Tag Archives: diversity

The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century

I’ve always loved language. Admittedly, my facility in it is sadly limited to English, a few French words and phrases, body language (on a good day) and oh yes, a little pig Latin. But, what I love about language is its power to shape ideas, create images, evoke emotion and give birth to new habits and traditions.

In organizations, language also has the power to determine what matters. For instance, the language of the 20th Century stressed, among other things, the importance of control, competition, individual targets, winning, losing and results. And while many of these words allude to activities that continue to be important, there is other language creeping into the 21st Century landscape that will affect our behaviour and change the way we go about things.

To some, this language is associated with the softer side of life. In the past, It has often been derided and dismissed as being too ethereal or without merit in the workplace. But, as this new century unfolds, language like this will re-shape what matters and reveal its harder edge as we put it into practice.

So, what specifically am I talking about? Well, no doubt you will have heard and used the words. But because I often think it’s easy to use words without really understanding what they mean or how they might be used in any sort of practical way, I thought I’d have a go at bringing them into the light if only for the sake of provoking your own thoughts about their applicability in these highly challenging times. Words, after all, have a way of being open to interpretation and I’m sure you will have yours. But, for what it’s worth here are mine:

The first word is Empathy. To me, empathy in action looks like this. You and I are sharing our viewpoints over a particular issue. It is a difficult conversation. What I’m hearing from you sounds foreign and unlikely and yet I want to make sense of what you are saying. So I stop. I let my ego and my belief that I am right go, and I step into your shoes. I do that by asking questions and exploring the issue from your perspective. I seek to see what you see. In so doing I search for what you might be feeling and when I find it, I begin to understand what it’s like to be there. In short, empathy is about understanding. But just to be clear, it is not necessarily about agreeing.

Here are some other key words that come to mind:

Inclusion is about creating an environment where people feel they belong; are valued and respected. Including people means asking their opinions frequently; trusting them to take the lead in situations where their strengths will better serve the purpose; acknowledging their contributions sincerely and often.

Self-awareness is about knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, behaviours and attitudes well enough to understand our impact on those around us and how effective, or perhaps ineffective, it is in certain situations.

Cultural awareness is about the values, beliefs and perceptions that are part of the organization and the people who work in it. Organizations with an enduring culture will be ones that align their activities and practices with their values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are brought alive through action and thought; in their approach to the customer; in their hiring practices and in the kind of business they choose to conduct.

Diversity is about achieving a real appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of the world and it’s people. To me, embracing diversity means appreciating, understanding, valuing and using our differences to enhance the work and create something greater than we might otherwise do by behaving divisively and out of ignorance or fear.

Openness is about being truthful and giving people the information and resources they need to do their jobs. It also reminds me of the critical need to be receptive to new ideas from a variety of sources and people. In the last century, information was often used as a power tool by a few against the many. Today, I think that power is at its most effective when it is collectively held and willingly shared.

Adaptability in this century will be key to not only successful organizations but ones that simply seek survival as well. This is about learning to accept change as an every day occurrence as opposed to an event that must be planned and carefully managed. It speaks to the necessity to be continually reading, questioning and challenging the current environment. Today becomes yesterday in the blink of an eye. I think that those who learn fast and change faster will do better in these times than those who don’t.

Collaboration speaks to the need to work together for a common purpose. The 20th Century organization was rife with silos and walls that provoked, or perhaps encouraged, internal competition and rivalries. Now it’s time to build bridges between people and lines of business; to eschew hoarding behaviour and learn to share ideas and resources for a purpose that will be of service to everyone involved

These are just eight words that I think, when put into action, will define leadership, and organizational life, in the years to come. There are, of course, others. But, my point is that the more we use this language, and seek to understand its meaning and application, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges that this century presents.

What do you think? What words come to mind for you when you think about leadership today? What do they mean to you? How will they affect the way we work?

Note: This post was originally published in October 2010


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Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness

If I Ran the Zoo ~ A Whimsical Look at Leadership

From February, 2012 ~ I had fun writing this, so I’m running it again in the hope that you will have fun reading or re-reading it.


