Spark – where do I find it now?

Ah COVID-19.  I dislike you for many reasons.  One of these reasons is that you have taken away my opportunity to find a spark, particularly at work.  A spark in the workplace is that unplanned, surreptitious moment where you are discussing an idea with a colleague in person.  The idea only improves as you gently tap it back to each other, building on the idea each time you return it, like a game of volleyball.  Damn you COVID.  How am I supposed to find a spark now?  This is the question that a client asked me recently.  This is how I responded (not entirely, but you will get the drift of how the conversation went).

Working in a different way challenges our routine, habits, and the ability to do our thing, the way we are used to doing it.  So, we can lament the fact that so much has been taken away from us during this time, or we can accept that it is not great, but it can work.   

I don’t know about you, but I find zoom, or any other virtual meeting platform lacking in spark.  The key reason I have identified is that when I have a zoom meeting- it is just that.  A meeting that is planned, has a topic, a timeframe and invited participants.  When I have a spark moment at work, it is generally unplanned, unstructured, in person, it may involve a whiteboard, post it notes and a physical space to promote lots of sparks. Now of course brainstorming sessions can be planned and often are.  However, think back to the best ideas that have occurred at work.  Where were you?  Who were you with? What were you doing? I bet it was something offbeat, out of the norm and unexpected.  This is where the best sparks can be found.

So how do we create the right conditions for sparks and creative moments outside of the physical workplace.  Firstly, we need to challenge our established definition of a workplace.  Where once a upon a time (or in the olden days as my kids like to say, even though they are referring only as far back as the early 2000’s) we congregated at work in the same place and the same time most days of the week, this has now changed.  I will go so far as to say this has permanently changed.  Many will not return to this kind of structure.  We will work from varied locations, on varied days and times.   So, we need to find a way to encourage sparks in a new way of working.

We could find sparks in a phone call, in a walk and talk session, in a virtual “drop in” time where you can choose to hangout in a virtual platform on virtual tables, couches or beanbags and share ideas with colleagues.  Or lots of sharing platforms have the functionality where you can post an idea and have colleagues provide feedback and add to your idea.  Some organisations will have already been doing this for some or most of the time but for many organisations this way of working is all new.  However, it can still bring a spark. 

In Cultivating Creativity, Miller (2015) tells us that the creating mind, poses unfamiliar questions, conjures fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers, posits new ideas, considers multiple angles, assumes alternate identities, devises ingenious solutions, shifts frameworks, presents uncertainty, surprise disequilibrium and takes interpretive risks.

Let’s not focus on the barriers that could get in the way of great creative thinking.  We could do all of the above in person, on a phone, on a video conference or via a chat function.  The fundamental aspect is the thinking, not the location or the environment. 

Whilst the way we work has changed, there are still lots of opportunities to create sparks, to create with others, to collaborate and to innovate.  And we now have more options for when why and how these sparks occur.    

5 common mistakes in building business relationships

You have been allocated a new internal client group to partner with.  You don’t really know the leaders or the team, but you are keen to get in, make a great impression, build the relationship and offer high value as a Business Partner.  We can set out with best of intentions and leverage our reputation and experience, but even with those right factors in place, sometimes it can go wrong.

I am a firm believer in learning and putting our stuff ups learning in practice.  So here are 5 common mistakes Business Partners can make and how to avoid them.    

1.You try and become their bestie

Of course, in any relationship one key factor is likability.  When we like people, and they like us, things are so much easier.  There is common ground, we get along, we make time for each other; things run smoothly.  However, what you should avoid is becoming your clients bestie.  Too much familiarity can come across as disingenuous and perhaps a little desperate.  So be cool.  Take note of the pace of the likability scale in the relationship.  Be kind, be pleasant, be responsive, but don’t try to become their bestie in the hope that it will be easier for you to have them as your internal client.  It will only over complicate your relationship, blur lines and inhibit you from doing good work.

