3 Mistakes of a New Leader

This week I was reminded of a favourite quote:

It happened when I was asked to give some 360 degree feedback* to a highly successful Director of a household budget supermarket chain.  I had worked with this Director on a couple of previous occasions and the feedback came as no surprise to me. The secret to his success so far has been the speed at which he can operate and the amount he can accomplish in the time it would take me to switch on my laptop and phone.  It is no surprise that he has been promoted to a very senior position on the record of his past achievements.  Proud of his scores on delivery and the comments about his passion we had to pause when we came across an unintended consequence of his pacey style.  His team felt stifled by his interference and criticism of their work.  In his attempt to help them move at pace he was falling into the age old trap of telling them what to do and “its quicker if I just do it myself”.  He was also unable to see the benefits of the diversity in his team, valuing only those operators who had a similar style to himself.  As a result, some of the team fed back that they felt vulnerable and at risk.  All of the team suggested that he was not getting the best out of them.

As we discussed it, he was clear that he was ‘over achieving’ and that this was having a detrimental impact on the performance of his Directors.  There were three fundamental mistakes he was making that I could spot:

Mistake 1: Speeding Everything Up

Working at pace is a necessity in the modern world.  Communications systems demand responses immediately, at most, within a working day.  This client was on a treadmill and had set off at a quicker pace than most, but with the extra demands of his promotion, instead of slowing down and considering the best approach, had responded instinctively by going faster, then faster and then faster still.  His treadmill was at maximum speed and he still couldn’t get everything done.  Even he admitted he was now fearful of falling off….

Psychology can help us understand why this approach might not be helping my client.  The July 2017 issue of the Psychologist has an article by Eloise Stark called “Is slowness the essence of knowledge?”  Her piece brings together writings and research popularised in the Daniel Khaneman book “Thinking Fast and Slow” (2011).

His central hypothesis is that we have two thinking systems.  System 1 is a fast, instinctive, emotional response to situations.  This is the system which might give the entrepreneur ‘a gut feel’ for what will work.  This system ultimately ensures our survival against danger.  System 2 is a slower more deliberate and logical processing of information.  With System 2 we might pause to consider our response from system 1.  Here is where the Entrepreneur might pause to reflect on what other information or options might be available before making a final decision.

Humans can only function effectively when we balance the use of these two systems, however with modern pace of life, we skew towards the fast paced system 1.  Ultimately this causes us to make mistakes, misinterpret information, miss opportunities and at worst, damage our own health and that of others.

CONCLUSION: Slower, system 2 thinking is essential when processing social, complex or tricky situations.


Mistake 2: Giving Feedback on Everything

Driven by a desire to do everything to the best of his abilities, my client was ensuring that feedback was given in a timely and appropriate way to every piece of work and interaction he came across.  Management training had taught him that this was the right way to go and that indeed, this is the only way that his direct reports would learn and improve.

Many of his feedback comments included “letting go” and “allowing people to find their own way”.  As we discussed them, he confessed that as he was now busier, to save time, he often gave feedback via email and in the form of bullet points or lists.  In addition, he gave feedback on every point he felt needed commenting on.  As someone with high standards I winced when he said this, and he suddenly realised that he was giving A LOT of feedback.

Putting aside, the unmanageable volume of feedback, what he hadn’t realised is that this form of feeding back is fine if you want people to copy or comply, but not when you want them to be high functioning decision makers in their own right.  The only way to develop his staff would be to take the slower road of exploring their thinking and intentions, then coaching them to notice other opportunities so that they learn and grow from the experience.

Going back to the Psychologist article on slow thinking, Stark discusses the process of reappraising.  This allows us to focus on our immediate response, to evaluate it, consider the facts, come up with more balanced opinions and adaptive solutions.  When we ask people to reflect on and learn from mistakes we are in effect carrying out a process aligned to reappraisal.  Higher incidents of reappraisal have also been linked to the ability to create longer term healthier responses to emotional life events (Dillon & Labar, 2005) (Ochsner & Gross, 2005).  In response to this one might agree with Kringelback (2015), who goes so far as to assert that slowness may be a hallmark of a ‘healthy’ brain.

But let’s be clear here.  We are not talking about slowness as the only way forwards.  We are talking about it as a balance to the skewedness towards fast thinking and acting which currently pervades our everyday working lives.  Only through slow thinking can we assess when it is appropriate to be fast and when it is appropriate to be slow.