When my boys were little, one my favorite things to do was to read stories to them at bedtime.  A well-loved story was Dr Seuss’ “If I Ran the Zoo”.  Basically, it is about a little boy, Gerald McGrew, who decides that the animals he sees in the Zoo are too ordinary and he begins to imagine what it might be like if he ran the Zoo instead.  I’m not sure what started me thinking about it but a whimsical mood has led me to creating my own version of “If I Ran the Zoo”.  So, with apologies to Dr Seuss, here it is:

If I ran the zoo, I’d begin with the view,

That my organization includes you, and you.

All manner of folk, both women and men,

All shapes and sizes; all cultures and then…

I’d paint a big picture up there on the wall,

A picture so clear it would dazzle, enthrall,

All those wonderful folk with their heads full of notions

Who want to commit with their hearts and emotions.

If ran the zoo, I would see to it, too,

What’s important to me is important to you.

And just to be sure, I’d turn it around,

So things that you value, with me, would resound.

Then we’d roll up our sleeves and get down to work,

With genuine effort…no one would shirk.

With good conversations and tough ones as well,

There’d be no need to shout or to curse or to yell.

If I ran the zoo, there’d be elephants too,

But not in the room ‘cuz between me and you,

A room with an elephant’s crowded I think,

(And after a while, the room starts to stink).

And speaking of animals, there’d be “octopi”,

With tentacles reaching way up to the sky,

Crossing all kinds of boundaries, and silos and such,

To change for the better the World we all touch.

If I ran the zoo, I would hire people who,

Would focus on making our customers, too,

Feel glad that they know us and to want to come back

And we’d work to make sure there’d be nothing they’d lack

We’d be curious, too, us folks in this zoo,

We’d want to be knowing the why, what and who,

Of what happens around us, and how it takes place

Cuz, change is a creature we have to embrace.

So, that’s what I’d do, If I ran the zoo,

There’s more… but I’ll turn it over to you.

With blank sheet of paper and pen in the ink,

Tell me, how would you do it?

What do you think?



Filed under Leadership, Leadership Values, Leadership Vision, NOWLeadership, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness, Servant Leadership

*Leadership and the Value of Exploring Beyond Your Door

Jabiroo&MtRainierBefore I start, just let me say, I am not a sailor.  In fact being one of those humans with middle-ear issues, my experience with anything that goes with the flow has been known to involve something decidedly, and messily, unpleasant.  I have, however, nothing but admiration for those who choose, (and have the stomach for) sailing.  In fact, I’m slightly jealous of them.  There is a certain kind of freedom associated with living out on the open water.  It offers experiences that go beyond the imagination of the ordinary landlubber.  And, it proffers the kind of education that expands the worldview in a way that no bricks and mortar educational institution could match.

Witness Tristan Bridge, a thirteen year-old sailor and writer who produced this remarkable essay:


I am born from days without seeing land, those days when the horizons seem to blend into one another.  I am from the swells of the ocean rocking me to sleep; then I wake up and I’m not quite sure which country I’m in.  I am from those hours when the world seems to pause finally stopping to catch a breath.  I am from the most isolated settings, places that have yet to feel the taint of human interference.  I am an adolescent of the world, born from the simplicity of life, caught somewhere in between passive existence and the struggles of mortality.

Exploring by Cheval, my family’s Outremer 55 catamaran, is a way of existence.  We are the people with an unquenchable desire for answers.  We are the people who truly have no bounds.  The world unfolds at our hands – a mixture of peoples, a mixture of every lifestyle.  There are no boundaries to our curiosity.  We live only to cross the next horizon, to set foot on the next continent.  Our shoes have trod the corners of life.  We flourish in the secluded portions of our globe, and we retain experiences from each place we visit.  Our planet has much to offer; many possibilities await us.  Out at sea, anything can happen; places exist that seem beyond the imagination, and there are people to meet who define kindness.  I challenge you to immerse yourself in cultures and learn the traditions of our world.  Cast off the chains of immobility, because there’s something beyond your door”

We may not all be sailors.  But what this passage says to me is that we can all be explorers of one kind or another.  And, if you are a leader in any capacity and haven’t yet thought beyond the boundaries of your balance sheet, you may be wise to better develop the muscle that will stimulate your own unquenchable desire for answers”.