2. You are all about the tasks

Being a Business Partner often has us navigating ambiguous territory.  The problem to resolve is not always clear or known for that matter.  If you go in too task focused with your list to implement, your client is likely to feel stifled and that there isn’t a shared agenda, purpose, or common goal to achieve.  So, balance your task orientation by focusing on the bigger picture.  Bring in a strategic mindset.  Ask more questions (clever ones) than you answer to prompt thinking and discussion with your client and their team.  Achieving and delivering is important, and your client will value that even more, when the tasks are considered in a macro context.  This elevates your value as a Business Partner.

3. There is a lack of trust

Trust is the foundational pillar of any relationship. If you don’t trust your client and they don’t trust you it’s really hard to do good work.  However, trust is built at different speeds.  Some people trust quickly, as soon as they meet you.  Others take months to trust and want to see and feel evidence of you being trustworthy before they give this to you.  What ever the case, a key ingredient to building trust is honesty.  In a business relationship, honesty is conveyed when you are genuine in the feedback you provide.  As your building your relationship, ask your client if they are happy for you to provide some feedback (on whatever the issue is).   Once they open their vulnerability door, you are in a room that requires respect and kindness.  To keep this door open, focus on trust, intently.  Because it can be lost quickly irrespective of the time you have worked together and how well you know each other. 

4. Don’t be passive

In a Business Partner role, you are a leader.  You are an expert that has a ticket to play with your client groups, based on the expertise you bring.  However, you will be exposed to broader issues that may fall outside of your area of expertise.  You may need to participate in a project that has a broad business focus.  Don’t just show up for the bits that fit your area of expertise.  Be present when discussions are occurring about broader areas. This will demonstrate your strategic mindset and organisational awareness which increase your value as a Business Partner.

5. Learn the communication dance

Great dancing includes flow, rhythm, listening to the beat, and being in step with your partner.  There are a lot of lessons we can learn from dancing that we can use in communication.  If you’re not into dancing, that’s ok; you can still apply the lessons here to how we communicate.  For great communication with your clients, listen more than you speak.  This is key.  As tempting as it may be when you’re in a discussion to impress with what you know, you could run the risk of your client switching off.    One-way streets are annoying.  Don’t set up a scenario where you create a one-way street where you are doing all the talking.  When we are communicating effectively, we are doing so with our eyes and ears.  Ask great questions and know that it’s ok to not always have the answers straight away.  Effective communicators watch for behaviours that tell them the person is still engaged and they are inclusive.  Your motto here is “seek to understand” rather than “tell them what I know”.

The key to building great business relationships is not really dissimilar to building any relationship.  Lots of self-awareness coupled with compassion, kindness, patience, and understanding will have you on your way to building relationships that last.  Be humble enough to learn from your stuff ups and know that as with most good things in life, achieving quality takes time.

Strategic Thinking – holy grail of Business Partnering

For the first part of my career (first 10 years post-graduation), I defined myself as very unstrategic.  Whiteboards, markers, “blue sky thinking” and brain storming sessions bored me, because I saw it as keeping me away from my tasks, my real work.   I was so focused on doing, which in my mind created value (and it probably did for my clients) that I could think of nothing worse than time wasted in front of a whiteboard or writing strategic plans.  Even in diagnostic assessments I rated high on operational tasks, low on strategic thinking.  I wore it like a badge of honour.  “Don’t think, do” was my mantra.

At almost 30 years of age I had a baby and I got divorced in the same year.  I grew up, quickly. Then I became strategic.

Shortly following my parental leave, the then Chief Operations Officer (a key client of mine) shared an observation with me.  She commented that I had changed since I supported her when she was in the Chief Information Officer role. I no longer led with textbook answers.  I no longer had to be right or perfect in my responses.  Taking a question on notice was appreciated because the response I came back with was richer and of higher value for her and her team. I was engaging in more strategic thinking and it was being seen and felt by my clients.

