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WE ARE DIFFERENT. NOT BETTER.

east meets west

Western or Eastern ?

I’ve written before on my reflections around the cultural diversity between the West and East .… this article continues the theme hopefully with some new understanding.

Many of you know that I find Singapore a challenging place to live. Whilst it is incredibly efficient and organized, and sheathed in glamorous designer brand names, I battle with Singapore’s distinct lack of emotion.

As an African, a South African, I wear my heart on my sleeve, I like to think that I am warm and welcoming and have an open heart. So imagine my difficulty living in a country where people do not greet each other warmly, avoid eye contact, don’t say thank you when you hold open a door to let them enter, and generally ‘keep face’.

My work puts me in touch with many senior leaders and I find it sad (yes, sad) that so many Asian leaders in this country don’t now how to create relationships. Even worse, they have never thought of it as important. Because they have been taught that what matters is task, outcome, output, and efficiency. Let’s not even get onto the subject of creativity …

Against this background, I was completely taken aback this morning as I arrived at a client (a government ministry) to be greeted by the doormen and security guards. Greeted – as in ‘good morning’. Wow !

Only problem is, the greeting didn’t feel real. No eye contact. No warmth. No smile. And certainly no response when I replied “thank you, you too”. It felt like a consultant (a Western one most likely) had suggested that  greeting people in the morning would create a warmer, more welcoming environment.

And I find that so interesting. Because the longer I live in Asia, the more I realise that we cannot just transpose what we (Westerners) believe is ‘best practice’ onto an Asian culture. How condescending and colonial in the first place. But Asians – and this is a huge generalisation- are mostly introverts. And whilst I know I live in Singapore (which, as I’m constantly told, is Asia for beginners), I am fortunate to work around the region, and without getting into specifics about ethnic groups, I think the generalisation is fair. If you are familiar with the Meyers Briggs Typology, the most prevalent Type in Singapore is ISTJ. Introverts, they make sense of the world through facts, figures and data. They plan, prefer detail, are logical, methodical, analytical and organised. In my world – that’s Singapore in a nutshell.

Me. I’m a bit different. I’m an extrovert (like properly extrovert). I love talking about ideas, concepts, I trust my gut, look at the big picture first, I feel deeply and talk openly about my emotions, and I’m passionate. At times  maybe too honest and when I am fully involved, committed and fulfilled, a definite pain in the ass with my energy.

We’re different right ?

Better ?

No. Just different.

I remember arriving in Singapore and was given feedback by so many well meaning people to ‘tone it down’, to tweak my bio to appeal more to the ISTJ profile. To dress more conservatively. To fit in. And I tried so hard. For over 2 years. Earlier this year, I couldn’t any more. I just had to be me again. I had to be all of me. I had to be real and true and honest.

And that’s what I realised this morning when I watched those poor doormen doing something that was so fake. So false. So not them. They were behaving in accordance with someone else’s set of values. They were so inauthentic that I actually laughed. Out loud.

I’ll say it again. We can’t just transpose western ideas, values and ‘best practice’ onto another culture.

Look at Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”. As a woman working with female leaders in the corporate world I loved it. I‘ve quoted it, spoken about it, referenced it in programmes  – I completely get it. But, in Asia, her concepts are somewhat unworkable. This is a patriarchal society. One of the primary paradoxes Asian women face (and I’ll write more on this topic soon), is that they are so smart and incredibly well educated – and are expected to be subservient to men and people who are senior to them. “Lean in ?” I don’t think so. It’s about as unlikely as doormen creating a warm, open, connected environment just because they were told to say ‘good morning’.

I applaud the initiatives. I honour the intention. Not just the one I have written about here. But all the work that is being done by so many well meaning people to make a change. Yet, I think it would be so much more respectful and so much more impactful for us all to become familiar with the culture and to ensure that the work we do is relevant. Be yourself. And please, let other people be themselves. Let’s use our diversity to create more. Not less.

 

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PS – If you like the visual accompanying this post, it’s by Yang Liu, a Chinese artist born in Beijing who has lived in Germany since 1990. Her graphics depict with startling simplicity the difference between East & West – click here for a few more    

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OK, WE GET IT …

Female LeadersLast night I had the pleasure of having dinner with an old friend and coachee.

She regaled me with hilarious tales of her latest (female) boss, and reminded me how important it is for leaders to be aware of a couple of things

Ladies, you are not men. You do not need to put ‘it’ on the table. Even, and especially, if you are in the minority, working alongside a bunch of men, you do not need to act like them. If you do, your staff will laugh at you. Period. You look like an ass.

