes to listening.

What’s yours?

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Leadership – How do you know if it’s working?

I well remember when I took up my first ever management role and had the responsibility of people reporting to me. I was working for Network Southeast, a part of British Rail, and when I moved into the job I inherited a couple of office based staff and four teams called the Heavy Cleaning Gangs. Their job was to go round a number of railway stations and undertake jobs that were a bit beyond normal cleaners, like clearing rubbish and fly tipping, weed killing and very minor repairs.

I quickly came to realise that the cleaning teams were effectively penal gangs: sacking people was quite difficult, so rather than going down that route, managers would often move their people into the cleaning teams instead! I wasn’t very happy about taking on these teams because they were ‘challenging’ to manage and they were all ex-station staff and their terms and conditions were alien to me. After about 3 months I started a campaign to have them transferred into another department where I thought they could be managed more effectively.

While all this was going on, I attended a course called ‘Quality at Work.’ This was a ground-breaking course, considering this was early 1990’s British Rail, where staff were told about things like engagement and empowerment. I was the only manager on the course and there was a great deal of anti-management feeling from some of the other participants, and being a bit inexperienced, I tended to become quite defensive.

On the second day one of the trainers, a wonderful young woman called Leonie, took me to one side and said that she had heard me say several times that I thought I probably wasn’t a very good manager. She said that the main thrust of the course was the idea that if people thought something was wrong or unsatisfactory, or if they could see ways to improve things then they should speak to their manager. She also said that the overwhelming response to this was “My manager never listens to anything I say.”

Leonie then told me that, over the preceding weeks most of the operatives from the Heavy Cleaning Gangs had been on the course, and they would usually put their hands up and say “Actually, my manager does listen to me, and acts on my suggestions!” They were talking about me.

In those few moments everything changed. I realised that my instinctive approach to management of treating people the way I would want to be treated was actually working and making a difference. Far more importantly I realised that I was getting loyalty from a group of people that, to be honest, I didn’t properly respect. It really hit me, right there, that being a manager of people had serious responsibilities and that I was shirking them.

From then on the Heavy Cleaning Gangs became my people and I supported them, encouraged them and defended them with all my energies. This didn’t mean that they were any less challenging to manage, just that I accepted the challenges and faced up to them. And together we became a real team, proud of what we could achieve. And that had a massive impact on the way I have managed people ever since.Hitchin Cleaning Gang 3

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Coaching Leadership Roles

I have recently thrown my hat in the ring on the topic of ‘What is Leadership?’ and I still believe that the answer is that it is whatever you want it to be. However I think that most people would agree that a key role of any good leader is to inspire their people.

When you work at the forefront of a world-beating organisation leading the way on technological advances, or at the head of a small, dynamic company populated by thrusting young stars of the future this is relatively straightforward. When you work in the real world like the rest of us you are probably trying to lead a number of people whose jobs involve sitting at a desk for hours on end doing some monotonous task or answering the phone to people who mainly moan at them about things they have no control over. Like it or not, these sort of people are the lifeblood of most large companies and as ‘leaders’ we need to find ways to inspire them. And it is a big mistake to assume that they will be inspired by the same things that inspire us.

It is a popular view among companies (my previous employer was such a company) that these foot soldiers would be inspired by a) understanding how they fit into the bigger picture and knowing why their tedious tasks are important and b) making them believe that they could all be leaders one day. I used to subscribe to both theories, but no more.

I discovered by bitter experience that somebody whose passions are Led Zeppelin or Harley Davidson or bringing up 3 teenagers or golf really could not give a flying monkies about some massive construction project 300 miles away or the roll out of an awesome software package that they will never use, however thrilling the company directors find them. And if you make them sit through a 2 hour presentation on them they will only feel resentment at the 2 hour backlog of emails and phone messages they have to go back to. This is not to suggest that these people are not dedicated or committed or that they don’t work hard, but they are happy to do their job to the best of their ability and go home at the end of the day.

So how do we inspire the hard working troops that often constitute the largest proportion of the company’s workforce? Well I don’t have any glib answers, but I found that using a coaching approach with my people enabled them to find ways to inspire themselves. Some people were interested in the bigger issues affecting the company, most cared about how the department functioned and a few just wanted to do their job and go home. I was always prepared to spend a little time indulging my people’s passions; I would encourage them to talk about their music, their cars, their sport or their families and I listened to them all, and took an interest in what they said. And some said it was their life and none of my business, and I listened to that too. My line managers would probably have considered this a waste of company time, but I believe it engendered a sense of team spirit and loyalty.