You should do this because the world is small and you will need to understand what’s going on in it if you are going to survive.  That sounds dramatic, I know. But, more and more I’m noticing that success, and happiness too, depend on people being able to work together effectively. It’s so much easier to do that if you can bring empathy and wisdom that comes from varied experience to the table.

That’s the philosophy anyway.  And, from the level of maturity and intelligence that emanates from Tristan Bridge, it is a pretty sound one.

On a more practical level, aside from setting sail to places unknown, how might more leaders widen their own worldview and provide similar opportunities for those who follow them?

Well, not being short on opinions, I have some thoughts about that and here they are:

Read widely and encourage others to do the same ~. This may sound like a given but in my observation, those who read a wide variety of material seem better able to make bigger picture connections.  I’m not talking about just reading business books.  While those can be helpful in building skill, to achieve more worldly understanding I think you have to read other kinds of books too including novels, biographies and history books, magazines and newspapers.  As well, for those who prefer visual learning, there are a great many excellent films that serve to open eyes and provoke thought.  All these provide much insight into human nature, trends and patterns of behaviour.

Honour Diversity ~ This speaks to Tristan’s challenge to “immerse yourself in cultures and learn the traditions of the world”.  It’s not easy, this diversity thing.  We are creatures of habit.  We like structure.  We are fond of our opinions and our biases.  And yet, there is much to be learned from seeking to understand other perspectives and from being curious about how the world works for someone else.  It helps us build empathy and while empathizing does not equal agreeing it can help us to soften the edges of our rigidity and open doors to things we may not have considered before.

Engage people whose experience is deeper and richer than the content of their resumes ~ Some leaders will seek solely to hire those whose academic credentials will meet, or even exceed, job requirements. While this certainly has to hold weight in hiring decisions, those who bring rich life experience to the table often prove to be better decision-makers and problem-solvers than those who don’t.


The bottom line is that success in these times depends on our ability to reach beyond our current level of understanding about the world and about each other. Whether we choose to sail to far-flung places or find other ways to expand our knowledge, we must reach out and explore beyond our own particular doors.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*Originally published in December 2012

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Filed under building awareness, diversity, Leadership, Leadership Development, Learning

Attention Leaders: Five Attitudes to Take to work in 2014

I wrote this post last year in contemplation of the beginning of 2013.  I’m posting it again because well, I think it continues to be relevant in 2014.  However, if you have something that would make the workplace of 2014 much better, attitude-wise, I encourage you to share it.  I expect the coming year would be the richer for it. Thank you.


Attitude is a big deal.  The way we look at things and the beliefs we hold about them influence what we choose to do and how we choose to behave when we’re doing it.  That’s why I think it’s always a good idea, especially for those who lead, to conduct something of an attitude inventory from time to time.  And, what better time to do it than at the beginning of a New Year?

So, with that in mind, here are five attitudes that I think will be necessary for business leaders to take, in achieving success in 2014 and beyond:

Attitude # 1: Diversity is not a black and white subject   ~ There are a myriad of distinctions between human beings. Leaders who believe that diversity is limited to cultural, ethnic and gender differences must go deeper and wider to make optimal use of the richness in knowledge, thought and experience that exists in their organizations.

For example, today’s organizations include people from three generations, each with their own set of experiences and expectations.  Leaders who don’t seek to understand both the benefits this promises and the tension it creates, will be disadvantaged.  More importantly, if they fail to constructively accommodate these differences, they will also fail to create an environment in which people from each generation are willing to do their best work.

The Upshot:  If you look at building a diverse workforce as a nice to do initiative, you are missing the point…and the boat. Making optimal use of available talent brings optimal results and will keep you in the game. That makes valuing diversity a business imperative.

Attitude #2: Communication is only effective if it results in understanding ~ Communication is a huge topic in most organizations.  It, or lack of it, is often pinpointed as the culprit when things go wrong. And yet, so many cling to the idea that because they understand the message they are sending, it is reasonable to assume that those on the receiving end will understand it in the same way.

The Upshot: If you view communication as something that creates understanding, you may also see the wisdom in seeking out and engaging a wider range of communication tools.  And, there are a great many about thanks to the wonders of technology.   This attitude can help to reduce the confusion that comes from  unclear messages and increase potential for greater overall productivity.

