How we communicate matters

I made a mistake yesterday. 

I raised an issue in an email that I should have brought up face to face first. I needed an email record that I’d addressed it, but I should have done that after a proper conversation. 

Email strips away facial expression, nuance and the ability to respond immediately to concerns. 

Having sent the email yesterday afternoon I was annoyed at myself to find three emails sent at later and later times in the evening from my colleague. He was feeling threatened, undermined and indignant. All understandable. All unnecessary. 

It was a sensitive issue. I should have predicted the reaction and adjusted my approach accordingly. 

Difficult topics should always be raised face to face first, and then followed up in writing later. 

If you get it wrong, as I did, acknowledge it quickly. Apologise. Don’t roll back from a position you need to take. But do accept you could have handled it better. 

It is inevitable that you’ll get it wrong sometimes. 

Being willing to own up when you do is vital if you want to maintain the respect of your colleagues and encourage an environment in which healthy necessary challenge is welcome. 

Leading from wherever

In a post on thinking about where you sit I introduced a model of every organisation’s structure, with you at it’s centre.


So how do you lead from within? From below and to the side?

We tend to think of “leadership advice” as being designed to help the leader sitting up high build success by working better with the group of people supposed to follow her. In other words, it’s always about leading from above.

But just about every leadership lesson ever written can be applied whatever your situation.

For example… Many lists of leadership characteristics state that leaders must have vision and focus. The image we tend to draw from this is the CEO painting an inspiring picture of a shining future and keeping the troops clear-minded on the one or two key things needed to get there.

But this idea applies to everyone.

Your organisation may have a top-level leader who has set a clear “vision”. So what is YOUR vision for what that means in YOUR part of the business? Or for YOUR role in the hierarchy?

What are the one or two things YOU need to focus on in order to bring that local vision into being? The things that should be on YOUR important but not urgent to do list?

Whatever the leadership technique or approach or idea, wherever you sit in the hierarchy, you can ask yourself “How can apply this to my work, from where I am, in a way that helps our organisation get better?”

Successful organisations challenge and encourage all of their people to think this way.

Start doing so without encouragement and you’ll be leading powerfully from within.

Necessary challenge

Are you always right? Is your boss? Are your colleagues?

Probably not. 

Supposing that we’re often right, though… how do we know when we’re off track?

Someone tells us. 

Someone who is paying attention, who understands the circumstances, who understands you, who is confident enough to pull you up and say… Hang on. Are you sure?

Who has been that person for you? Remember to thank them. 

Have you recently had an opportunity to be that person for someone else? Did you go for it? Or back away?

Learn how to challenge while maintaining collegiality. Cultivate an environment where constructive challenge is seen as fundamental to making good decisions. 

You’ll end up being right more often. 

Change how you look at change

In the 1950s TM Lewin described the following model for change.


To get from the cube of how it works now to the pyramid of how you want it to work you have to unfreeze the cube, move everything around and then refreeze in the new shape.

This is a good model. It matches our automatic sense of what we think change should feel like. It works really well for small-scale changes.

But the bigger the change is, the greater the differences between the cube and the pyramid, two big problems happen.

First, there is a perception problem. When you’re in the planning stages working out what you want the pyramid to look like, people see things differently according to their point of view. If you’re right underneath the pyramid it looks like a square. If you’re off to the side it looks like a triangle. So even though you’re all communicating hard about what you think the pyramid will look like, chances are you’re all seeing things slightly differently.

Second, for big changes, while you’re unfreezing, moving around and trying to refreeze, something will happen to shift the context. Someone important will leave. Someone else’s change project will intersect with yours in a way you didn’t predict. The external environment will change. All of this gets in the way and you can’t ever quite reach the pyramid you thought you were aiming for. Instead of a nice, clear, pre-defined pyramid of ice… you get slush.

This is often why large-scale change is so hard. Everyone has an intuitive sense that it should feel like moving from the cube we know well, to a clearly set-out pyramid that we’ve worked hard to define. But what we get is often not quite what we were expecting and/or really slushy and difficult to navigate.

So what’s the answer?

For some large-scale change, you can’t avoid a lot of planning. When you’re in that situation be ready for things to turn out differently than you expected and/or for it to be really slushy. Remind people about this. Be relaxed when it happens. No-one’s to blame. It’s inevitable. Just move smoothly into sorting out the issues as they arise.

If it’s possible though, avoid lots of pre-planning. Don’t spend ages polishing a perfect pyramid. Don’t over-design your expected outcome. Instead, set out some principles for what being in Pyramidland will feel like. Then work out a small change that will move you in the right direction. Implement it with the ice model. Then do it again. Little by little moving yourself forwards.



