Sunday, 11 February 2018

Responding positively to stress

It is healthy to be positive about stress, says Kelly McGonigal – and backs it up with research data in her TED talk “How to make stress your friend.” The point is not that your pounding heart is a problem – actually it is a positive physiological response enabling you to act in response to the stress – but that the negative effects of stress only kick in if your blood vessels constrict as well.

This fits with my experience over many years working with my hay fever, which seems to have two interlinked dimensions:


  • The basic hay fever seems to be a simple allergic response: when the grass is flowering my airways get irritated and blocked up. 
  • The bigger variable is now I respond from there on. When I get panicky about my constricted airways, then the physiological response in the back of my nose and throat is to swell up even more - which really blocks my breathing in a dangerous way.
This sounds just like the people in the study quoted by McGonigal: they respond negatively to stress and get ill – 43% more likely to die within 8 years.

Over the last ten years I have been deepening my yoga and other spiritual practice to enable me to recover more quickly from the panic response to my hay fever. At the core are a mix of acceptance and shift in focus to relax my bodily responses. This corresponds directly to freer breathing and thus reduces the impact of the hay fever. It is not fixing the initial allergic response but it makes my life a whole lot better.

What is important for me and in line with McGonigal’s point is that the initial problem is just the trigger, and my long term health depends not on stopping the trigger, but responding to it in a healthy and resilient way. As she advocates, it helps to say to oneself “this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.”

In scientific terms (one of the studies quoted by McGonigal), this amounts to “participants instructed to reappraise their arousal exhibited more adaptive cardiovascular stress responses – increased cardiac efficiency and lower vascular resistance – and decreased attentional bias. Thus, reappraising arousal shows physiological and cognitive benefits. Implications for health and potential clinical applications are discussed.”

Thanks to my wonderful coach Vanissar Tarakali for teaching me so much about how to befriend and listen positively to my own body, and for referring me to the TED talk.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Sports star turns to leading systemic change

Bruce Fordyce has been famous for winning the Comrades Ultramarathon 8 times in a row, and nine times in total. Yet he is creating a bigger legacy as a systems-inspired leader in South Africa, via the parkrun movement. Free parkruns are getting South Africans out into our parks, waterfronts and other natural areas to run and walk weekly for joy and good health – over sixty thousand participants across the country at over 120 locations just last weekend, for example.
Bridgetown parkrun, 2017. Fordyce backs community leaders to create events like this
What impresses me is that his leadership is deeply empowering.This is not all about him, it is about his energy and backing enabling 2000 volunteers across the country to put on wonderful welcoming healthful events in their local communities. 

He shows up, he encourages and he inspires – but as a leader he doesn’t do the work, he doesn’t control everybody, he creates space for others to lead. As Prof Andrew Thatcher, a parkrunner with over 200 under his belt, says: "Bruce's leadership is about offering his support, encouragement, and occasionally his advice. The real work gets done by inspired teams of volunteers and passionate parkrunners."

It was a big honour to meet Fordyce this morning after he opened a new parkrun in my neighbourhood. What he says is that the change parkrun is bringing to South Africa is his biggest legacy – where winning Comrades brought personal fame, backing parkrun is bringing systemic change.

This is the kind of leadership we need – and actually community health is a good place to start. And the leaders I see succeeding most in business are those who share the Fordyce approach: give direction, inspire others and create space for them to lead.


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Lessons from the person who bought my business

Just over ten years ago, I sold my shares in the hi-tech business I had co-founded, and stepped out of the founder-CEO role. Recently I asked the buyer (who took over as CEO) to look back on the time of negotiating my departure and his takeover.
Dealmaking limited mainly by your own dedication and creativity
Vision, creativity and confidence backed by the numbers create extraordinary space for change in business

Since then he and his team have taken the business to new heights, leaving me filled with joy to see "my baby" thriving in a difficult commercial environment.

Deal making "to the limits of your own creativity" 

So I asked him how he did it: getting a founding owner-manager-CEO to go peacefully? The secret, he said, was "do your research thoroughly - and then back yourself. The only real limit to deal making is your own creativity." What I see is that he did that. Every time he figured out something I or my co-founding partners wanted, he came back with an adjustment to the deal that honoured that need. Yet every deal he offered was also smart and good for him. He knew - as I know now - that when owner-manager-founders leave, there has to be a discount on the share price.