Attitude #3: Learning and Training are not synonymous ~ Opportunities to learn are everywhere and yet some leaders continue to believe that if they have a wide array of training programs in their organizations and encourage, or even require, people to attend them, their job is done.  While it would be nice to think that, the truth is, learning doesn’t really happen in a classroom, on a webinar or from a book.  Learning happens when training is applied in real life circumstances. To create learning, you also have to create the culture and environment that welcomes it.

Lots of people who attend classes will come away with new ideas and yet have no place to apply them.  When this happens, the ideas, no matter how good, drift off into the ether.  Also, when people try something new and fail, the response to that failure becomes critical to the learning process.  Too many organizations make punishment the reward for honest mistakes.  When that happens, learning takes a back seat to survival.

The Upshot: If you want people to learn, grow and increase their value to your organization, create a whole learning environment that includes opportunity for application of new skill; a balanced attitude toward failure; genuine recognition of accomplishment and; a well constructed framework for individual accountability.

Attitude #4:  Collaboration is the watchword of the 21st Century ~ In successful organizations, there’s no such thing as a one-man (or woman) band. There’s just far too much going on for a single person to manage successfully. And yet, there are still those who try to keep tight control over everything that goes on around them.

The Upshot:  Taking a collaborative perspective and putting it into practice is hard. It means making the work more important than you.  But, doing so most often reaps better results.  That is reason enough to take a collaborative attitude.

Attitude #5: Vision, values and purpose matter more than rules and policies ~ In every organization, there have to be boundaries.  For instance, legal and ethical boundaries are permanent fixtures in any reputable company and must be strongly enforced.  However, beyond that, encouraging people to contribute their best work relies on the strength of their understanding of, and belief in, your organizational purpose, vision of the future and the values you espouse.

The Upshot:  Leading from vision, values and purpose requires greater focus and discipline than enforcing a set of rules.  However, those who do it successfully create workplaces that attract talented, enthusiastic and committed people. In a world where competition for the best is fierce, that has to be a good thing.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?


Filed under communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Organizational Effectiveness

4 Barriers to Effective Communication & What to Do About Them

Communication is a big deal.  And, getting it right is an ongoing challenge for everyone.  Maybe that’s why this post, originally written in 2011, has received the most visits of all other posts on this blog.  Its’ message provides only a small piece of the communication jigsaw puzzle but, you never know, it just might be a corner piece.


I’m wondering how many words have actually been written about communication. Suffice it to say there have been a great many.    I suppose it is because we haven’t cracked it yet, this ability to convey messages so that what we say is heard in the way we mean it and conversely what we hear is received in the way it was meant.   Indeed, the road to clarity always seems to be under construction.

Even if we try to simplify our communication processes, barriers come up that can sabotage the message and render it ineffective by the time it gets to those who must act on it.  There are a lot of reasons for this.   Here are four that come to mind for me.

Cultural Barriers

There are many factors that make up what we refer to as “culture” but to me, cultural difference is about attitudes and beliefs that come from our personal environment and experience.  As such, two people could get the same message but interpret it in two entirely different ways simply because their frames of reference and language differ.

Here is an example from a Scandinavian advertising campaign.  It was developed for the vacuum cleaner Manufacturer, Electrolux, then interpreted and  used, without modification, in the company’s American campaign.  It read, “Nothing Sucks like an Electrolux”  

What To Do

  • Consider the cultural makeup of the intended audience.
  • Seek to understand where there are differences.
  • Fashion the message to ensure that it says what you mean and also takes those differences into account.

Linguistic Barriers

Variance in expression or colloquialism is common even among those who speak the same language.

When my parents brought our family to Canada from England, there were a lot of expressions we used that were interpreted differently in our new country.  This once placed my mother in an embarrassing situation when she was sitting around a table with her co-workers one day discussing the time they each got up in the morning to get ready for work. When it came to my mother’s turn to speak, she said, “My husband knocks me up every morning at 7:30”.

It was only after the laughter had died down did someone explain to her the North American meaning associated with what she had just said.

