It is all too easy to fixate on what we’re doing. An era of fast change demands we refocus on who we want to be. Ben Renshaw explains
I have been driven by ‘doing’ all my life. I grew up attending the world-renowned Yehudi Menuhin School for aspiring musicians in the green rolling fields of the English countryside. Striving to become a great violinist, I practised 4-6 hours each day. I did well, but it was transactional and mechanistic. Something was missing. I quit music in search of the elusive spark that would ignite me, diving eventually into the world of personal development. Again, I found myself wanting to ‘do’ big things, as an author, speaker and leadership expert. I got published, worked with global companies and notched up an impressive client list, but my primary focus was still on ‘doing’. I became addicted to my ‘to-do’ list and eventually I became burnt out on doing; I forgot that we are human beings, not human doings. Focus on doing, and we can lose our humanity, becoming mechanistic and transactional.
The challenge is that, for the majority of us, reward and recognition stem from what we do from childhood onwards. It begins with starting to talk, taking our first steps, achieving our grades, and is only amplified in the workplace, where success and progress are associated with doing. Delivering results. Finishing projects. Getting stuff done.
But in our disruptive world of digitalization, automation, endemic uncertainty and high expectations, doing is not enough. Neuroscientists estimate that the human body sends 11 million bits of information to the brain each second, yet the conscious mind seems to be able to process only 50 bits per second. The unconscious mind manages the rest. The brain creates shortcuts to help us interpret information faster and save energy in making decisions. We rely on our past experiences to do this, and when faced with similar situations or people, we automatically make associations. If our past experience is dominated by doing, our autopilot will respond accordingly.
This approach is ill-suited to an age of fast change. We need to consciously decide who, and how, we want to be. In my work with leaders in diverse organizations and business contexts around the world, I have identified six states of ‘being’ which make the biggest difference to that shift.
Darren was a hardened operator. Renowned for getting the job done whatever the cost, he was appointed to lead a technology department that was in crisis. Darren started in his usual way, firing a couple of high-profile individuals who were deemed part of the problem. As planned, this sent a ripple of fear through the department. He implemented a dictatorial style, telling people what to do, rarely listening and moving at rapid pace. The outcome was chaos.
The company’s HR director asked me to help. My initial meeting with Darren was not promising. He came across as arrogant, dismissing me with comments like “the soft stuff being a waste of time”. However, he gave me licence to meet his leadership team to find out more. They described the climate as “horrendous” and “horrific”: people had to watch their backs and there were pockets of favouritism. Talented people were going off sick with stress, and there were reports of colleagues almost passing out at work with exhaustion.
I played back to Darren what I had heard and asked him about his vision for the department. He described an environment for inclusion which embraced continuous learning and celebrated tangible changes. I suggested that continuing on his current trajectory was going to cause him to miss the mark. The potential for failure caught Darren’s attention.
Turning the situation around was a challenging process, requiring Darren to do almost the opposite of what he had been doing. He went to his line manager to share his new insight and suggested approach. He met with his team and shared what had been going on, the mistakes he had made, his intention of working differently and the help he would need from them. He scheduled a town hall meeting and, with his leadership team, laid out the positive intent they had for the future. He set up listening groups so that every member of the department could contribute views about what was needed to fix the business, create a great place to work, and ignite learning and development.
Humility can be developed, but it requires genuine openness, honesty and willingness to change. To start, adopt a learning mindset, be relational in your interactions with others, and seek feedback to better understand how others experience you.
Elaine was approaching 50. As an experienced chief financial officer, she had it all: a great role on a FTSE-listed company board, a loving husband, three children and an active social life. Yet when I sat down to coach her, she described a sense that her life was passing her by. She had become so distracted by the demands placed on her that she had lost the ability to be present and focus on what matters most.
For many of us, the expectations of team members, customers, consumers and shareholders have become relentless, driven by technology which has enabled work and life to go faster and faster. The ability to be present has become an essential skill for navigating the complexities and uncertainties we face. Paula Stannett, chief people officer at Heathrow, talks passionately about its impact, observing that being present enables leaders to “read what is going on” and “understand the true reality of what you are facing”. In particular, she says, “being able to read what people aren’t saying enables you to be attuned to the psychological and emotional climate that will have a major impact on leading change at pace. You can only do this if you are present.”