Eventually you will hit a pyramid. It might not be the one you thought you’d get. But that’s OK. Better to go step by step to SOMEWHERE in Pyramidland, than plan one big jump to a particular pyramid… and miss.

Delegating when you’re not in charge

Delegating when you’re in charge is easy. Well. Actually. Doing it well isn’t easy. But if there are people who report to you, it is expected that you’ll ask them to do things.

It’s much trickier when you don’t have the magical “line management authority”. So here are four things that will help you get things off your desk.


1. Build good relationships
People will help if they like you, understand you and trust you. Every minute you spend investing in growing your network within your organisation will be worth it.

When you have a strong network, you’ll have a pool of people to ask: “I really need some space to get [this important stuff] done. Could you help by doing [this other thing] for me?”

Much better to say this to someone who knows you.

2. Identify the best person for the job
Would anyone you know really LIKE to do the thing you need to delegate? Because it’s something they’re really interested in? Or because they have really useful knowledge or perspective on the issue? Or because it would be a good development opportunity for them?

Would anyone you know be really GOOD at the job that needs doing? Perhaps even better than you?

People are more likely to help with something that’s right in their wheelhouse.

3. Suggest an alternative to whoever made the request
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to do this for you. Wouldn’t Jane be better? She knows so much more about this than me.”

Some obvious caveats. If Jane is overloaded already and you know it, don’t be mean. And your boss may just respond by saying “Perhaps. But I’m asking you to do it.” In which case you may lose this one. But if it wasn’t your direct boss asking, they might well turn their sights elsewhere.

4. Be willing to be “confidently vulnerable”
By this I mean, don’t be afraid to be honest and say that you can’t get it all done.

“Look. I’ve got several big things on already and I just don’t think I can get this done properly on the timescale that you need.”

If it’s your boss asking this should lead to a meaningful conversation about priorities. (If your boss is a good one they should initiate it. If not you’ll have to press for it.) Set out what’s on your plate. Suggest the priorities as you see them and why. This might change her mind. Or she might say “No. [This] IS more important than [that] I’m afraid. Do [this] first and come back to [that] later.” Although you may not have succeeded in delegating the task away from you, you’ve rebalanced your workload in another way.

If it’s not your boss asking you can suggest an alternate person for them to ask, or a different deadline to the one they requested.

Perhaps deflecting is a better word than delegating in these situations.

But it’s the only way to do less urgent work. So you can do more important work.

Urgent vs Important

How much time do you spend doing things that are truly “important”? As opposed to things that are merely “urgent”?

The activity that will make an impact, the opportunities to lead that come your way, will rarely be urgent. But if you want to do really meaningful work, whatever your level of authority in your organisation, you have to identify things that are important, and make time for them.

One way to think about this is to use the Eisenhower Matrix.


Looking this picture, where have you spent your time in the last month or so?

For most people the answer is something like: Mostly in 1 and 3, hardly ever in 4, and a little bit in 2.

Doing more leadership (and less management) is usually about finding ways to shift your time from box 3 to box 2. Doing less of the “urgent but not important” and more of the “important but not urgent”.

So how do you do this?

Firstly, just start thinking about things in this way. Look at your to-do list through the lens of this matrix. You could download my simple PDF sheet to print and fill in. Or you can make your own. Or just do it in your head.

Secondly, when you have your tasks organised this way, think about applying the following philosophy.


Block out time to do things that are important but not urgent. Free up the time to do this by delegating things that are urgent but not important.

Thirdly, if you don’t have much to put in your important but not urgent box… schedule some time to think about what should be there.

How are YOU going to make an impact?
What are YOUR unique insights on how your organisation can make progress?
What can YOU do to move things in the right direction?

Thinking about these things will never be urgent. But if you want to lead, there is nothing more important.

Leadership & Management

One way to think about “Leadership” is in counterpoint to “Management”. For me, these two things sit together like this.


On the right are all the things that need to get done to keep the organisation working. The meetings to go to, the spreadsheets to fill in, the invoices to check off, the emails to wade through.

On the left are the things that will push your organisation forward. The new workflow process, the gap in your marketing approach, the unbalanced staffing profile across departments.

In most organisations the stuff on the right will suck up all of your time if you let it. There will always be another deadline, set by someone else, to complete a process, that matters to them, more than it matters to you.

But it’s the stuff on the left that will really make an impact.

So in order to lead from where you are you have to make sure the right side runs smoothly and efficiently, and you have to create space to think and work on the left side.

This way of thinking applies whatever your role, however senior you are. We all have “management” stuff to do and opportunities to do “leadership” stuff. Also, don’t think that one side is more important than the other. They intertwine and work together like dance partners. You have to do the management stuff well in order to keep the lights on. You have to find opportunities to add value in order to make a positive difference.

Your organisation will fill up the right side for you.

The stuff on the left comes from you.