And I firmly believe that it made them feel valued and inspired.

What did you like most about this post?

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Clint Bull, Life coach

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That Ethereal Quality of Leadership

Much has been written over the last few years (actually a good few years) on the topic of leadership. These days ‘Leadership’ is all things to all men, it has become like a positive version of “Health and Safety” or “Security.” What I mean by that is that these days any illogical, irrational or even insane behaviour can be easily justified with the words “Health and Safety” or “Security.” So when you ask a question like “Why have all the tables been removed from the tea room?” if the answer is “Health and Safety, innit” you just nod understandingly and ask no more.

Leadership is now a bit like that. If you are interviewing for a job and one of the candidates doesn’t really tick all the boxes, but you just like them you can offer them the job and justify it by saying “I thought he/she demonstrated good leadership skills.” Nobody can argue because everybody has their own idea of what leadership is.

Many years ago my boss asked me to go to a meeting on his behalf. He always delegated this particular meeting and it was my turn to go. The meeting was to discuss Health and Safety issues on a number of large railway stations that we managed in London and it was about as dreary as a meeting can possibly be. The ‘agenda’ was a long list of infrastructure items awaiting repair that were deemed to be Health and Safety issues. I realised that my role was to sit and listen to what was being said and write down “Still awaiting materials” or “Solution not yet identified” or occasionally “Completed!” against each one. I soon got bored and found myself writing things like “Why does somebody have to slip over and break their hip before we make repairs?” and “We’ve got dozens of these, have we checked them all for the same defect” and “Why can’t we replace this with a better designed item?”

When I got back to the office I threw my notes into the boss’s in tray and forgot all about it. A few days later he called me over and said that he had just read my notes from the Safety Meeting. “I am very impressed” he said “these are leadership comments!” Well I was delighted with that, I can tell you. I was a leader! Of course I now know that it was just a generic complement, which was still nice, but at the time I thought it meant that I was on the way up. I wasn’t.

So, to that million dollar question, what is Leadership? Well it’s probably whatever you want it to be.

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Leadership vs Coach Approach

So here’s a question: do coaching skills enhance leadership skills, or does coaching take you to a different place, a whole new phase of ‘boss theory?’

There has been a great deal of debate over the years about the difference between management and leadership and I have seen quite a number of trite phrases and jokes on the subject. People are still chasing the dream of being a good manager or good leader, but maybe they should be trying something else.

When I worked in industry I spent many years with the word ‘Manager’ in my job title because I had people who reported to me. At first I used to strive to be a ‘good manager’ but after a time ‘management’ became outmoded and stodgy, so instead I started striving to be a ‘good leader.’ In practice this all amounted to pretty much the same thing because I always tended to do what I thought was right, following my intuition rather than instructions and popular theories.

When I started in my first management position I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the official policy currently prevailing in our department was that Management had all the answers and it was our role to tell the staff what to do, and their role was to obey us. As an employee of many years, I knew that was absolute rubbish and I never ever adhered to it. I came to realise that most of my fellow managers took the view that over the years they had been subjected to bullying and persecution, they had been forced to do menial and pointless tasks and now it was their turn to inflict that on others. It wasn’t really their fault, it was just the way things were. I decided… no, I didn’t decide, I just knew that now it was my turn I would make sure that nobody who worked for me ever had to put up with that rubbish.

Back in the 90’s this was a risky strategy; if there was an issue with the performance of a member of my team and I shouted at them and threatened them with the rule book and they didn’t improve, I could, hand on heart, say I had done everything I could but it hadn’t worked. However, I would sit down and have a cup of tea with them, find out their perspective on the issue and ask what I could do to help improve the situation. When that worked it was OK, but if it didn’t work I was perceived as being ‘weak.’ As it happens, it worked.

And that was always my philosophy on management, and then later it became my philosophy on leadership! Once I had discovered coaching, the skills just dovetailed right into my natural style and took it to a whole new level. Unfortunately by the 2010’s my coach approach to leadership was too much at variance with Network Rail’s performance management process and we parted company. Looking back, would I have done anything different? The answer to that is ‘No.’ I was always true to my own values, and when they became at variance with the company’s values, it was time to go.

So, returning to my original question: “Do coaching skills enhance leadership skills, or does coaching take you to a different place?” I believe that I had moved to a place where I didn’t lead my team, I engaged them, empowered them and supported them. And I think we were a damn good team. Leadership is dead, long live coaching!

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