Harvard Business Review’s September 2013 edition, leads with the headline “ Emotional, Bossy, Too Nice – the biases that still hold female leaders back”

Other than the word “emotional”, which does rankle a bit (probably because there’s an element of truth) in it, the other two words can be applied to all leaders.

I’m currently coaching a phenomenal young leader. He made partner at a really young age, and is leading a global team. He’s smart, articulate, considered – did I say smart ?  As part of my Executive Coaching Programmes, I request key stakeholder feedback – this is what one of his direct reports had to say : “ He likes to be the boss. That is fine. But he is already the boss”.

We get that you have arrived. Everyone can see you are the boss. Stop showing off and trying to prove it.

All it shows us, and what both examples have in common, is a lack of self-confidence. Ladies (and guys), please remember that when viewed from the outside, all others can do is guess the motives for your behavior.

At best they may guess that you’re trying to prove yourself. At worst, they may guess that you’re in over your head; that you lack confidence and thus need to throw your weight around to ‘stamp your authority’ on those whom you don’t really know how to lead.

And because they don’t really know what the truth is, they’ll test you until they get you or until you get real.

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INTEGRITY. UNDERSTANDING YOUR HEAD TO LEAD FROM YOUR HEART.

A few days ago I was telling some friends that research is currently being conducted on the neuroscience of integrity. Which initiated a discussion around whether integrity can be ‘acquired’. The prevailing view was that someone is either ‘integrous’ (not a real word, I know), or they’re not.

That’s a bit black and white for me. It’s like saying someone is either born a leader. Or they’re not.

Working in the field of human development, that view would negate my very raison d’etre.

So it got me thinking …. And what I thought about was what I do and how I do it.

Most people enlist a coach because they want to change something. Or someone has suggested they change something. And that something is generally speaking, a behaviour – to listen better / be more assertive / treat people with respect / be more collaborative / be more trusting / be more authentic … it could be any number of behavioural skills.

So that’s what I do.

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HOW BEHAVIOURAL CHANGE HAPPENS

How I do it is best described by enlisting the little man in the accompanying visual.

The change people want to see can generally be measured by a change in behaviour – because it’s the only part of the system that is external. But what I don’t do is work on the behaviour. You read that right.  The reason for this is that behaviour is simply the last visible sign in a series of thoughts and attitudes. Behaviour (what we say and what we do) is preceded by the way we think (and what we feel). And changing behaviour without changing thinking is only going to generate short-term change. So it would seem to make sense to work at the level of thought.

But it’s not enough. You see, what is needed is to go up even higher – to where we form our values, beliefs, attitudes, our cultural norms – our frames of meaning.  Because they determine our thinking. So if you wanted to exhibit integrity … to be more authentic, your behaviour would have to be congruent with your frames of meaning.

As a first step, you would need to unpack your head in order to examine your beliefs and values –to determine if they’re really yours. Secondly, to choose whether they’re really right for you. And if they’re not, to decide what your optimal beliefs are. This is the process of truly understanding yourself, of building self-awareness.

Then when you understand who you are, and you know what you really believe in, it becomes easier to think about things and take a stand. So often it is hard to act with integrity because we espouse values that are not really our own. And because we do things that we have been instructed to do – without really believing in the course of action.

On reflection, whilst integrity may be classified as a combination of cognitive and perceptual skills, and  by definition can thus be learned, I think more importantly, it is a consequence of having what the Dalai Lama calls ‘a solid sense of self’. As coaches, what we do is facilitate the discovery of that knowledge of self. What we ask of our clients is that they have the courage to go there and unpack their heads, examine what’s inside, decide whether it’s really meaningful – and if it’s not, change it. Or face the risk of behaving in accordance with someone else’s beliefs.

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STARTERS – OR THE MAIN COURSE?

Choosing from the Menu of Life

A long, long time ago in a previous life I was a doormat. I know it’s hard to believe. But I was raised to be polite, respectful and helpful and put the needs of others before mine. Somehow I muddled up those messages and mistook them for a need to say ‘yes’; to please and comply.

Things have changed somewhat over the last 25 years or so. First I got comfortable with the fact that it was ok to look after my needs, I started standing up for myself, and then I got comfortable to say ‘no’. Like, very comfortable.