Being present starts with the power of intention. The simplest way is through mindfulness, which is the ability to pay attention. For instance, one of the most essential acts of leadership is listening – and it’s impossible to listen fully if you’re not present. Challenge yourself to pay attention to what people are saying, both through their spoken words and unspoken behaviours; notice how much more present you become and the impact it has.
Everywhere I go, the requirement for organizations, teams and leaders to adapt to socioeconomic, political and security hazards is on the rise. The momentous changes of the first two decades of the 21st century, including China’s economic rise and the financial meltdown, were just the beginning, preceding as they did a global pandemic that has created colossal complexity and change. How well do you adapt?
Curiosity is essential. Keith Barr, chief executive of InterContinental Hotels, puts it this way: “My biggest learning to adopt is to be inquisitive. Take the time to balance intuition with curiosity. The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know! At 21 I thought I knew everything. Now I realize how much I don’t know.”
The challenge, says Barr, is keeping an organization curious in the face of change. “Everything is happening so quickly it is essential to adopt a constant change mentality and be willing to challenge the status quo. You need to take a broad view and explore everything, including the competition, technology, talent, systems and culture.”
I had arrived in Singapore to facilitate a three-day offsite for a newly-formed regional leadership team in a global organization. The chief executive, Pam, had previously enjoyed a regional team that was wrapped tightly around her, but the organizational model had evolved. Pam now found herself leading a team with over half its members spread across the Asia, Middle East and Africa region.
My interviews with team members revealed excitement about the opportunity to work in a joined-up way, alongside genuine concern about how they could keep up with the amount going on across different locations, time zones, cultures and ways of working. I agreed with Pam that creating the conditions for genuine connection would be critical.
The starting point for creating connectivity is the creation of shared outcomes. In the absence of concrete goals with mutual accountability, connection can simply become a ‘nice’ idea. Pam’s team came up with five big things they wanted to be famous for over a three-year timeline. The next step was to set clear expectations about what being connected would look like in action. The team landed on four simple concepts: to have clear direction, with clarity about priorities and roles; to ‘get on with it’, with everyone free to lead in their own way; to be open, taking ideas from all sources; and to communicate, using multiple channels.
Establishing strong foundations puts you in a much better place to be genuinely connected.
How do you keep up with the velocity of change? There is never just one thing, but if there was, I would suggest it is intense curiosity. Curiosity will lead you to creative insight, which scientists call ‘brain food’. Yet unlocking curiosity requires an investment of time. It can initially give rise to more questions than answers. It can lead to uncertainty and challenge the status quo: if you are under pressure, want answers and need to take action, curiosity can seem an irritant. But if you lose the art of curiosity and end up in a mechanistic world of tasks, you are at significant risk.
In 2016, James Ryan, the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, delivered a commencement speech that went viral, striking a chord far beyond the graduates in his audience. Ryan proposed five simple but expansive and powerful questions, and they help encourage curiosity. Asking “Wait, what?” is a way to pause, clarify and understand. “I wonder?” encourages open-mindedness. “How can I help?” suggests a level of thoughtfulness that should accompany our instincts to be of use. “Couldn’t we at least..?” offers a way of broaching an impasse. And “What truly matters?” is a home-base question that many of us lose sight of in the crush of daily concerns.
How do leaders inspire? Whether or not you possess Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual zeal or Steve Jobs’s obsession with making a dent in the universe, inspiring others starts with being inspired yourself. You need a compelling vision of a desired future state which lifts you up and energizes you.
In creating your vision, it can be helpful to look through four different lenses:
- Physical What energizes you? What enthuses you? What nourishes your wellbeing? Where do you get your vitality from?
- Emotional What do you love? What brings you joy? What makes your heart sing? What are you passionate about?
- Intellectual What activates your curiosity? What stimulates your learning? What are you willing to see differently? What opens your mind?
- Spiritual What is your purpose? What brings you meaning? What nourishes your soul? What do you value?
Touching on these areas ensures you create a complete vision that can inspire – and which provides the context for being.
For leaders in today’s complex and challenging world, the imperative to be doing is nearly irresistible – but resist it we must. We need to consciously and deliberately decide who and how we want to be. It is the only possible foundation for navigating today’s world.