CONCLUSION: If you give feedback on everything, how will people learn which are the important things.  If you give feedback in a ‘fast’ manner; people are less likely to learn how to become independent decision makers for themselves.


Mistake 3: Doing Everything

I guess you know what is coming next.  This clients lowest score was in relation to “getting so tied up in day to day deliverables that you lose sight of the priorities and strategic issues.”  A direct result of his fast response to speed things up in order to get MORE done, meant that he was not being clear about which were the IMPORTANT things to do.  When we get stuck in fast thinking, everything seems to have equal importance.  We saw this in his approach to feedback in Mistake 2.  All items, no matter how big or small were reduced to a bullet point in an email and conveyed in the same way.  How can his direct reports possibly tell which are the most important or essential points being made?

Going fast, meant that he was going alone.  His colleagues and direct reports were not aligned with what he was trying to create.  No one (including him) had any idea about the strategic priorities which meant that delegation was becoming difficult.  Building in time for slow thinking on a weekly basis will dramatically improve purposeful productivity at work.  The unintended consequence of staying stuck in fast is the creation of “busy fools”.  And yet so often, I hear people complaining they don’t have enough time, their health and family are suffering, and yet when suggested that they take half an hour or an hour a week to slow down and think about strategies and priorities they respond with, “I haven’t got time”.  Fast thinking means we are constantly working on emotional responses.  It erodes our resilience and our creativity.

I do believe that once we get stuck in fast thinking it becomes addictive.  It increases neural activity to 140ms, too fast for us to be consciously aware of it and it happens right in the reward centre of the brain (orbitofrontal cortex).  When we slow down thinking, MRI studies show that activity happens in the prefrontal and parietal regions, impacting on the parts of the brain that affect our understanding of meaning and perceptions (Buhle et al, 2014).  In effect we can alter the emotional significance of an event, just by thinking about it differently when we use slow thinking.

Helping to create safe, constructive environments, that support slow thinking is the craft of Coaches and Occupational Psychologists.  These findings could explain why coaching is so effective at helping address issues such as stress, wellbeing and balance, impact, strategic thinking, prioritising, conflict resolution; as well as deep learning and ‘aha’ moments in workshops and team events.  I have often described the value of my intervention as ‘slowing things down in a safe environment’ in order to get rapid results.

CONCLUSION: People who arrive in positions of leadership are often promoted for their fast thinking, is it any surprise that they then spend the first couple of years learning that they now need to think slow, and how to do it?  A coach will help accelerate this process and build sustainable skills for leaders.   



3 Things High Performing Teams Do


High performing teams differ in 3 ways

Thanks to some pretty trail blazing research in 2004 (Losada & Heaphy) distilled the 3 things that differentiate high, medium  and low performing teams.

Firstly they analysed three important stats for these leadership teams:

1. profit and loss

2. customer satisfaction

3. 360 feedback

Only if a team performed well on all three measures was it assigned to the HIGH peforming category.  Those that had low scores on all three measures were deemed to be LOW performing teams and the rest (who had a mixed result) were MEDIUM.
They the proceeded to observe the meetings and analyse the behaviours of each of these teams and compare that to their performance category and they found some pretty interesting results…


Members of poor performing teams were 30 times more likely to think about the impact of any decision on their own department than its impact on others.  This compared with medium performing teams who for every 3 times they thought about the impact on themselves, also considered the impact on others twice.

The Highest performing teams had a completely balanced consideration of impact on themselves against impact on others.  In effect, they were as concerned about the impact of their decisions on each other and their stakeholders as they were about the impact on themselves, showing a wider perspective on their decision making.


Members of the lowest performing teams spent most of their time offering opinions and views on the issues being presented whilst the medium teams gave three opinions to every 2 views they sought from others.

The highest performing teams showed a complete balance between giving and seeking out the views of others, again demonstrating that they have a wider perspective on their discussions and decision making.


Perhaps most importantly poor performing teams spent as much as twenty times longer making negative comments on each others’ ideas and pointing out potential problems. For the medium teams they spent just 8 times longer critiquing each other and pointing out flaws and problems.

Astoundingly though Losada & Heaphy observed the highest performing teams spending six times longer building on each others’ ideas, supporting and encouraging each other through positive contributions than they did make negative comments.


Whilst critical problem solving is important to leadership teams, it seems that the main differentiating factor in team performance is the ability to develop a trusting and creative atmosphere where there is real connectivity between the members and they are able to build on each other’s contributions.

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When is Assessor Training more than Assessor Training?

