The Leadership Stencil


A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves – Sun Tsu

Leaders often think that their leadership legacy will be the areas that they touch in an employee’s life: goals set, advice given, directions, training given and problem solving. However often the greatest mark a leader makes is where they leave room for an employee to show what they can do.

The Leadership Stencil

Think of your greatest career achievement. It is highly unlikely to be where you met an externally determined goal in the way specified by your manager. Career achievements are often where you show yourself potential that you weren’t even sure you had going in, where you grew in the process of the work and where you went beyond what everyone else expects.

Like a stencil, leaders need to provide the surrounds for employees to fill in the colour and build the picture of what they can do. Leaving empty space for employees to explore, to make choices, to grow and to develop is what great leaders do to engage and inspire their employees.

Lots of discussion of engagement forgets that engagement is about leveraging employee’s discretionary efforts and untapped potential. If employee’s lives are entirely specified, directed and inspected by their manager there’s no room for discretion and no value in extra effort. Engagement withers from disuse.

The key here is that like a stencil leaders make choices as to where they leave space and where they provide support. The goal is to guide employees to produce the right success on their own terms, not to abandon them to their fates.

The degrees of freedom in the white space are how employees work out what is possible for their own contributions.

Brittle Organisations

This weak I was asked a powerful couple of questions:

  • What defines an organisation that is beginning the descent into entropy and collapse?
  • What signals can we spot early of this process?

After some reflection, my answer was that a brittle organisation is one that has begun to turn inwards. When it no longer has external stimulus & engagement, it is exposed to the process of entropy.

Here’s a process by which organisations become brittle:

  1. Loss of curiosity: Once an organisation loses its sense of curiosity, it diminishes the value of external signals in favour of internal conversations. Curiosity may decline because of success, pressures of work or other cultural factors but the impact is always the same. Signals of the need to learn and adapt are being sent but the organisation starts to pay less attention and ask fewer questions.
  2. Excuses: Once curiosity drops, the organisation tends to begin a process of explaining away signals and issues of underperformance. Accountability to external stakeholders erodes as the organisation becomes increasingly wedded to its rationales and excuses.  An employee or stakeholder seeking to hold others to account or to make change now needs to work through layers of excuses.
  3. Cognitive Dissonance: If the signals from the outside are weak and the excuses are strong, an organisation can arrive at a place of cognitive dissonance.  Employees have to choose between what they might see or hear outside the organisation and what is believed internally. The pressure to conform is strong and many people will choose to rationalise the internal beliefs.
  4. Learned Helplessness: Argue with employees enough about changes or lessons that they see in their work and they will learn that change is not possible. Learned helplessness takes over where employees may individually know that a change is required but they assume nothing can be done.
  5. Lack of Trust and Agency: When employees behave as if change can’t be made, organisations commonly take away the power to make change. Performance focus becomes stricter and more oriented to compliance because trust is collapsing and accountabilities are breaking down. This creates a focus on internal accountabilities over external delivery. Collaboration and innovation break down. As employees move away from responding to their circumstances and more tightly follow policy and process,  the organisation loses its last exposure to external stimulus.

This process is not irreversible or inevitable. It can be stopped any way down the chain by refocusing the discussion in the organisation in three ways:

  • Turn outward
  • Discuss externally focused accountabilities
  • Restore agency and trust


Brittle Careers

Expertise is brittle. Mastery is resilient and adaptive.

Yesterday I spoke to a group of Microsoft MVPs and community leaders about adaptation and resilience in the future of work. A key theme of that talk was that community leaders need to take care that their expertise is not limiting their potential in the rapidly changing work environment.

Expertise is brittle. Like competency, people can tend to see it as something that you either have or you don’t. Shifting markets, work practices and capability needs can mean a much desired expertise is either no longer relevant or requires significant effort.

If you define yourself by an expertise, then there is value in being vulnerable. We need to look at the world around us to understand the risks and issues in our particularly expertise. Expertise, especially externally validated expertise, can become a barrier to engagement with others and to inclusion. Next thing you know you aren’t being warned of issues or aware enough of the need to learn and adapt.

The best way to embrace this vulnerability is to see all of our work relationships as a process of mastery.  There is no standard. There is only the ongoing work to learn, to work with others and to be better. This vulnerable mindset keeps us outwardly engaged and with a strong focus on learning and adaptation.  Engaging with our communities and helping them to create change, learn and adapt is an important part of this process of mastery.

