Success requires lots of small steps in the right direction

pic1It’s been a pleasure to work with the team at Sapphire over the last 6 months.  A hugely successful design and manufacturing business, we’ve been supporting them in the building of their operating strategy and the development of clear behavioural principles that will guide their continued growth.

Earlier this month, the strategy and behavioural principles were introduced to the business as part of a team event that gave us the opportunity to use one of our favourite exercises – the Marshmallow Challenge.

Time and time again, the teams that succeed in this challenge are those that are willing to prototype, to take a small step forward, test their model and use their learnings to further improve.

pic2The lessons apply equally for the successful implementation of organisational behaviours. Organisations and the people in them don’t change overnight, but by resolutely applying the prototyping mindset, continuing to take small steps in the right direction, it won’t take Sapphire very long to become the organisation they want to be.

“Cream will rise” – how not to manage a merger

The old adage that ‘Cream rises to the top’ is absolutely correct but some organisations stretch this too far and expect this natural biological process to work as a metaphor within their business whilst providing no catalyst or enabling framework.

We were asked recently to engage with a fairly large City organisation that had recognised the changing world and sought to establish competitive advantage through the acquisition of an aligned but very different business.  The parent business was typified as “solid, dependable, mature, and risk averse” and was operating within the tail-end of its growth curve, leveraging long-held relationships to seek to extend what had been an extended period of profitability.  The acquisition was a maverick new entrant with a high focus on challenge, change and service.  It could be typified as “dynamic, aggressive, competitive, risk-taking.”

As a pairing they had a fantastic opportunity to maintain and capture market share through a diversified service offering and segmented approach and that indeed was the case for a few years until the leadership team decided that the commercial opportunities could be leveraged more effectively through a comprehensive merger.

Everything about the two businesses was different – their culture, their working practices, their strategies, their people, even their offices; so we were asked to help create an alignment strategy that would build on the best of each and propel the combined entity into a commercial and reputational position that neither could achieve independently.

Part way through this the CEO decided that managing the alignment was too complex and proposed an ‘organic merger strategy’ which in essence meant – “put the two together and the cream will rise”.  By this he meant that the best leaders would emerge and take control of the situation, driving performance and thereby saving the need for a complex change strategy.

He went ahead with this plan and lo and behold it failed magnificently with the commercial value of the combined enterprise failing to get even close to the previous individual positions and indeed significant loss of talent and revenue.

This was not the first time we had heard the tactic of “let’s just do it and I’m sure it will work out” and indeed, it was not the first time that we had seen a subsequent failure.  But why does it not work?

There are a number of reasons why the “cream rises” metaphor is unhelpful and unproductive:

  1. Organisations are not biological systems with easily definable processes and outputs – they are dynamic systems that require close attention, clear focus and catalytic leadership.
  2. People are creatures of habit and left to their own devices will do as they have done before – performance needs to be strategically aligned and operationally managed by effective leaders otherwise behaviours do not change
  3. Change needs to be carefully designed and managed otherwise people reject the change proposition and perpetuate the status quo for therein lie their comfort zones
  4. Change is difficult and leaders need to grasp this nettle and make tough decisions that provide direction, focus and opportunity for people
  5. Cultures either emerge or are created – if we allow cultures to emerge then we have to hope they are aligned to the strategy whereas if we purposefully create the culture we want the alignment is embedded and performance will flow.
  6. People need to hear from their leaders – you are there for very sound reasons and people need to hear your voice and see that your behaviours are aligned – leaving it to chance is an abrogation of your leadership responsibilities

In summary, taking a simplistic metaphor and using this to drive a complex process like organisational change is lacking in thought, in leadership and in focus.  Your people deserve better so take the time to decide what you want the future to be and then work with them to co-create it in a purposeful manner.

Be insistent about what you want, be consistent in your behaviours and be persistent until you achieve your goal.

Am I coaching or mentoring? Know the differences, but don’t worry too much…

At our regular, free Executive Coaching BootCamps, one of the most common questions we get is the difference between coaching and mentoring.

Whilst it would be lovely to give a black and white answer to this, the reality is it’s a grey area and we will often do both at the same time.

Pure mentoring can be summarised with a single statement:  “I have the knowledge/experience and will give them the benefit of it”.  This can be of real benefit, but should be used carefully.  After all, the experience we have is never exactly the same as the situation other people find themselves in.  There may be similarities, but giving direction in these situations can lead to some some pretty predictable responses, all beginning with the dreaded “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but, that wouldn’t work because…”

“Yes, but my manager wouldn’t value that because…”

“Yes, but my team are different because…”

On the flip side, purists describe good coaching as being summarised by a similar, single statement:  “They have the knowledge/experience, but can’t always access it”.  This leads us to the unending search for the ‘killer question’.  We need to tread carefully here too. Relentlessly questioning can lead to helplessness as the coachee is made to feel they should know something that they simply don’t.

Why should they be expected to know the answer?

Is it a situation they’ve never experienced before and have no frame of reference?