This week I spent two days with an NHS provider client delivering a two day Assessor Training to 18 senior people within the organisation.  The purpose of the training was to provide them with the skills to assess an internal development centre to benchmark clinical leadership within the Trust.  It was a lively and informative two days and there was lots of great learning about the fundamentals required to objectively observe and record behaviour, as well as how to classify and evaluate those behaviours and how to give feedback on it.

What really stuck me was just how valuable this time was to discuss, explore and really calibrate the organisation’s expectations of clinical leaders, in a way that could provide a structured, measurable framework.

A couple of the delegates were from the potential candidate pool for future development centres, they were able to see first hand the integrity of the system and the real desire to be transparent, ethical and supportive. Their positive attitudes towards the centres from peers will have far more impact in reassuring suspicious or nervous colleagues than any official communication strategy – don’t under estimate how anxious some organisations can get about the organisational agenda behind the centres.

The competencies being used have been around the organisation for a while, but still have not made it as everyday language and are not yet impacting on performance management and expectation setting. But after two days discussing, clarifying, understanding how to talk behaviour and impact, rather than person and personal, the assessors went away with a new set of skills not only for the development centres but to cascade and role model to their directorates and teams throughout the organisation.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the two days was the demonstration of how we tend to generalise our impressions of someone depending on what is important to us, personally. The facilitators modelled two presentations, each designed to have different strengths and weaknesses.

The first was passionate, engaging and highly impactful on an interpersonal level, but lacked evidence, specifics or a vision. The second used some inappropriate language, did not express any connection with the audience or patients, but beneath the delivery provided a strong argument backed by facts and evidence, set out a strategic vision and clear action plan.

Despite knowing that they were to evaluate the presentations on three separate criteria:

–  Interpersonal impact
– Setting a Strategic Direction
– Creating a clear plan of action

the groups initially rated the first presentation higher across all three criteria than the second.  Careful exploration of the evidence they had provided against each of the criteria showed that they had automatically applied the evidence for interpersonal impact across all the criteria and over generalised.  When it was properly debated and challenged it emerged that in fact the better presentation was the second, not the first as they had initially thought. Although both presentations had strengths and development points.

These senior managers were brave enough to reflect on how often they generalise in the workplace and as a result over or under estimate someone’s performance based on one aspect of their behaviour.  Such a deep understanding of how we function automatically and how that stops us seeing what is really there, is going to create some powerful organisational change.

Envision provides Clinical Leadership Assessment and Development within both acute and community trusts.

Can playing cards in the Board Room help strengthen your top team?

What does our natural, survival instinct to stay alive have to do with being a high performing team and a pack of cards?

Recently I was at the Association for Coaching (UK) The Business of Coaching Conference in Manchester.  My kind friends at Work Positive had booked me a free delegate pass in return for helping them out on their exhibitors stand talking about their fantastic new product, Strengths Cards.  This was a no brainer – the cards are a fantastic resource that I have been using with teams and in one to one coaching sessions, and the conference had some great speakers on offer.  It was a win win as far as I was concerned.

It was whilst I was contemplating the evidence about a strengths based approach in teams and listening to the likes of Amy Brann, Roger Steare and Jocelyn Brookes that a seed began to grow in the back of my mind.

The next day I was coaching a Senior Director of a Global Biotech business.  We’d met several times before and he is a great asset to the company.  He is quick to see the problem, astute and practical in his solutions with a real understanding of the business.  You know the type, the one who sees the solution before anyone else has even recognised there is a problem.  Not only that, but he is passionate about the business and understands it almost better than anyone else.  However, this causes him a problem as he becomes frustrated when his colleagues can’t see things as quickly and clearly as he does and his immediate response is to point out where they are going wrong.  They find him abrasive and aggressive.  Unfortunately, his desire to get the best outcome has the opposite effect on the team’s overall performance.

I realised that his impact is causing others in the team to experience stress which is holding the performance of the team back.  When we perceive a threat (not even a real threat) like someone criticising us, our brain stem or reptile brain takes over with our fight, flight or freeze response, causing us to become defensive or resistant.  This is designed to help us survive in the wild, but in the board room the result is that we lose the ability to think about the situation creatively.  This was happening whenever my client began to get frustrated causing the team stopped working to solve problems, but instead work reactively to protect themselves against the perceived threat.

Losada and Heaphy in 2004 found that high performing teams emphatically use positive interactions to create safe and supportive environments that mean when team members challenge each other it is not seen as a threat and the team can respond in a creative, solution focused way.  Challenges are outnumbered by a ratio of around 1:5 by positive, building or supporting comments.  This is because when we feel stimulated and free from threat the brain stem allows our neocortex to become fully active and engage in executive functions like solving complex problems and being resourceful.