What To Do

  • Minimize the use of slang and idioms when delivering the message
  • Keep the language used in the message simple and as free as possible from business speak or (dare I say it) sports metaphors.
  • Make clarity and simplicity the goal over showcasing linguistic ability.


We all have them.  Bias is, after all, shaped by our experiences and who we are.  It becomes an obstacle to effective communication though when we consciously or subconsciously choose to speak only to those who are more likely to understand and agree with us.  It’s natural.  But in leadership, it is also important to extend the reach of our message to those whose biases do not necessarily align with our own.

The workplace, for example, now employs more than one generation of people.  Each generation has its view of the world.  Each generation also has its challenges.  And yet, the messages you send must finds ways to reach and engage everyone to be effective.

What To Do

  • Acknowledge your own biases first
  • Look through the lens of those who are least likely to align with your views
  • Listen.
  • Fashion your message to include something that everyone can relate to.


It was Oscar Wilde who said, “When you assume, you make an ass out of U and Me”  

Assumptions sabotage effective communication and have the potential to lead everyone down unintended paths.  For instance, you may assume that because people are nodding while you speak, they understand and agree with what you are saying. Similarly, if you invite questions about your message and get none, it would be easy to assume there are none.   The truth is, few people will risk the potential embarrassment of being the only one who doesn’t agree with or understand your message or doesn’t know what to ask.   To assume they do would be a mistake.

What to do

  • Work on the basis that all your assumptions could be false
  • Make your assumptions known to others to determine their validity
  • Anticipate questions and concerns that could come out of your message and bring them up to encourage conversation


Communication barriers are always going to be with us because humans are complex beings. That’s what makes understanding and being understood such a challenge…and sometimes a great source of fun. Like this…

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

(Please note the video clip is used here for illustration purposes only and in no way meant to infringe on copyright)


Filed under communication, diversity, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Valuing Difference…Here’s to the Crazy Ones

This post was originally published a few days after the death of Steve Jobs.  It made me think about how we spend so much of our time trying to fit in when really, we could be making better use of it exploring ways to value our differences.


In the wake of his untimely death, I’ve been reading a little about Steve Jobs.  From all accounts, he was a genius; something of a rebel; a free soul and a person who didn’t only think outside the box (oh how I’m beginning to loathe that expression) but simply chose not to acknowledge the existence of a box in the first place.

We revere him now because, as Steven Spielberg aptly observes, “Steve Jobs was the greatest inventor since Thomas Edison.  He put the World at our fingertips”

That’s some legacy.

All this has set me to wondering about our general approach to people who are decidedly different from the rest of us.  As kids, we shun, tease and bully them.  As teenagers, we use labels that are less than flattering to separate ourselves from them because they are “uncool”.    And, as adults in the workplace we do our best to compel those who are different to conform to generally accepted, often unwritten, codes of behaviour.

Occasionally, a brave and determined soul will break through all that nonsense and create something truly wonderful. It’s usually something the rest of us can only dream about. That’s when being different finally becomes something to celebrate and honour.

There’s a leadership lesson in here somewhere.  It’s about allowing difference to enhance the texture of organizational life.  The truth is, we are each different from the other.  By perpetuating organizational cultures that expect us all to be the same, we are limiting our potential to uncover and encourage the kind of activity that leads us to great invention and accomplishment.

While it’s true that not everyone considered different is going to be a genius, those who look through an uncommon lens have something to teach us.  We need to make room for that.

One of my favourite books about difference is  A Peacock in the Land of Penguinswritten by B.J. Gallagher Hateley and Warren H. Schmidt.   This little book clearly demonstrates our struggle between accepting differences and pushing against having to do anything different.  More about this book here.

The bottom line is this.  Leadership is about a lot of things.  Among them is having the courage and vision to embrace the ideas and contribution of those whose experience and perspectives challenge us.  Doing so is important to our present and most certainly to our future.

So, “Here’s to the Crazy Ones”

What do you think?


