Monday 31 March 2014

Don't take it so personally...

Time and again in my coaching, I hear those with whom I am working say things like: 'I know I shouldn't take it so personally...'

And they are right.

One of the best expositions of this is in Barry Oshry's excellent book, Seeing Systems.  In the opening chapters, he outlines how 'Stuff Happens' and how we react:

  • We make up stories about it
  • We take it personally
  • We react to it
  • And that is the end of the partnership.

  • He then points out the important truth: Much that feels personal is not personal at all.

    He explains the contexts within which stuff happens, and the contextual positions (top, middle, bottom, customer) of those with whom we might be engaging, and concludes:
    Stuff happens.
    We have two choices:
    We can take the actions of others personally
    and see where that gets us:

    • Lots of good stories with good parts for US and bad parts for THEM
    • Lots of evaluations
    • Excuses
    • Plenty of righteous indignation
    we can take their worlds into account.
    What are they dealing with?
    It may be harder work the is second way: 

    • Less reflex
    • More thought
    • Less blame
    • More compassion
    • Less righteous indignation
    • More power
    It's our choice.
    All of which reminded me of C W Metcalfe and his work on Humour, Risk and Change.  I particularly remember the moment when he draws a quick map of the Universe on a flipchart, explaining solemnly that it is expanding in all directions.  He then marks a point in the middle and explains it is the Center of the Universe (sic: he is American, after all). He then marks another point, and says: 'That's you - and when you confuse the two, you have lost the plot!'

    It gets a laugh: the joke is good, and his delivery and timing are excellent - and it touches a nerve.  Because we all know that we frequently react as though we are in fact the centre of the Universe (because we are the centre of our own...) So we say: 'How could they do this to me?' when in fact we weren't in their thoughts at all...

    Which leads me back to the notion of story: as Oshry points out, we make up stories to make sense of reality, and then believe them to be true.  So when we feel hurt, attacked or otherwise afflicted by the Stuff that others inflict on us, it is worth re-visiting the story behind the hurt: and recognising that it is, more often than not, at least an oversimplification, if not a complete fiction.

    Sunday 23 March 2014

    Learning to communicate

    I like to think I am pretty good at communicating, but over the last week or two, I have really learned something new - something that can be summed up as Assert, then Justify. The idea is to be crystal clear from the outset about the purpose of the communication, and state that.

    My preferred style, which works well with groups or in one-to-one conversations, is a narrative approach. I introduce a theme, develop and explore it, and reach some kind of conclusion.

    However, feedback has been converging on me from different directions. This is not always the style to use.

    So on the one hand, Andrew Derrington, who has been giving me feedback on my book, has got me to re-write a chapter using this approach.  I had written it as a set of case studies, from which I assumed the intelligent reader would be able to derive some learning.

    He has persuaded me to try writing a proper introduction to the chapter, in which I give the reader a preview of what is covered and why, therefore, the reader should bother to go any further.  Likewise, he has go me to write a proper summary at the end, reminding the reader of the key learning points.

    I have to say, the chapter is much better now: I think he is right.

    Also, working with Karen Ainley of Mosaic, this week, I got very similar feedback.  We did a radio interview, and as usual I told a good story. She was very positive in her feedback about my narrative style and so on, but said the same thing: I needed to give listeners a reason to listen from the very start: what am I going to say that is interesting.

    So I am going to work hard on this: firstly thinking much more consciously about which approach to use when, and secondly to practice Assert, then Justify until it becomes as comfortable part of my repertoire as telling a good story.

    Saturday 15 March 2014

    Preparing for the job interview (2)

    In a previous post, I discussed how to prepare for interview questions about your experience and competence, based on the achievements of which you are truly proud, using the structure of story.

    In this post, I want to address the vision question. If you are going for any kind of a leadership role, it is very likely you will be asked about this. 

    It may be phrased as the difference you will make, or the direction you will set, and so on. Essentially, it is asking about your contribution to the future of the organisation.

    Again, it is easy to talk hypothetically, about what you intend to do; or to draw on the many (often excellent) textbooks on the elements of a good vision (personally, I like Collins' and Porras' formulation: see Harvard Business Review September - October 1996. Reprint No 96501).