For those of you who know me well and read my blog, you’ll know that I found it tough leaving an established coaching practice in South Africa & starting up all over again in Singapore. Ok, tough is a euphemism. But of course, I have been coached to within an inch of my life. So I really know what drives me. I’m incredibly conscious of my beliefs, values, goals and strategies. And I do my best to make sure my personal and professional behaviour reflect that. In fact I’m so conscious of who I am and what I want that over the past few months, I found myself desperately wanting to say ‘yes’ – just for a change.

Hence I’ve turned down 3 job offers this year. One of which would be my dream job if I ever wanted to move back into permanent corporate employment. Excuse me whilst I shudder  ….  Which is why I said no. The other two ? Well let’s just say that the growth/value/freedom/innovation /remuneration equation didn’t quite balance the way I would have liked it to. There were bits missing. And I just don’t do missing bits anymore.

Just like I don’t coach someone with whom I don’t have rapport. Just like I have also turned down work this year that was cleverly disguised as coaching, but in reality was probably counselling dressed in a beautiful Armani suit.

So, I really, really wanted to say ‘yes’ for a change. I wanted more business. I wanted the right business.  I also really wanted to say ‘yes’ to a few organizations in particular. It happened one Friday afternoon a couple of weeks ago – I got to say ‘yes’ five times in one afternoon.

Looking back, what did I learn ? Sure, it reinforced the principle that sometimes you have to say no to say yes.

But … there was something else …

I know that when something is completely aligned to my values and goals, it’s easy for me to say yes. It just slips out. No analytical thought, discussion or consideration is necessary. I just know !

Here’s something else I know – I’m going to have to keep saying ‘no’ to say ‘yes’, because I love saying yes. It’s no longer even a shadow from my past. It is the result of having done so much self-awareness work, and so much professional work that acting out of integrity and courageous authenticity is the only way I can make decisions.

So, if you find yourself vacillating , going round and round with decisions, not knowing if you really want something, my advice would be to return to your core. Figure out who you are, what is meaningful for you and what you really, really want. Then start practicing how to say ‘no’ to the iffy things life offers you – so that one day you can say ‘yes’ to the items on the menu of life that really matter to you.

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WHY ALL THE FUSS?

You know how when you’re not in an industry it can be bemusing, sometimes even ridiculous how people go on about what they do and why it’s so important / fascinating / special ???

Well, why the fuss around Leadership ? What’s so special about Leaders ?

Surely they’ve got to the top, they get paid a fortune – do they really need any more attention ?

Well, actually – yes, they do. Because the more effective your leaders are, the more successful your organization is going to be.

So, I hear you say, I am an entrepreneur …. Yeah, well …the more effective your leadership skills, the more successful your business is going to be.  I am a manager – let’s say it again ….. the more effective your leadership skills are, the more successful your team is going to be. ¹

So, for me, this is a fuss worth getting.

If you’re really serious about being successful (however you define that is up to you), then look at your leadership skills. Skills like relating to others – your interpersonal skills. Do you get on with people ?  Do you develop them ? Just because you are a technical expert, doesn’t mean you are a people expert .

Are you self-aware ? Or are you oblivious to your strengths and your shortcomings ? Do you have a healthy understanding of the system in which you operate, the big picture and the causes – not just the symptoms of the challenges you face? Do you collaborate – or compete ?

Most importantly, are you Authentic ?

One of the leadership effectiveness skills most highly correlated with business performance is … not ambition, not control, not perfection … but Authenticity. ²

When you know who you are and you know what you stand for, you demonstrate integrity. You walk your talk, you can be trusted to do what you say. You’re willing to take a stand, have the tough conversation, not duck the issues. Why ? Because you know what matters to you. And a leader without an internal compass has no hope of setting a direction or vision for his or her team. And whether it be crystal clear, or smudgy and blurred, your results will be a direct reflection of your vision.

So in whichever context you lead … as a manager, as a manager of managers, as an Executive, as a parent – start by leading yourself. Start by aligning who you are with what you do and say – and then humbly give gratitude for the success that comes your way.

(If you’d like to know more, and are curious as to how developed your Leadership skills and competencies are, as well as gain insight into your habits and behaviour patterns, drop me a line – I’ve got a phenomenal process to share with you)

¹ http://www.theleadershipcircle.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/12_OrgPerformance.pdf

² Figure 3. http://www.theleadershipcircle.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/13_TLC_profile.pdf

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