There is real risk that the business value drops when its founding spirit moves on. And what he bet on - and won big on - is that there is real opportunity to create new value from the fresh approach of new leadership. This is something the wider market can't be sure of. But the new leader can, as my successor so correctly did, back himself.

Keep your focus on what the owners really want 

What my successor did brilliantly (while continuing to keep an eye on his own interests) was to maintain a diamond focus on what the business owners wanted. He kept digging, and he didn't take our word for it. He used every signal and channel available to deduce our needs. At our recent lunch, he shared some of the top concerns he identified, and how ten years ago he was constantly juggling to figure which needs were really our top concerns:

  • New ideas for the business? 
  • Cash for the departing CEO? 
  • Cash for the other shareholders?
  • Investment in the business?
  • The ultimate legacy of the founders? 

Translate needs into numbers 


As I look back on those days, what I think the person who bought my share of the business I co-founded did particularly well, was to translate his insights into our needs and wants into hard numbers. He juggled share prices, options, profit warranties and strategic vision with remarkable dexterity and wisdom beyond his years. In the end I believe he made a deal that fairly benefited the departing founder-CEO, the business, the remaining founders and himself.

And there is a lot for him to be proud of!

Saturday, 22 October 2016

What it really takes for Smart Collaboration

Business cases for smart collaboration abound, yet genuine creative collaboration in business is remarkably rare. As Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School Heidi Gardner PhD points out in her forthcoming book Smart Collaboration, people need to collaborate across a variety of specialisations as well as personal and cultural differences for them and their businesses to really garner the dividends of smart collaboration.

What’s needed is both the logical business case and the interpersonal skills to work effectively with people who are different from yourself - as well as organisational structures that support collaboration and reward collective work products.

What struck me in Heidi Gardner’s Harvard Business Review webinar this week was how strong the business case is for collaboration. Thanks to Dr Gardner for making the case so clearly and backing it with solid data - true cross-silo collaboration in professional services firms

  • Grows corporate revenue exponentially with the number of business units serving the client
  • Increases professional billing fourfold
  • When an individual departs, collaborative teams have triple the client retention rates of lone rangers.

So what stops most organisations from actually reaping these collaboration benefits?

Many would-be collaborators set out with great intentions, and then crash on the rocks of negative group dynamics before they or their organisation really get the multiplier effects of breaking down the silos. In the webinar, Gardner identified some of these barriers - for example blame or the assumption of blame - that arise when the people you are collaborating with look, feel, behave and think differently to yourself.

It shows up as irritation with the very difference that is needed for collaboration to be creative. People start talking about how "they" (the different others on the would-be team) have their priorities/facts/ideas/culture/values wrong, or how "they" don't really listen properly to "us." Actually working in a monoculture can be attractive for the very reason that it is soothing to be amongst people who think and act in the same way.

In my experience, both as an entrepreneurial CEO and as a systems coach, would-be collaborators across silos need more than just a business case to get past these barriers to collaboration. Many need to vent about the above frustrations first. Once they get that off their chest, they need support to open up to the value of those different perspectives, priorities and ways of being from the other silos. And for sure, they need to be convinced that those "others" are also listening to them in an equally balanced way.

The good news is that the relationship systems skills needed to collaborate in diverse teams can be learned. Leaders need these skills to grow their businesses and reap the diversity and collaboration dividends Gardner articulates so clearly. I'm part of a global organisation dedicated to building greater Relationship Systems Intelligence among leaders and their teams, and it works.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Constellations - the language of relationship systems

Last week it was brought home to me just how important constellations are as the language of relationship systems (relationship system = an interdependent group with common purpose or identity). A group of relatively new ORSC practitioners was meeting on Skype, coming from a variety of dimensions of our world – working in the cities and the townships, in companies and the public sector.

It was the night before our local government elections. As each person checked in, it emerged that every single one had been using constellations in their work around the country.
Information Constellations are an ORSC adaptation of the work done by Bert Hellinger and Virginia Satir. They offer an opportunity for all members of a relationship system to "vote with their feet" on an issue,  creating a snapshot of the system at that moment
Here are some of the voices:
  • “With a community group working with stress and change, we used a constellation at the end of the day to help them check on their alignment.”
  • “We are going to Kimberley soon and we will definitely use constellations”
  • “In our diversity work, we found that constellations work really well for emotive topics, where people are scared to say the wrong thing in words. Simply moving to express themselves is deeply empowering.”
So much of our work is about seeing, feeling and hearing the system and revealing it to itself. And so much of what our country needs is for all voices to be heard. Yet we often lack a common language. Sometimes the power dynamics leave people feeling unsafe to say what they really want to say.

