Sunday, 30 September 2012

Should managers worry what others think of them?

I’ve a confession to make.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessing about how I come across to other people.  At times it’s felt like a return to adolescence, when I worried endlessly about whether I’d been noticed by those I most wanted to impress, or if in fact they were sniggering behind my back at my clumsy efforts to fit in.  It’s not something I find natural or indeed very comfortable; it’s even felt as if I was at risk of undermining years of work building a self-esteem independent of anyone else’s approval. 

Am I having yet another mid-life crisis?  Am I undergoing therapy?  No, I’m just reviewing my brand as a management coach.

There’s something about the idea of personal branding that sits uncomfortably with many of us, that is if it registers in our consciousness at all.  After all, branding is something that organisations do, or rather is done to them; to do it to an individual seems to be treating them like some kind of commodity, and unless you’re a minor celebrity craving publicity it’s a vanity that should be avoided at all costs.

For many people, part of the transition out of adolescent insecurity is the ‘I am what I am’ phase, pushing your emerging adult personality into everyone’s face at every possible opportunity without worrying what they think of you.  Fortunately, this is usually followed by the realisation that you can still be true to yourself while adjusting how you present yourself depending on the situation.  For most of us, it doesn’t even take much conscious effort to alter which aspects of our personality we project depending on whether we’re with our friends down the pub or with elderly relatives.

Sometimes however, this realisation comes after some much needed feedback or a period of self-reflection. I remember working with a young graduate management trainee who insisted that she should be able to wear to work the short skirts and low necklines that were part of her normal style.  After a few months, she recognised that because of her youth and inexperience she already had a tough enough job establishing her managerial credibility, without adding to her challenges by the way she dressed. 

Personal branding isn’t about changing who you fundamentally are, it’s the art of presenting a clear consistent image that promotes the message you want to put across.  It’s also about you taking control of how you’re perceived rather than leaving it to accident or other people who may not necessarily have your best interests at heart.  On the BBC Radio 4 programme Today earlier this month, I heard a discussion about the latest cabinet reshuffle.  Former Member of Parliament James Purnell gave the following piece of advice to the new cabinet members: ‘you need to create a caricature of yourself, or a frame through which the rest of Westminster can interpret what you are trying to do before the media or the opposition does’.

Although your personal brand may be an exaggerated, even slightly idealised version of who you are, the real challenge is to make sure your day-to-day behaviour lives up to the image as closely as possible, strengthening rather than undermining it.  If this isn’t the case, it would be easy to dismiss branding as being all about cosmetic change, a clear case of putting lipstick on a pig.   What branding is actually about is identifying and promoting your authentic self, celebrating your unique pigginess without the need for disguise.


Tim Schuler is a coach, facilitator and business partner.  He specialises in bringing out the very best in managers, whether it’s their first management role or something they’ve been doing for a while.  More information is available from

Friday, 31 August 2012

The latest MBA: Management By App

One of things I’ve discovered since I started blogging and tweeting is how much I enjoy reading what other people have to say for themselves.  One of the sites I regularly visit is Inc. - it’s guaranteed to provide something of interest and I frequently tweet links to their articles.

For me, the best kind of article is not one that I necessarily agree with, but one that gets me all fired up, sending me off to jot down notes for a potential blog post of my own.  And that’s exactly what happened when I read 5 Brilliant People Management Tools.  The title itself was enough to make me curious, despite my growing weariness of posts with numbers in the title.  The opening sentence was also promising: ‘the formative years of any company have more to do with whom you hire and how you manage them than just about any other factor’. 

But then what happened?  There followed a list of the latest web tools designed to help you manage ‘essential HR and people management tasks’.  If how you manage people is so essential to the success of a new enterprise, somehow reducing it to a series of tasks that can be handled by the odd app or two doesn’t feel like you’ve really grasped how important it actually is. 

Now, I’m as much of a sucker for an elegant bit of software as the next person, and given that the author of this article writes about technical trends, his perspective is hardly surprising.  The problem I have has nothing to do with the use of web tools to manage certain processes – it’s about reducing people management to a series of processes in the first place. 

Process is important (it can for example help ensure compliance to employment legislation) but it is not the be all and end all.  As I’ve suggested before in one of my management clichés series, downgrading management to the administration of company process, policy and procedure can stifle a manager’s ability to motivate, inspire and engage people.  In the formative stages of any new enterprise, it is a manager’s leadership skills that will have the biggest impact on the performance of their people, not their ability to master the latest people management app.

