There are several different angles I could have taken with this comment piece. I could have explored psychometric rationales using established sources such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Hogan, Belbin et al. Or I could have taken it down an effective communication route.
A selection of either or both would have been perfectly valid and useful, but I sense from the clients and teams we deal with that they have this knowledge already yet they still often fail to sustain great relationships at work.
So instead I will explore an earthier & more realistic angle, which is simply a matter of time management - or perceived relative priority – set against the chaotic and pressurised business world we operate in currently.
In the business world today, daily life is (despondently) typified by a unrelenting stream of email – much of which is either skip-read or parked for later (or never) - plus an undesirable volume of internal meetings, many of which are for an equally undesirable duration and the efficacy of which is seriously questionable.
This is before you start to navigate the relentless 'fire-fighting' distractions.
And all of this also before you begin to focus on your primary key performance indicators (KPI), personal development plan & finding the energy to be an inspiring leader & charming colleague.
Phew, it's exhausting just thinking about it!
So it's no wonder we don't find time to focus on building and nurturing our stakeholder relationships in an attempt to attain the promised land of 'prevention is better than cure' when it comes to potential conflict.
In fact, I will confidently state that almost all senior managers/leaders we deal with have a default tendency to see investment of their time in this type of 'activity' as something of a luxury & too peripheral, compared to the daily cause.
It is only during the coaching process that they realise the extent of the potential long & short term damage this is causing them (and their teams) and fortunately catch themselves in time to flip this upside down and create a plan of action to realise the opportunity of fostering and maintaining great working relationships.
Everyone is a Middle Manager
I always find the surprise on a coachee's face mildly amusing when I point out to our clients that everybody is essentially a middle manager – including the CEO (think Chairman and formal board structures with Non Executives; yes the 360 piece is very prevalent here) – unless they own or part own the business they are working for, which invariably they do not.
So, following this same logic, it would be hugely beneficial for ALL employees to alter their professional mindset to something along the lines of "what can I do to help achieve the organisational vision, mission or business plan?", with increased emphasis on working with key stakeholder groups significantly better.
It's ironic, because 'stakeholder management' is rarely seen on job specifications under primary duties or key performance measures, which is incredible.
Instead, this activity tends to reside somewhere in the banal and uninspiring company values which hang on the bathroom walls.
C'mon, you know the ones ... you'll pay attention to them once a year when you weave your key achievements under the value based headings during the appraisal process (don't even get me started on this one, you might detect I'm not a fan).
A good first step is to ascertain a good, common understanding of your company mission, divisional goal and your role (and your immediate team's) within it.
This is more inconsistent than you might think. Then take some time to understand the role of your stakeholder groups within it too.
This is a good place to start, because if you fully understand the role that your stakeholder groups could play and do play, you can begin the journey of altering your mindset away from that of "this person or team is relentlessly annoying me with non urgent/peripheral requests" to that of "I can appreciate the bigger picture and how these requests could help us achieve the wider goal, quicker or better together".
This is a profoundly effective start point to being an effective employee, manager or leader.
I am particularly impressed with an innovative approach to 'energy coaching' by Huntwood Associates in the UK – the concept is taken from a book called Fully Charged, by Vogel & Bruch from The Henley Business School.
On an X & Y axis of Drive and Engagement, there is a top right quadrant referred to as 'vital energy'. A key finding from the research is that companies who operate with 'vital energy' perform +20% better than those who do not. Not bad, eh?
For me a valuable point made in the book is that individuals, teams or organisations can be too 'vital' (i.e. 'too driven and too engaged' and suggest that operating at 80% of our maximum effort will yield these outstanding business results.
Not the daily '110% battle cry' of the pace setting CEO's I have previously worked for, then!
I accept that creating 20% wiggle room in your busy schedule is challenging, but the evidence suggests it is worth it. And we see it evidenced in our work, too.
So with this in mind, an exercise I often work through with my clients is a 'stakeholder tree'. It's a simple process of identifying all of your key stakeholder groups or individuals often around a cartoon matchstick man.
This is your 360 world and I strongly recommend this is where you spend your 20% wiggle room time because this will be time well invested and will payback karmic dividends to your short-term performance and your long-term career.
- What things could you need help with in the next month?
- Things I could do with your help in the next month are ...
- What things could we potentially achieve by buddying up to move our real or virtual team along a bit?
The primary benefit in doing this exercise on a regular basis is to get on the front foot of the potential 'annoying distractions' coming your way and enable you – and others - to plan around them significantly better. It is better done informally and verbally (please note: not on email!) and completed in 10/15 minutes.
So for those naysayers among you who think that operating at 80% doesn't pay dividends, think again: because activities carved our from these discussions will amply fill up this time and it's time well invested.
A reputation is the easiest thing to gain and the hardest to lose, so think very carefully about the kind of 'brand' you are trying to create for yourself now and in the future. Your brand 'noise' will follow you and precede you wherever you go.
On a practical level, think very carefully about those potential moments when you will need to pull in a favour from a key stakeholder at the last minute. Surely your experience of human nature thus far will tell you that if you've helped someone before, they will probably help you too. And the opposite can often hold true too, which will almost certainly lead to a degree of conflict and lack of progress.
Finally, I would like to remind you that most people are at their most motivated when they first start a new role. Interestingly, building solid stakeholder relationships can figure quite highly in our clients' '100 day plan'.
So maybe there is some benefit in treating every business quarter like your first 100 days – it could be interesting to see how 'vital' you are being.
Gary Cole is the managing director of training and development consultancy Archipelo.