    However, I think it is most authentic, and therefore most powerful and most useful, to ground this as firmly in reality as the rest of your presentation.

    To do that requires some reflection and analysis: and again we start with your proud achievements. The underlying assumptions are that these proud achievements demonstrate you at your best, and that you are proud of them precisely because they matter to you.

    So you need to analyse them once more. To do that, ask the question: Why am I proud of these? That can help you to start to unearth, clarify, and find credible ways to describe two important things: what you value, and what you aspire to.

    If you can clearly articulate your values and aspirations, firstly to yourself, then you can start to engage authentically with the question about the contribution you hope to make in a future role.

    The next step is then to look at the role and its organisational context, and ask the three strategic questions:

    • Where are they now?
    • Where do they want to get to (and where do I want them to get to)?
    • What are the actions that will lead them from the first to the second?

    Based on your strengths, values and aspirations, you are now in a position to construct the  story for the future.

    As before, it has three elements: a beginning (the status quo and the challenge), a middle (the journey foreseen, including the difficulties and your contribution in overcoming them) and the end (the desired future state).

    You will need to keep it quite crisp, for the purposes of the interview, or you may lose people. For this type of story, it is often a good idea to start with the end: the desired future state, and then describe the journey.  If someone has asked you about your vision and you start with the here and now, that can feel a bit uninspiring. So paint a vivid picture of your aspiration for the organisation (or the bit of it for which you will be responsible), and then pose the rhetorical question: But how do we get there from here? Then answer that question by telling the rest of you story, ending a second time with the aspirational future.

    Rhetorical questions, of course, are not the only type of rhetoric you may choose to use. I think it is well worth  considering the key messages you want to put across in an interview, and having a rhetorical formulation of each.  These can be embedded in your stories, or used as summaries at the end of them. 

    I would not advise learning stories by heart; rather learn the framework of each story and rehearse it a few times: then the words will come relatively easily in the interview, and you will find turns of phrase that are expressive and work.  But it can be useful to learn the opening and closing lines, and any particular key points in a strong rhetorical form.  That ensures both clarity and impact; it can also reassure you at a time when you may experience some stress.

    For more on rhetoric, see my previous post here.

    Monday 10 March 2014

    Preparing for the job interview (1)

    If we see the job interview as a problem-solving discussion (my previous post refers), it can be helpful to define the problems to be solved, and also consider the likely dynamics of such discussions.

    What’s the problem?
    The problem is two-fold. The interviewer’s problem is to find the best available person for the job. Your problem is to decide whether this job is the best one available for you.
    Your task at the interview is to help the interviewer to make a good decision about your suitability, and also to discover anything you need to know to make a good decision about the job.
    To do the first, you need to understand both the job and the person specifications, and how you relate to them.
    To do the second, you need to be clear about your aspirations, and the conditions under which you would be happy to take the job. That will normally include doing some research about the organisation.

    The Job Description and the Person Specification
    The job description explains the purpose and context of the role, the tasks to be undertaken, and how they will be evaluated. 

     The person specification outlines the necessary skills, qualifications, experience or other attributes needed to carry out the job.

    The interviewer will be seeking to satisfy himself or herself that you are competent to undertake the tasks required, by checking that you meet the person specification.
    However, there is something else going on here. The interviewer will also be looking for various personal qualities. Some of these may feature in the person specification (‘dynamic’ and so on) but others will not. They normally include things like honest, confident, and likable. Whilst these may not be strictly necessary for the performance of the tasks, any interviewer faced with two candidates who could both do the job well is far more likely to choose one who also exhibits these (and similar) characteristics.
    So your task is to convey your competence, based on your experience, in a way that also communicates your personality in a positive way.

    A Confident Approach
    A strong foundation, which enables you to take a confident approach, is sound preparation. In particular, it is valuable to start by focusing on the achievements of which you are proud in your current or recent roles (and your life beyond work). 
    List these achievements, and explore how they demonstrate the strengths to which you are laying claim. For each strength or area of competence, choose the example that best illustrates it. Ideally, that will be one where you can demonstrate a measurable success. That becomes the basis for your story to tell at interview, when that issue comes up.