Sharing with Value

Sharing content is for each person a process of testing and learning what works. Every audience is different and there are different dynamics for different kinds of content. After thousands of posts on this blog and a range of different types of content across videos, books, talks and more, here are my lessons for creating content that adds value for an audience.

  1. Don’t say what others are saying: It frustrates me that so many people follow the advice to post on topical subjects but then all say exactly the same things. I put down many business books when they are full of the same quotes, anecdotes, recommendations and stories. If you want to add value, bring a new and different perspective. For example, instead of describing the announcement of a new feature or product, can you put it in a bigger context, describe what it means for you personally, focus on a specific use case or string it together into a story?
  2. Start not the End of a Conversation: Recognise that in a community every piece of new content is a trigger for a new conversation. You don’t need to be definitive. You don’t need to answer every question. You can ask questions that remain unanswered or highlight what you would like to know.  The discussion about your content will be richer if it is not the end of the road.
  3. Take a Position: Sitting on fences is not that entertaining. Be bold. Say what you mean. Expect someone to take offence. If there is no opposition to your viewpoint, is it really worthwhile talking about it? Taking a position challenges you to be clear on what you think and why. That is always to the benefit of people who engage with your content. Nobody wants to spend time with your work for a wishy-washy perspective that maybe means something, but might not.
  4. Build on Your Themes: If you share content consistently (& you should), then a philosophy will underpin that content over time.  You will have themes you share regularly, approaches that repeat and a sense of unity to your thinking. Build this into your content and help your users to make sense of the bigger picture and connections in your work.
  5. Seek Feedback: Before during and after the process of creating content, engage others to get their feedback. Great ideas are one thing.  Great conversations are what prompt the best content.  The value of feedback is that it can also be the basis for the next piece of content. I have often created further material to respond to questions or suggestion or broken long pieces into parts to extend and open up the conversation.

Here’s the story of one of the more successful post on this site to elaborate these points. I attended Microsoft Ignite in 2017 when Microsoft explained their inner and outer loops approach to collaboration. I immediately celebrated a new found clarity of Microsoft’s collaboration tools. However, I began to reflect that the simple models were missing something. On the long flight from Orlando to Melbourne, I jotted notes on these questions. One thing that struck me was that the model didn’t clarify transition between these loops. As a result some scrawls began the first draft of tables that ended up in the post.

When I got of the plane, I started conversations with other experts in collaboration. People encouraged me to share more and suggested points I had missed. Eventually, with an almost finalised draft, I had a conversation with the Yammer product team to get their thoughts and understand what I might have missed. They encouraged me to clarify a few points and start the conversation. Just before I posted the final draft, I realised that it related to some themes of this blog that both I and Harold Jarche have discussed in our content. That went into the final post too.

The response to that post has also led to posts by others (and here) , great discussions and also further posts as I picked up loose threads and answered questions. The magic of this post is that it is different, extends and enriches a key topic of conversation and people keep coming back to it for that reason.

The way to create value in sharing content is to have it be something that inspires others to action or new discussion. That is the definition of influence. That value only comes if you see your content as part of an ongoing conversation with your audience. Anything else is just shouting into the wind.

The Dark Horse

Last night I gave a talk on the future of work and its implications for careers. One of my themes was that while analytics and automation are changing our work opportunities, there are new horizons for us to do what humans do best: creativity, uniqueness, collaboration, adaptation and so on. I highlighted that global connectedness enables people to be found and their talents to be leveraged in ways that were never possible before.

At the end of my talk, a parent of twenty-something challenged my positive spin and asked “How do you get found when you haven’t had the experience yet?”. They noted that the same dynamics of global connection also mean that your competition is global and the skills and scale of others competing is daunting.

Like any great question, the answer all depends on your perspective.

The Commodity Candidate

The future of work is going to be very unkind to commodity candidates.  If you look similar to lots of others in your field, then there’s a real risk you will be a commodity candidate. In picking from a vast array of similar candidates, organisations are going to pick on extreme criteria or distinguish on differences like price or willingness to do the hard yards for little return.

Publicly advertised roles have already reached this point. There are so many similar qualified applicants that organisations now have started to use candidate management systems (ie algorithms) to filter the applicants to a short list.  Suddenly the test is not your unique contributions but how well you beat the algorithm.

This process is one that can take time, changes to skills and experience and just dumb luck. The questioner was right – going in through the front door is harder than ever when it involves a pipeline of similar candidates.