Working with this client has helped him to understand his impact and how it is preventing him from achieving his ambitious goals to grow the company.

So where does the pack of cards come in?  This week I met with the team and we used the At My Best Cards to begin to establish how to make best use of the strengths within the team in order to create a more positive environment.  They have already grasped that using strengths is a great way to challenge themselves without activating the stress response.  As a result they are well on the way to finding ways to deliver their strategy to meet their ambitious plans for growth.

Is Executive Coaching Worth The Investment?

Executive Coaching is an effective way to enhance leadership performance

Executive Coaching is an effective way to enhance leadership performance

There is already a strong body of evidence to suggest that Coaching is a more effective form of development than training alone and can result in:

• Increased productivity
• Enhanced business results
• Improved ratings of effectiveness and impact from both direct reports and peers.
• Sustained learning

Evidence so far is suggesting that the biggest factors impacting on the effectiveness of the coaching intervention include:

• Client’s self belief and expectations of success from the coaching relationship
• The credibility of the Coach to the client
• The use of external coaches
• An understanding of different personality styles and impact as described by the MBTi Temperaments
• Coaches ability to adjust to the needs of the client (objectives and style)
• The client’s feelings about the coach and the coaching relationship
• Coaches ability to build rapport, listen, support, adapt to clients needs, respect, understand and generate confidence in their clients

Does Executive Coaching Work?
Whilst studies into the effectiveness of Executive Coaching are still relatively new and the data is emerging there is a sound enough body of evidence to support the assertion that it is an extremely effective form of development.

Several studies have found that it has a positive impact on business results, sustained learning and a high correlation with positive outcomes. (Levenson 2009, Washylyshyn et al 2006, Kmobarakaran et al 2008, Grant and Cavanagh 2007).

Increases in leadership effectiveness were seen to rise by 60% after just four one hour sessions (Thach in 2002) and clients and coaches report positive improvements on all the objectives of coaching (Peterson 1993).

As well as these generally positive outcomes, some studies have shown productivity to rise, like the study of recruitment managers in the army. Those who were coached raised their productivity more significantly than non coached managers (Bowles et al 2007).

The benefits of a 3 day training programme accounted for 22.4% of the rise in effectiveness, however, when combined with eight weeks of coaching this effectiveness rose to 88% (Olivero et al 1997)

Smither et all in 2003 found that in a study of 1,202 senior managers, those with coaching intervention were significantly more likely to improve their ratings from direct reports and superiors on multi-rater surveys (360 questionnaires).

All in all, the effectiveness of Executive Coaching is well established and in many studies shows to have an even greater impact that the already proven effectiveness of psychotherapy (Peterson 1993; Olivero et al 1997; Thach 2002; Bowles et al 2007; Perkins 2009)

What makes Executive Coaching Successful?
So what exactly is it that makes the Coaching intervention so successful? Scoular and Linley (2006) found that there is no impact on whether goal setting or no goal setting is used, and infact there seems to be little evidence for particular models, theories or strategies having a difference on impact.

People seem to achieve better outcomes when coached by a superior or external rather than by a peer or self coached (Sue-Chan & Latham 2004)

The evidence suggests that the two biggest factors are the clients own self belief in their ability to grow along with their personality and how this combines with the coaches personality and style to form an effective working relationship. When using MBTI as a model to compare the relationships Scoular and Linley (2006) found that a more positive outcome was correlated to a closer match of the coach and coachees MBTI Temperaments styles (SJ, SP, NT, NF)

Perhaps the biggest impact on coaching success is the client’s view of the working relationship with the coach (Boyce et al 2010; Baron & Morin 2009,2012) and similar common factors to those established as important in the success of psychotherapy (De Hann 2011).

Common factors central to the effectiveness of psychotherapy (Cooper 2008; Norcross 2011), which may also relate to coaching include:
1. client’s circumstances;
2. therapists characteristics eg empathy, understanding, respect, warmth, authenticity, attractiveness, inspiring confidence, mental health, ability to tailor to clients needs; and
3. relationship between client and therapist.

To find out more about the Executive Coaching expertise we offer visit our website at http://www.nvsn.co.uk

De Haan & Duckworth (2013) “Signalling A New Trend in Executive Coaching Outcome Research” in the ‘International Coaching Psychology Review’ BPS, vol 8, no 1, March 2013.

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