What touched us all on the call last week was how the relatively light, open style of ORSC informal constellations creates space for the delicate and vulnerable process of all people expressing themselves and being heard. And how it enriches our democracy to have more ways to be heard than only the (albeit precious) ballot box.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Ubuntu's roots go back a long way


We grew up in an era dominated by individualism and competition. These human traits have driven the accumulation of wealth, power and technological advancement and taken the world to a place where we stare into an abyss of global inequality and conflict. Many decisions are still being made on the assumption that it is human nature to be narrowly selfish. Yet a bigger picture, going right back to the original roots of our species Homo sapiens in Africa, reveals just how much we are hard-wired for both collaboration and competition.

August 2015 Scientific American
As this month’s Scientific American cover story highlights, there is direct evidence that Homo sapiens’ success in colonising the earth, moving out of Africa from about 70,000 years ago, depended on our ability to collaborate beyond kinship groups. Our early ancestors here in South Africa found good reason to shift from individualistic hunter-gatherer mode: during tough climatic conditions about 100,000 years ago they banded together to defend rich shellfish deposits along the southern coast – and as we know, eating these “brain foods” in turn supported their development.

An international research team linked to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University provide a strong case that it was those early humans who were able to collaborate in this way who survived. Only by banding together were they able to make the most of this unusually rich source of food. Once they added projectile weapon technology to their collaboration breakthrough, our ancestors were successful in their rapid expansion out of Africa to colonise the world.

Why is this important? Because many people and organisations are so strongly influenced in behaviour, policy and decision making by the theory that humans are rational and narrowly self-interested. This idea must die, says Stanford University’s Professor Margaret Levi: “The overwhelming finding of experimental research confounds the presumption that, given the opportunity, individuals usually free ride. Indeed, most act according to norms of fairness and reciprocity. Many will make small sacrifices or forego larger returns, and some will even engage in costly action (up to a point) to "do the right thing."

We now have both the evolutionary and the contemporary confirmation that humans can and do benefit from collaboration. It is time we built on this foundation in workplaces and families by honing our relationship skills. Some practical implications:

  • In relationships of all sorts, focus less on what I want and what you want, and more on what the relationship between us wants;
  • In the workplace, give up the model of a single dominant leader commanding and controlling subordinates, and actively develop collaborative, innovative teams. This is not just a warm fuzzy nicey-nice approach. 

What is rooted in our ancestral strategy for success is that both relationship and results are important. We ignore either one of these at our peril.


Saturday, 25 April 2015

Good for business: Generosity of Spirit

My Dad was an optimist about business. As a young radical, I remember explaining to him how wrong he was. And I still think business is not all sweetness and light. And yet, maybe thanks to Dad, I prick up my ears every time I hear a story about business that is generative and life-affirming. Here’s one: a business leader who identifies generosity of spirit as a must-have in hiring talent for his companies.

Turning a profit and turning around an old-media publishing company going digital got David Bradley featured in the Harvard Business School Alumni magazine (Dec 2014, pages 44-51). That is a great story in itself about finding talent and empowering them to recreate theAtlantic.com’s website till it “has come to the galloping rescue of [Atlantic] magazine.”

What struck me most was the sidebar to the new media story. As with most feted HBS alumni, Bradley has been hugely successful in business, not limited to digital media. Asked to what he attributed his success, he wisely said that he found what he was good at, stuck to that, and let others take care of the rest.

To spot talent, Bradley identified two key factors fundamental to business success: force of intellect and spirit of generosity. I was struck by the second factor: here’s a successful, canny businessman, and he says generosity makes for good business leaders. Yay! I agree. Good business, for me, is all about creating a better life for all, including oneself. The shortcut approach of greed is something that clearly creates a kind of success – but to what benefit in the long run?

And remember, Bradley doesn't just talk about business: the companies Bradley founded generate $1.5 billion in annual revenues, and he took Atlantic Media to consistent profitability after a five year average annual loss of $8.5m.