The Dark Horse Candidate

My career doesn’t fit any usual template. There are very few people who have similar skills and experience. When I used to go for competitive roles (admittedly before algorithmic filtering), I embraced the fact that I did not fit the usual type.  I deliberately pitched myself as the dark horse candidate, the one added to the interview list because they brought something unique and different. It wasn’t easy. As the dark horse, you have to work hard to get on the list and harder still to maintain attention.  It doesn’t work most of the time. However, when it works, I was chosen because of the unique skills that I brought to the role.

The future of work benefits the dark horse. Unique skills, insights and experience are the foundations of global reputations. These are the opportunities that can get you roles through the back and side door as connections, networks and reputation help you to differentiate yourself and to step around the algorithms that assess the commodity candidates. Not fitting the algorithm at all can be better than almost fit, if you get a human to consider your case.

A theme of my talk was that the power of the globally connected networks of work today is that we can all develop our own unique skills, insights and experiences. We don’t have to wait for jobs to give them to us. We can use our insights, our passions and our projects to build connections and tackle problems. The work we do through interest, hobbies, communities and more is the foundation of our future uniqueness.  That work is also how we discover our purpose – the purpose is in the work. The challenge for each of us is to experiment our way to uniqueness. We also have to do that in a way (ideally working out loud) that enables others to find us.

My work on collaboration came from a side project while I worked day-to-day on other roles. My work today in healthcare payments came from that role and a variety of projects while I worked the last few years on collaboration. Working out loud shared that with networks, communities, colleagues and others. Mixing roles, projects, experiments has been a learning journey and all of it contributes to building a unique portfolio career.

The future of work favours dark horse candidates over commodity candidates. What roles, projects and experiments are going to demonstrate your unique value? When are you starting?

What Kind of Digital Transformation?

Digital transformation is a buzzword. Like any good buzzword it covers a multitude of sins. This jargon is used and abused to cover a wide range of product, process, organisational and technology changes. Many of these different approaches reflect different stages in the maturity of our understanding of the potential of digital technology.

Let’s examine a few examples of each:

Technology-focused – Build it and They will come

  • Move these servers to the cloud – Same old software. New metal
  • Move this software to the cloud – Newer software. Access anywhere
  • Give us new digital stuff – Duplicating and extending analogue ways
  • Proprietary Interfaces everywhere – You can have access on our terms
  • Solutions in search of problems – Blockchain, and so on
  • APIs everywhere – Open Access but new challenges
  • Automate everything – We have a bot for that.
  • Platforms to nowhere – We built a platform but now it needs users
  • User-driven technology and adoption – We start with user needs and work back to the digital technology

Process-focused – Digital Transformation Done Analogue Ways

  • Digitising Your Current Processes – Paving the Goat track. A faster & sexier way of the same inefficient process
  • Locking in Legacy: Adapting to new processes but building in logic, data or algorithms from analogue models
  • Digital Process Innovation: Leveraging openness, connectivity, real-time, transparency and more to develop new process approaches
  • Realigning Around Customer and Employee: Ensuring that the new digital processes are designed to deliver value to users

Product-focused – New Digital Goodness

  • New channels for Customers: More ways to talk to us so the cost to serve has increased overall
  • New product enhancements – Adding digital features or services to existing analogue channels. Your cereal now has an app. Your airport has a Facebook account
  • New products and services – Rethinking the Job to be Done for your product in new ways with digital
  • Product Management: Lean Prototyping and Releases – shipping faster and earlier
  • Opening up capabilities as services – Rethinking what your organisation does well and what it can do for or with others

Organisational-focused – Rethinking the Digital Organisation 

  • Digital team – small group of people playing with the cool stuff
  • Digital Labs – put digital experimentation somewhere safe but let it grow into a business
  • Digital Ventures – partner with startups to do digital innovation. Mostly we bring the money.
  • Measurement and Analytics – HR Data for the win
  • Agile transformation (or similar) – Take digital practices and incorporate them into our workflow and structures. Some times it works. Mostly it doesn’t
  • Digital People Experience – Onboard, work, and offboard yourself
  • Digital Culture Transformation – Scaled Learning and Change and rethinking Value Creation

This small sample highlights myriad ways that digital technologies are used in organisations. There’s many more. In each of these areas in which digital can change the organisation, it comes down to a few key questions:

  • Are you ready to change your thinking?
  • Are you ready to change your approach?
  • Who are you designing for?
  • What value do you want to create – for them? for you?
  • Are your prepared to learn and adapt?