    Strong Stories
    Good interviewers will ask you for examples from your experience that illustrate the qualities they are looking for. Poorer interviewers will ask you hypothetical questions (‘What would you do...?’). In either case, answer with stories which illustrate your approach. 
    A strong story has a beginning, which sets the context and the challenge (briefly), a middle, which explains why it was all rather more difficult than foreseen, and an ending, which resolves the situation. 
    The middle section, which tells of the increasing difficulties or conflict, is the heart of the story, and it is that which makes the ending satisfying. It is also that which allows you to illustrate the particular qualities you used (and some implicit ones, such as determination, tenacity and so on).
    The power of such stories is three-fold. Firstly, people enjoy and remember a good story, so you will have more impact than if you give ‘management text-book’ type answers. Secondly, it is more convincing to say ‘I have done that’ than ‘I could do that.’ Thirdly, if you are talking about examples of which you are genuinely proud, you are more likely to come across as confident, energised and honest.

    If you have a weakness, in relation to the person specification or the job description, there are a few of things to consider.
    One is to be sure that you are not exaggerating something which may be annoying to you, but on an objective basis is very minor. For many people, their own imperfections loom rather larger than they should.
    A second consideration is whether it is something you have sought to address, or are addressing. A good answer to the weakness question is sometimes: “I have had feedback that I... so what I have done about that is...
    However, you may feel that the issue is potentially significant. The best approach then is to be quite open about it. That has the virtue of honesty; and that in itself will be well-regarded by the interviewer. But it also serves the end of helping the interviewer to make a good decision. 
    It may be that, once it is in the open, the organisation can see a way to mitigate it, and it is not a problem.  Or it may be that it is a significant problem, which would mean you would be a poor appointment. It is in your interests, as well as theirs, for that to be identified now rather than later.

    Asking Questions and Making Demands
    As well as presenting yourself in a way which helps the interviewer to reach a decision, you also need to ensure that you get what you need to make your decision.
    This is an area where interviewees often miss an opportunity, but it is very important, for a number of reasons. One is the very obvious one, that there may be things you want to know, to inform your decision. But there is also something else going on here.
    An interviewee who fails to ask questions is also communicating something to the interviewer. It may be interpreted as a lack of deep interest, or a lack of confidence; it is unlikely to be interpreted positively.
    On the other hand, an interviewee who asks pertinent, and even difficult, questions will position himself or herself as somebody to be taken seriously, who is not afraid to ask tough questions. It creates a stronger psychological link with the interviewer. 
    Taking that one stage further, it is sometimes an appropriate, and a powerful, strategy, to make demands of the organisation at this stage: ‘In order for me to accept this job, if offered, I would need to be assured that...’ If there are pre-conditions that apply, this is the time to voice them.  
    These might be things like support for completing a professional qualification; or a salary review after an agreed period of time; or adequate support staff; or many other things. It is important to identify these before the interview, and it is both psychologically more powerful, and a better negotiating approach, to raise them at the interview, rather than later.

    Emotional Self-Management
    Job interviews are potentially stressful occasions, and as we don’t tend to go through the process very frequently, we may need to pay particular attention to emotional self-management, to make sure that we are in the best possible state for them.  
    In broad terms, make sure that you are looking after yourself in the run up to the interview. That includes physically (eg diet, exercise, and rest); mentally (eg preparing intelligently, and refraining from worrying); emotionally (eg spending relaxed time with people you love or like); and spiritually (eg taking time to re-connect with your deeper sense of purpose and meaning).
    Some particular approaches which can be helpful include:
    • Rehearsal: there is a huge difference between preparing on paper or in your head, and actually practicing the answers you plan to give, and the stories you wish to say. Find a friend who will ask you some questions, and rehearse your answers. They will come out much more fluently if you do this. The best rehearsal is genuine interviews: it is sometimes wise to be interviewed for a job you don't really want, before going for the one you are passionate about!
    • Visualisation: sports psychologists have used this for years, and neuroscience has now caught up demonstrating why it might work. The discipline is to play the interview through in your mind in advance, like a movie, seeing yourself relaxed and confident, giving good answers to questions.
    • Positive cues: immediately before the interview, have some stimulus available to you that will help put you in the best frame of mind. Some people use a photo of spouse and children; some listen to a particular piece of music on an iPod; some relive favourite memories; some pray or meditate. It is worth giving this some thought, rather than sitting outside an interview room getting increasingly nervous. 