Filed under building awareness, diversity, Leadership, Leadership Development, Uncategorized

Corporate Culture: 10 Elements That Help Drive Results

Recently, in the National Post, there was a whole section dedicated to Canada’s most admired corporate cultures.  In it was highlighted some very successful, vibrant companies, diverse in their business interests but with many themes in common. These themes reinforced my belief that success in any enterprise relies on its ability to bring people together and extract from them their best work, not through rules, policies, processes and bottom line focus but by creating cultures that invite participation .  It is from this softer, yet more difficult perspective that these companies drive results.

So, what does this “softer” perspective look like?  Well, as I read through the variety of articles on offer, I picked up ten elements that figure prominently in the cultures of these highly successful organizations.   Here they are:

Clarity of Vision and Values ~ This of course, comes up every time.  Most companies have some kind of vision statement and a published set of organizational values.  Not all actually use them as their guiding force.   And not all faithfully model the values they espouse.  Creating clarity about what business you are in; where you see it going; and how you intend to get there is a critical ingredient in everything else you do.  That’s the philosophy Claude Mongeau, CEO of CN Rail, has embraced and it has proven to be highly effective.

Respect and Civility ~ Eckler Ltd, an actuarial consulting firm has a simple but powerful mantra.  “Treat people like adults

This company has high expectations of its workforce.  They hold themselves and each other accountable for the commitments they make while limiting the number of rules and policies they enforce.  Operating from a platform of respect and civility seems like such a simple thing to do and yet its potential for making productive conversations easier is enormous.

Learning and Growth ~ In highly successful companies learning, growth and development is not just a nice to do thing.  It forms part of the fabric of the organization and as such is not the first thing to get cut from the budget when times get a little tight.  Companies like Medavie Blue Cross see it as a critical part of ensuring a solid future for the company and everyone in it.

Service Before Selling~  Arthur Mesher is CEO of Descartes Systems, a Software Company in Waterloo Ontario.  When he first joined the firm, he noticed that people were not delivering on their commitments.  Theirs was a ‘sales’ culture that seemed to leave the customer out of the equation.  Mr Mesher recognized the limitations of the sales philosophy and the ineffective practices that went along with it.  And so he went about shifting the focus, away from sales numbers toward the achievement of customer satisfaction first and foremost.  This shift, while financially painful at first, now reflects the wisdom of the new maxim of service before selling in 2012 results any organization could be proud of.

Collaboration ~ Ray Kroc, Founder of McDonald’s Restaurants once said, “ None of us is as good as all of us”

This has formed the basis for McDonald’s organizational culture, which continues to value and build on collaborative relationships with its employees, franchisees and suppliers.

Social Responsibility ~ In today’s world, establishing roots in the community is an essential part of building a successful business.  Those who participate through sponsorships and volunteerism build a rich environment that people want to be a part of.  Organizations like McDonald’s, CIBC and Camp Oochigeas (a camp for children with cancer) are a testament to this.

Balance ~ When you treat people like adults, you also give them flexibility to find their own formula for delivering on their company commitments.  As Stuart Suls, CEO of Mr. Lube puts it, “ You only have one life.  It’s up to employers to give people the space to balance things out”

Simplicity of purpose ~ Being able to state your organizational purpose as simply as possible provides great clarity especially in hard times.  For instance, at the North York General Hospital, the CEO, Tim Rutledge expresses his organizational purpose in a way everyone can understand.  It goes something like: To make people better; keep them safe ; and give them timely access to care.  Everything else can flow from that.

Innovation and Finding a Place for Failure~ At Cineplex Inc., CEO Ellis Jacob says, “ I would rather you try something and fail, and learn from it than never try at all”

This is a tenet that so many have difficulty with because it can be costly.  But, in today’s world an essential ingredient to success is risk… and sometimes failure.  So taking a more positive perspective on failure is becoming increasingly important.

Diversity and Inclusion ~ This is a common theme among many of the companies recognized as having corporate cultures to admire and emulate.  There is, after all great richness in the diverse talents, skills and experience people bring to work every day.  Organizations who make the best use of their available resources tend to challenge their own assumptions, suspend judgement and invite a wide variety of people to take an active part in their present and future.

There are of course other themes that exemplify workplaces with much admired corporate cultures. But, if you are starting a new business or are working to effect change in your own organization this might be a place to start.  It couldn’t hurt.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?


Filed under Employee engagement, Leadership, Management, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness, Uncategorized