Who Owns the Problem? You Do

Every problem deserves someone to get it fixed. If the owner of the problem is unclear, it’s your job to fix it or find someone to fix it. That might be unfair but it’s the only sure way things improve.

Today browsing the social feed I saw a rather disappointing statement:

We hear this kind of statement a lot:

  • “If only someone would do something”,
  • “why doesn’t someone fix this?”
  • “management should have addressed it”
  • “politicians should be solving this
  • “I’ve known for years someone should do something”

We can sit and bemoan the state of leadership globally (I do often), but it rarely contributes to the solution of problems. What does drive solutions is people taking up their agency to act and encouraging others to do the same.

If there is a problem with no person obviously working to solve it, then the burden falls on the person who can see the problem to work on it. Rarely you might be the only person who can see that problem or deliver that solution because of your unique skills, situation or perspective. Often, everyone else might be waiting for someone to show leadership, declare the need for work and start. I’ve seen many situations where it only took someone to say I think we should fix this for solutions to be found. Even more often, the person whose job it is to fix that issue might have other issues and just not be accountable enough. They aren’t going to change with wishes. They need the pressure of action and conversations to see the need to contribute their help.

Many of you might feel it is unfair to ask you to act because you are adversely impacted by the problem. It is. Ending that unfairness requires action. There are plenty of problems of structural or societal or power inequality, that can’t be solved by the actions of one person. They probably won’t be solved quickly. They also won’t be solved if we wait. Everyone can play a role, even if that role is just going looking for someone else to help or describing the problem in a way that enables others to take action.

If you find a problem that’s not being solved fast enough for your liking, either help or bring in the people who can help. It is that simple. If we all take up this accountability to fix or find the fixer then things improve rapidly. Importantly, in this process we also discover a whole bunch of agency and a whole lot of learned helplessness disappears.

Passionate and inspiring leaders aren’t wishing for a better and waiting for problems to be solved. They are creating solutions through action and accountability. That energy and activity is what engages others and changes the world.



I often talk to senior executives about the challenges their organisations face creating value, coordinating work and achieving strategic goals in a rapidly moving digital environment.  Those challenges commonly fall into 3 categories:

  • Awareness: Do the employees in the organisation know what they should know? Are we making use of information effectively and in a timely manner?  This challenge is often summarised by the wish ‘If only, we knew what we know’
  • Alignment: How do I know that the effort in my organisation is going to creating value and high value work aligned to strategic goals? How do I enable employees to autonomously solve alignment issues? This challenge is often summarised by the wish ‘If only, we could get alignment without the meetings’
  • Action: How can I benefit from my employee’s position on the spot to solve problems and put information to use? How can we react faster and better to the opportunities around us? How do we engage discretionary effort and make things happen at scale? This challenge can be summarised by the wish: ‘If only, we didn’t wait for instruction’

I have previously described three patterns of human interaction that help address these key issues for senior executives:

  • Chat helps create Shared Information
  • Conversation helps create Shared Understanding
  • Collaboration helps create Shared Work

Shared Information solves Awareness: An organisation that has robust chats will have a wide sharing of information among employees. It is never possible to create complete information awareness, but we can foster an environment in the organisation of what McChrystal calls ‘Shared consciousness’ in his book Team of Teams. Having transparent sharing of information and context building chat across a public network, increases the likelihood that information will be available for employees to pull into their work when and where they need. This is because chat both helps surface this information such that others can find it and it also develops an organisation index of expertise and authority that individuals can leverage to find information effectively.

Shared Understand solves Alignment: Once issues of simple awareness and status of goals are removed by creating a shared context, most issues of alignment are issues of a lack of shared understanding. People are not testing their understanding of the goals and the impact of their work in conversations that would identify the tensions and enable them to adapt to better alignment. When there is misalignment, the issue is rarely one of better broadcasting of information, it is usually how well the recipients are understanding the messages and its connection to their work and its value.  Increasing the pace and volume of conversations that reconcile these tensions when small and improve the mutual understanding is essential to developing more effective alignment and sustaining that alignment as things change.

Shared Work solves Action: It’s hard and risky to make change on your own. Collaborative work brings people into action and shows them the potential of their work to drive change and benefit others. Increasing the volume of shared work, addresses agency, fosters better experiences for employees and customers and ultimately creates an environment in which a breadth of innovation is fostered.