Tim Schuler is a coach, facilitator and business partner. He specialises in bringing out the very best in managers, whether it’s their first management role or something they’ve been doing for a while. More information is available from

Monday, 9 July 2012

No-one could ever call me perfect

It’s Monday morning and I’ve started the week as I mean to go on – being human! 

I sent out a routine email asking people coming to a meeting later this week to confirm their attendance.  Only after I had sent it did I realise that I had accidentally inserted one person’s name into the subject bar.  This gave the impression that they were for some reason being singled out.  I hope my quick apologetic follow-up email corrected any misunderstanding and injected a bit of humour into the start of the week, allowing everyone to get on with far more important matters.

This got me thinking about how the need to be perfect can be very disabling.  There have been times when I’ve worried over how to improve a piece of work to such an extent that I’ve invested far more hours than could possibly be justified.  I’d be embarrassed to confess how long I work on some of these blog entries before I’m satisfied enough to publish them - how I envy people who appear to be able to write effortless articles every day.

In my experience, Managers who need to be perfect are often hugely ineffective.  Their anxiety over making mistakes dominates everything.   Whether it’s about their own performance or that of their team members, their focus is primarily on what’s wrong at the expense of what’s right.  Not only is this extremely demotivating and leads to time being wasted trying in vain to eradicate all imperfections (or over-apologising if something slips through the net), the fear of even partial failure stifles creativity.

Being able to balance an eye for detail with an appreciation of what’s really important involves a sense of perspective.  Of course there are times when complete accuracy is vital; there are also times when it isn’t.  Most people are very forgiving of signs of humanity – in fact they quite like them.  For example, there’s something bland about a presentation that’s overly polished; far more engaging is one where the audience can see the presenter’s individuality and even their imperfections. 

So, at the risk of being accused of occasional carelessness, I will not be spending this or any other week putting excessive effort into trying to achieve perfection.  One of areas where I regularly come up against my own fallibility, is the challenge I face when writing these posts to craft a satisfactory (if less than perfect) ending.   Today, I will overcome this with two quotes from two very different sources:

‘I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection.
Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business.’
Michael J Fox

 ‘Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without’
The Analects of Confucius
Tim Schuler is a coach, facilitator and business partner. He specialises in bringing out the very best in managers, whether it’s their first management role or something they’ve been doing for a while. More information is available from

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Not Just a Bunch of Wallflowers

Suddenly it seems almost fashionable to be an introvert.  Books, articles and lectures are popping up all over the place about the strengths they bring to organisations, and advice on how introverts can manage their careers seems to be becoming more sophisticated than the “pretend to be an extravert” message I’ve heard all my life. 

I’m not sure however just how far the traditional stereotypes have been broken down yet.  Mention introversion to many people, and they still think this means shy, awkward, anti-social individuals who are far less fun to be with than their outgoing, party-loving extraverted counterparts.  Most people know little about the psychological use of the terms as proposed by Carl Jung and the Myers-Briggs mother-daughter combo, for whom the difference between introversion and extraversion was not about how sociable or gregarious people are, but about whether it’s the internal or external world where they focus their attention and get their energy. 

According to the Myers-Briggs research, introverts make up about half the adult population; yet the business world still seems to have a bias in favour of extraverts.  If we take the critical management skill of networking as an example, many events and conferences place the emphasis on cramming in as much activity and meeting as many people as possible in a short space of time, which works well for extraverts but is not so great for introverts.  In recognition of this, a lot of advice is available showing introverts how to “work a room” and use these events successfully. 

On closer inspection however, some of the advice is not really about networking for introverts at all; it’s more about networking for beginners or for shy people.  Of course this can be invaluable if you are a newcomer to networking or are indeed shy, but for introverts it can sometimes be rather patronising.  It also usually boils down to tips on how to behave more like an extravert, and while this is an option, this is too close to the “fake it ‘til you make it” school of thought for comfort.  Being fake is not exactly a good starting point for getting to know people, establishing trust and developing sustainable business relationships.