I felt more comfortable than ever sitting in ambiguity and exploring complexity without necessarily coming up with an answer straight away.  I learned that slowing down to speed up served me well.  It reduced the need for re-work because of a lack of strategic thinking.  I learned that the value I brought to my internal clients as a Business Partner was not my speed, but my ability to look at an issue holistically and explore it from all perspectives before acting.  This enabled me to be proactive and look ahead when my clients were in the detail.  It gave me foresight and the desire to look at an issue from all perspectives.  I asked more questions than what I answered to gain a deeper understanding.  This was a pivotal point in my career as a Business Partner.

I went on to lead teams and I took on Executive and Board roles.  The lessons I learned in those years of my transition from operational to strategic thinking have served me in all roles and continue to.

If you are daunted by strategic thinking and define yourself as not having it; challenge your mindset.  You are likely to be more strategic than you think.  Once we value something and we can see the benefit, we can adopt it as a preference.  In personality diagnostic testing, I now score high on strategic thinking.  I think it was always there- I just didn’t lead with it.

Strategic thinking is the holy grail for Business Partners- it helps you see what your clients may not.  This increases your value proposition as a Business Partner, and it enhances your ability to advise and connect with your clients.

The value of the Business Partner role

If you search “Business Partner” as a role in a job search site, you will find literally thousands of jobs with this title.  As ubiquitous as it may be, the role is often very different in various organisations.  Yes, as the term suggest, a Business Partner, engages in partnering- but what does that even mean?  In some organisations it will be about hand holding leaders and colleagues, attending to transactional and operational needs.  In some organisations the role will operate at a very strategic level and be involved in key decisions and activities along with members of the senior team. 

Photo credit: Toa Heftiba

So, what dictates the difference?

I don’t think it’s about the organisation, the leader or the culture.  My view is that it is about the capability of the Business Partner. 

Now have you ever cooked a dish to find out that it is edible, but it is missing something.  You might cook the same dish time and time again, for months and even years, only to realise at some point that you were missing a key ingredient, and once added, your dish popped and rose to the leader board of best meals ever.  Your previous dish was fine.  But your new ingredient and slightly amended cooking process changed the dish.  There is no way you are going back to your previous version. 

The capabilities required to be a highly valuable Business Partner are not really known, until you experience them and realise what these capabilities provide.  Without them you still have a Business Partner that you will use, but they may not pop, like my dish.    

There is no clear definition of a great Business Partner, but you know when you have a great one and when you don’t.  A valuable Business Partner contributes to a broad range of initiatives outside their area of technical expertise, because they have a strategic mindset and they have organisational awareness. They are able to draw insights from complexity and communicate ideas eloquently and simply.  They are personable, have a genuine interest in collaboration that they know that trust underpins all relationships.  Above all they work intently to drive business value, and if they don’t, there is really no point having them there.

Many Business Partners lament that they aren’t involved in strategic issues.  They are desperately looking for a seat at the table.  My advice to them always is that to move from irrelevant at the extreme to being highly valued, they need to earn their ticket to play by demonstrating the value they bring to their organisation, their leader and the team.  They need to do this consistently.  This builds their credibility and demonstrates their value.

My advice for Business Partners is to experiment with different ingredients and approaches, and you will go from being a dish that is fine, to one that is outstanding.  That is when you will know that the business needs what you bring.

Leader, are you lonesome today?

Photo cred: Alex Ivashenko (Unsplash)

Leader, are you lonesome today?

Elvis Presley along with so many music legends have written songs about being lonely.  “Are you lonesome tonight?” is one of many tunes that tells the story of a soul that feels abandoned and forgotten.  Now while love songs and work don’t have a lot in common, one thing that does connect these two themes are loneliness, particularly in leadership. 

Leadership.  There’s a lot of responsibility encapsulated in one word.  And so, there should be, because if your job involves leadership, you lead.  You set visions, goals, you encourage and motivate people, you are expected to know a lot of stuff and make decisions.  You are the barrier remover and the relationship builder.  You are the strategist and visionary.  People come to you for inspiration, advice and problem sharing and solving.   To borrow a term from a children’s book, there’s a lot of taking from your bucket, but perhaps not a lot of filling your bucket.  This can leave leaders feeling depleted, even burnt out and increasingly lonely.