    Sunday 9 March 2014

    Thinking about the Job Interview

    A friend of mine is going for a job interview, so I dug this out, and it occurred to me that others might be interested.

    I will follow it with a more detailed post about preparing for a Job interview, in due course.


    Thinking about the job interview
    It is very interesting, and helpful, to think about how we view a job interview.
    Is it an ordeal we seek to survive, or an occasion when we have to sell ourself?  Or is there another way to view it?
    The reason these questions are important is that they affect our whole approach, emotionally as well as intellectually.

    Interview as ordeal
    Many people approach job interviews as some kind of ordeal. That leads to nervousness and our fight or flight instinct comes into play. In advance of the interview, we may decide to pull out of applying, rather than go through with the ordeal. Of course, we rationalise the decision, making excuses which we half believe.
    Or we may prepare for the day as a prize-fighter might, considering how to deliver knock-out answers and leave them for dead.
    On the day, the fight or flight response may become even more marked: adrenaline surges through our system, our palms are sweaty, and we again face that choice: to run away (though that is more difficult now) or to slug it out.
    Clearly, this view of the interview is not likely to work too well for us.

    Interview as a sales pitch
    A more common way of viewing the interview is as a sales pitch. We are there because we want to be offered the job. There will be others competing with us for the job, too. Therefore it is essential that we put ourselves across as well as possible, and sell ourselves into the role.

    There are problems with this view, too. One is that many people are profoundly unhappy at the notion of selling themselves. That immediately introduces pressures and artificial behaviours into the process.

    Also, it places us in a subordinate position to the interviewer, which is not the best place to be.

    A third problem is that it can lead to us over-selling ourselves (making extravagant claims, or promises which we can’t honour) and under-demanding of the interviewer.

    None of these will help us to achieve a good result.

    Another way to think about the interview
    The other way to think of the interview is a process designed to help both the interviewer and us to make a good decision.

    On the one hand, the interviewer needs to decide if we are the most suitable person, out of those available, for the job which needs doing. So our role is to provide him or her with the information (and indeed reassurances, since this is a big and costly decision) necessary to make that decision wisely.

    On the other hand, we need to decide if the job is right for us. This is an important consideration, and one which is easily overlooked during the interview. Doubtless, we do research beforehand, but the interview provides a particular opportunity not only to ask questions, but also to stipulate conditions: ‘if I am to succeed in this role, I will need....’
    That may feel a counter-intuitive thing to do, but it is actually very important, both practically and psychologically.
    Practically it is important, because if there are conditions under which we would not take the job (eg a lack of support), then we should make that clear, both for our sake and theirs.
    Psychologically it is important for a few reasons. One is that it reminds us that the power balance is 50:50. Yes, we want the job: but they need to recruit. That simple truth means that we can, and should, treat them as equals: rational people, doing a responsible job and worthy of respect - just as we are. Such a frame of mind is far more conducive to coming across well at interview.
    A second reason is that if we make some kinds of demands on them, that communicates something about us. Assuming they are looking to recruit someone who is effective, they will take that as a positive, compared to someone who behaves more like a yes-man, from a subservient position, or a salesman trying to force a card on them.
    Seeing the interview in this way, one can view it as a joint problem solving discussion. They have a staffing problem, and we are seeking to further our career.  The purpose of the meeting is to see if one particular solution, our taking a job with them, will meet the needs of both parties in the best way possible.
    If we can hold onto that understanding throughout our preparation and the interview itself, it positions us very well to achieve a good outcome - which may or may not be to land the job.