Introverts need to be authentic to their own strengths rather than feel pressurised to adopt extravert behaviours.  Yes, introverts can and do learn a lot from extraverts, but then again extraverts have a lot to learn from introverts.  At the very least, it makes sense for extraverts to learn how to do business in a way that doesn’t exclude and possibly alienate half their potential contacts and customers.
Tim Schuler is a coach, facilitator and business partner. He specialises in bringing out the very best in managers, whether it’s their first management role or something they’ve been doing for a while. More information is available from

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Unstoppable Leadership

I recently had a Twitter conversation that started like this:

JamesYatesUSD: What does being UNSTOPPABLE mean to you what does it allow you to do?
BetterMgr: Being unstoppable would allow me to do anything - is that a good thing? Definitely better than being unstartable though.

Being a persistent man, James went on to ask ‘what makes you unstoppable?’ and this sent my thoughts off into realms way beyond the possibilities of the odd tweet. 
In many ways I conform to the stereotype of the typical Brit, trained from an early age to be sceptical, with an inbuilt mechanism to keep excessive positive thinking in check.  The capacity to believe I could be unstoppable is just not part of my DNA, while voices in my head consistently warn me of the dangers of unbridled optimism.  So in order to explore what unstoppability might mean, and in particular what unstoppable leadership looks like, I need to put aside my natural tendency to regard such gung-ho concepts with suspicion, and temporarily silence my persistent inner naysayers.

Unstoppability seems to require three things: a compelling vision, the ability to take decisive action and the knack of remaining motivated in the face of set-backs.  Without a compelling vision, being unstoppable is not a particularly useful or desirable leadership quality.   A runaway train hurtles on regardless, causing havoc and crushing those that get in its way.  This kind of unstoppability in a leader often encourages people either to step back and wait for them to crash or run out of fuel (as they inevitably will) or to plan ways of derailing them.  A compelling shared vision on the other hand brings others on board and adds to the overall momentum.
The ability to weigh up available options and take decisive action is an important component of unstoppability.  While some people find that too many options, different perspectives or missing information leads to inertia, the unstoppable leader sifts through the contradictions and makes a decision anyway.  This is where a wise leader listens closely to their inner critical voices, or better still surrounds themselves with people who are not afraid of putting forward alternative views or pointing out the risks involved.  Being decisive is good, making informed decisions is better.  
The real test comes when obstacles start to present themselves.  The truly unstoppable leader remains motivated when things go wrong; they see challenges not problems, and find barriers energising not draining.  A certain amount of flexibility is essential, keeping the vision pure but recognising that there are various ways of achieving it. 

In answer to James’ original question therefore about what unstoppable means to me, I have to confess that it all depends what vocabulary my inner voices have chosen to use today.  On a bad day, it is synonymous with stubbornness, obstinacy, inflexibility and downright pig-headedness – qualities I have been taught to shun from an early age.   But then a little voice pipes up from somewhere to remind me that one person’s intransigence is another’s tenacity, determination and steadfastness, qualities that even the most dyed-in-the-wool Brit can embrace if not with passion (another alien concept) at least with a modicum of enthusiasm.

Tim Schuler is a coach, facilitator and business partner. He specialises in bringing out the very best in managers, whether it’s their first management role or something they’ve been doing for a while. More information is available from

Monday, 14 May 2012

Half-baked managers fail to pass on their skills

Let me start by confessing how much I enjoy food.  I enjoy watching programmes about it, reading about it, anticipating it, cooking it and yes, I love eating it.  So, it was inevitable that sooner or later food would somehow creep into my writing about management. 

Two food-related things happened recently that got me thinking about why managers don’t pass their skills on to their staff.  The first was reading the article A National Tragedy - What Teens Aren't Being Taught.  In this, the author Denny Coates said that despite being a gourmet cook, his mother-in-law had not taught his wife how to make even the simplest meal.  The second was watching one of my guilty pleasures, Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares USA.  In this particular episode (season 5, episode 7), a father seemed reluctant to teach his son how to cook in the family-run Greek restaurant. 

We can only speculate why the mother did not pass on her culinary skills, as the reasons were not explored in the article.  Perhaps she didn’t want her daughter to encroach on her territory, or maybe the daughter felt no need to learn because her mother always did the cooking.  As for the father/son scenario, in true Kitchen Nightmares’ tradition, it took a lot of drama and an emotional showdown before we discovered that both parents felt their son lacked commitment following a monumentally insensitive comment he’d made several years before.