How do we explain loneliness at work?  This is difficult because just like stress, fatigue and burn out, it feels different in every person. 

Loneliness at work and overall in society is on the rise.  Research has found that leaders feel stress, alienation, loneliness, and emotional burn out.  We know that loneliness impacts motivation, business results, decision making and professional and personal relationships.  The research also demonstrates that there is a correlation between leadership and loneliness.  “The “top” is not typically a crowded place.” (Rokash 2014)  By the time you reach the top, there are less places to go for advice and support.  For some, there is more perceived risk in seeking help from the apex.  Research also shows that loneliness in small business owners and entrepreneurs is even higher than for those in larger organisations.    

Just like stress, loneliness feels different for each person.  It impacts our mental and physical health to varying degrees.  It has no bounds when it comes to demographics, social status and geography, therefore being felt by anyone and everyone at some point in their lives.   

Humans like to know they belong, and they relish in being part of something.  When leaders progress their careers, this feeling of belonging and tangible contribution becomes more elusive.

There are ways to combat and reduce the feelings associated with loneliness at the top.  Here they are:

  • Genuinely acknowledge the feeling

No point ignoring it if it is the way you feel.  Genuinely acknowledging it means you are accepting the way you feel and therefore you are less likely to adversely judge yourself for feeling that way.  Let those close to you such as family members know how you are feeling.   You may not be aware that the loneliness you feel could be impacting them too. 

  • Reach out to a trusted person in your world

This may be a friend, family member, mentor or coach.  This one is easier said than done because it requires vulnerability, which some leaders avoid.  Let someone know how you are feeling.  Let them know what you need.  If you just need to talk, without advice let them know.  However well meaning, sometimes the delivery of advice when you’re feeling vulnerable is not always useful.  If you are ready for advice, let them know that too.  This will help them to help you.

  • Connect with whatever makes you feel nurtured

Whether it’s exercise, a doona day, spending time with loved ones, listening to music or reading – do it.  Do feel good stuff that soothes the soul.  It’s about replenishing and filling your bucket.  Increasing your activity outside of work, while time challenging is also important.  This will maintain your social circles and keep you connected to people- remember we feel good when we belong, and we are part of something. 

  • Build new networks and relationships

This is not an easy one when you are feeling lonely.  Even though connecting with others makes practical sense to combat loneliness, it’s often the last thing we want to do.  However, getting out there and attending functions and events can provide networks outside of our organisations.  In these networking functions – you aren’t the leader; you are just one of the group of participants. 

  • Think about the teams you belong to- what you give them and what you get from them

In a leadership role you will often belong to multiple teams, i.e. the Executive team and the team you lead if you’re not the CEO.  The people in these teams are your people.  Support can likely be found in these teams.  If you find that your trust is wavering in some of these teams – try and get to the source of why.    Feelings of distrust can increase loneliness as we tend to move away from people we don’t trust.  However, addressing the source of the distrust can help as you get to really consider why you feel the way you do and what you can do about it. 

  • Recreate the narrative about leadership

Throughout history leaders have been positioned as strong and invincible.  We are only now starting to really appreciate the benefits that come with demonstrating vulnerability.  Vulnerability in leadership increases the authenticity of the leader. This in turn increases trust in the leader.    If you are feeling lonely, reach out.  Don’t play to the narrative that you must always be strong and invincible.  You may be a leader, but you’re human too.

Leadership can be lonely however it is also rewarding and brings many moments of pride, challenge and joy as you lead a team to deliver on a strategy, positively impact communities and change lives.   Through accepting that at times we will feel vulnerable and acknowledging that it’s ok, we will recreate the narrative about leadership. 

Rita Cincotta is a Principal Consultant at Human Dimensions. Rita works as an Executive Coach and as a Consultant specialising in people strategies, creating high performing individuals and teams, diversity and inclusion, employee relations, talent management and leadership development.