We can see how Chat, Conversation and Collaboration mature across the four stages of the Collaboration Maturity model in the following chart:

  • Connect: bringing people together can start some chatter and enables the initial conversations around people and alignment.
  • Share: Chat is now well developed and the sharing in the network helps develop alignment. People are beginning to be inspired to action by the sharing going on, but this action may not be visible or be in other domains.
  • Solve: There is a rich environment for awareness and the potential of networks to solve issues of alignment is being explored well. The benefits of problems being solved is inspiring an increasing level of action and engagement from employees
  • Innovate:  Effective innovation requires all three to be operating at a high level and the ability to bring the whole organisation’s systems to bear on challenges and opportunities. This level of collaborative performance requires a high level of trust to have been created through the experience of growing maturity.

Here’s a table to reflect how each stage can be mapped.

Aware Aligned Action

This discussion to date has been agnostic of the tools you might choose to conduct chats, conversations and collaboration. As I have noted previously, these human behaviours relate to patterns of human interactions but can be mapped to a range of features of different collaboration tools. Different features of different tools address the various elements of awareness, alignment and action to differing degrees. Most importantly your tool will have significant impact on the shape of what is known and what is unknown. This can be a critical issue in awareness, alignment and action and the resulting value created (a topic for a future blog).

In addition, you will always find users whose preferences differ and they seek to execute the behaviour in unusual ways to suit their perceptions and needs. At times there may be a need for chats, conversations or collaborations to improve awareness, alignment, and action for these users.

Most important in achieving the goals that management want to see from these tools are key questions that must be address in the adoption of any new work behaviours:

  • what is the culture of the organisation now and what does it need to be for success?
  • How open and transparent can we be with information?
  • How well shared is the information, understanding and work of the organisation to begin?
  • What is the pace of change and adaptation?

The key challenges of management can be easily and effectively addressed by encouraging adoption of both inner and outerloop work tools and the use of both in combination. Designing and supporting that adoption in organisations requires a focus on the human change that will ensure success.

Unrealistic Ambitions

Your ambitions don’t have to match your expectations. What’s realistic is not a limit to what should be attempted. Knowing your ambitions are unrealistic but pursuing them anyway enables growth, learning and can support happiness.

Happiness and Expectations.

Rachel Happe shared this great advice on Twitter:

Happiness is often shaped by the gap between expectations and reality. Too often people lose touch with what’s actually going on and their expectations become unrealistic.

This is never truer then when people are enthusiastically promoting change. Enthusiasm can often drift into an unwillingness to listen to others concerns and a certainty of success that is unfounded. Enthusiasm often creates unrealistic expectations.

Remaining engaged with the community around your work and listening actively to their views is critical to keeping a realistic view of expectations. This engagement is where you will find the real barriers to you success and the opportunities to be leveraged.

Expectations and Ambitions

Unfortunately, many take the view that their ambitions should be what is expected (or less). Unwilling to fail or be disappointed they set their ambitions in the safe and comfortable zone of expectations.

However, expectations are rarely a single certain outcome. They are usually a wide probabilistic range. The safe zone gives up a lot of improbable but still possible territory. This is where ambition and expectations can safely diverge.

I’ve struggled with many people at work and in life generally over the idea you can have extreme ambitions and moderate expectations. There is always someone in the team who will say ‘that’s unlikely. What should we bother?’ This is usually met with ‘If it is likely, why should we bother?’ The zone of discomfort where our ambitions exceed our expectations is where we start to grow and realise our potential.

Many people think ambition must equal expectation but that is a path to either unhappiness or underperformance. Lift you expectations to unrealistic ambitions and you will be disappointed. Sink your ambitions to what is realistic and you won’t grow your potential or create meaningful change. The status quo isn’t what you are seeking to reinforce.

It is important to note I’m not advocating the unrealistic expectations that come to those with privilege. People may be ordained to have high expectations. Effort in the circumstances, fair or unfair, determines who succeeds. Failure is real and likely. As I have suggested before change agents need to be wildly optimistic and have the cold hard clarity of reality before them. Privilege and all the systemic barriers to success are good reasons to separate our ambitions and our expectations. Sustained effort, happiness and growth comes more easily when ambition and expectations are managed separately.

What’s realistic is not a guide to what should be attempted. What’s realistic is telling you what will happen most likely based on averages. Your efforts have a chance to change that. Set yourself some unrealistic ambitions but hold realistic expectations and you will balance happiness and surprising success.