In management, failure to pass on skills or develop staff in other ways is a recipe for disaster.  Managers end up working themselves into the ground, becoming less and less effective; staff become increasingly dissatisfied, with the best leaving to find somewhere that will provide them with opportunities for growth; and organisations end up stagnating, relying on a limited pool of expertise and failing to keep up with the competition.

In many ways, the reasons why managers fail to develop staff are often the same ones that explain their failure to delegate.  Some of these are very logical: when you’re busy, it’s quicker to do something yourself than take time to explain what’s needed and provide the necessary ongoing support; and when the quality of the outcome is important, it’s safer to do it yourself than risk disaster by handing over to someone without the necessary skills.  Sometimes your doubts about the commitment or attitude of the people you manage may be entirely justified.

There could however be other factors at play: you enjoy doing whatever it is and don’t want any disruptions; you enjoy the feeling of being indispensable; you’re a control freak who can’t bear not to be involved; you fear your staff may actually turn out to be better than you; you’re afraid that if they become more skilled they’ll leave.   

Whatever your reasons for failing to develop your staff, it’s worth remembering that teaching other people to cook doesn’t diminish your skills in any way.  It allows you to be more selective about when you do so, keeping you fresh for those special occasions when your particular signature dish is required, and giving you time to experiment with new recipes.  And as your protégés gain skill, they will bring exciting new dishes to the table, ideas you never dreamed of but which enhance your reputation as well as theirs.

All these food metaphors have made me hungry – anyone for a little snack?

Tim Schuler is a coach, facilitator and business partner. He specialises in bringing out the very best in managers, whether it’s their first management role or something they’ve been doing for a while. More information is available from

Friday, 4 May 2012

I’m really not very interested in your feedback at the moment, thank you

There’s a lot written about how to make feedback constructive.  It is, or at least should be, one of the first things new managers learn.  But sometimes, even the most well-considered comments fall on deaf ears or provoke an unexpectedly strong reaction.

Several years ago, I invited a builder round to size up various jobs around the house.  There were many reasons why I decided to reject his proposal, and although I could have just said I wasn’t interested, I felt he would want to know why – after all customer feedback helps businesses improve the service they offer.  

I spent a long time crafting my email, taking into consideration all the usual things said about how to make feedback constructive.  Rather than just passing judgement, I described the specific things I didn’t like about his proposal and the way he had communicated with me; I tried my best to balance the positive with the negative; and I referred only to things that were in his power to change.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that his response would be less than positive.  The strength of his reaction however is what makes it stick in my mind.  It consisted of a tirade of insults about the tiny hovel I called home, my prissy attitude and my complete lack of understanding about how hard things were for him. 

The builder’s less-than-constructive comments on my feedback taught me a number of important lessons.   With feedback, it’s not just what you say, or even how you say it.  You have to get your timing spot and you have to earn the right to give feedback as well. 

The timing of feedback is crucial.  No-one is going to hear what you have to say if they are distracted, tired or emotional.   It is always easier to judge this when giving face-to-face verbal feedback.  You can see their reaction and adjust what you want to say, or even decide to come back another time.   Sometimes however we have to provide feedback over the phone or in writing, when it is harder to assess and control the timing.  Although you may not know whether it’s a good time, you can always ask first and then only proceed if given the green light. 

It’s easy to think that being a manager or a customer automatically gives you the right to provide feedback.  While to some extent is does, people are more likely to listen when feedback comes from someone where a degree of trust has already been established.  If the relationship is poor or non-existent, the feedback may prompt some knee-jerk reaction but is unlikely to lead to any real behaviour change. 

When I provided feedback to the builder, my relationship with him was not strong enough to give me the right to launch straight into detail.  It also became clear that my email arrived at just the wrong moment, when he was struggling with domestic problems as well as a mountain of work.  If I had simply informed him that I was not going to accept his proposal, adding that I was happy to explain why if he wanted, perhaps he might have been more interested in what I had to say; perhaps not.   

Feedback is sometimes referred to as a ‘gift’ that the person on the receiving end can do with what they like.  Forcing an unwanted gift on someone however is perverse; it’s not just a pointless exercise, but says far more about the giver’s needs than their regard for the recipient.  Don’t do it, or like me you may end up on the wrong end of some well-deserved, old fashioned abuse.

Tim Schuler is a coach, facilitator and business partner. He specialises in bringing out the very best in managers, whether it’s their first management role or something they’ve been doing for a while. More information is available from