Good coaching is undoubtedly about unlocking potential through insightful questioning, but it’s also about helping people solve problems.  Sometimes people get stuck, and if they don’t have the knowledge or experience, no number of clever questions will unstick them. Sometimes people simply need to be told the answer.

Whether you are a mentor or a coach, recognise that you will use a variety of approaches to help the people you work with.  Understand the differences and the differing impact of the approach you choose.

Importantly though, don’t worry about it too much.  ‘Pure’ coaching and ‘pure’ mentoring both have their strengths and weaknesses – a sensible, balanced approach is likely to achieve the best results.

Supporting organisational change at Air France KLM

We supported managers at one of the world’s largest airlines to better manage conversations about change.

Combining coaching techniques with skills in conducting difficult conversations, their UK management team were better equipped to help employees succeed and support their people through change.

They really enjoyed the experience as well.  Vicky Frith, Air France KLM’s Corporate Sales Manager called it “highly engaging and motivating and an excellent learning opportunity”.

Read more about our work with Air France KLM here.

Why we love to run free events

For over 3 years, we’ve been running regular Leadership BootCamps across the UK.

Our BootCamps are free events on a range of topics close to our heart such as Executive Coaching, High Performing Teams and Organisational Change.

So why do we continue to give away learning that our customers have told us regularly they’re prepared to pay for?

  1. We like meeting new people.  We love our customers (very much), but we also like meeting new people.  We’re a bunch of extroverts, so new encounters keep our energy levels high.
  2. We love our topic areas.  We’re passionate about coaching, leadership and change so that’s what our BootCamps focus on.  We love talking to people about these topics, and we love the questions and challenges they bring along to discuss.
  3. We love presenting.  A lot of our team are from learning and development backgrounds, and really get their kicks being in front of a new audience.  They say there’s nothing better than a bunch of enthusiastic participants!
  4. It helps us generate new business.  Let’s be absolutely honest, we’re not only doing this for the love!  People who meet us generally like us, and often ask us to help them with their challenges.  We’ve met a lot of new customers that way, including OCS, The Co-operative Bank and Air France KLM.

    We’re absolutely transparent about this point because it keeps us focussed on providing great learning events, rather than sneaky sales days!

Click here to explore our latest free events

Executive coaching at Rio Tinto

We coached leaders in one of the world’s biggest mining companies to achieve their personal and business goals.

Involving a team of coaches working closely together and across the world, this was one of our biggest and most challenging assignments.

The results were fantastic, and Sam Walsh, former Chief Executive attributes part of his success to his use of coaching with us.  In his own words:

“I was extremely fortunate to have Paul Victor of Vmax Consulting, a Doctor of Psychology with a manufacturing background, so we understood each other well. Paul assisted me particularly as I entered new territory in restructuring, and maintaining the focus on getting the balance right between the present and future business.”

Read more about our work with Rio Tinto here.

The joy of being ‘normal’

A customer told us a lovely thing recently – she said we were “very normal”.  If you’ve had any dealings with management consultants, you’ll know that’s a massive compliment!

However the context of the sentence worried us, because she was surprised at how “very normal” we were.  That led us to think long and hard about the image we portrayed to people, and what our customers really valued about working with us.

After talking to them we discovered it came down to 4 things:

  • We’re always passionate and enthusiastic about what we do – we arrive with a smile and leave them smiling
  • We know our stuff – we’re really insightful and have lots of experiences that we share with them
  • We always start with principles – we use this to help people make decisions they’re really happy with and are confident will deliver the right results
  • We’re very normal – our customers said they liked us as a bunch of people, which was lovely, because we really like them too

So we’ve had a bit of a spruce up, and built a new website and social media presence that is more reflective of who we want to be, and our customers value about us.

There’s still some work to do, but we’d love your thoughts.

Reducing the cost of executive coaching

Let’s not beat around the bush – executive coaching isn’t cheap.  In fact if you measure your learning and development interventions in terms of per-person contact time, it’s probably the most expensive development activity you will undertake.

The returns that executive coaching can deliver back to your business are the subject of much examination.  You don’t have to search for long to find both philosophical and pragmatic calculations of what you might expect to get back in terms of business value.  If you’re struggling, try this 2009 ICF study that estimates returns of 344% on executive coaching investment, but balance it with this 2012 ICF study that states that better understanding of the benefits of coaching and credible ROI measures represent the two biggest challenges facing the industry.

Regardless of the magnitude of the returns possible and how credible the returns are, one thing is certainly true – we want all more for less!

There are many ways in which you can reduce the cost of your executive coaching interventions without reducing the quality of provision.  Here are 5 questions to ask of your business, and your provider:

1. Is choice important?

One of the expectations of executive coaching is that the coachee will be able to choose their own coach.  Whilst choice CAN be an important factor, it is by no means essential for everybody.  We have provided one-person-shortlists for many coachees for many years, with no reduction in quality and impact.

Reduced choice for the coachee opens up the opportunity to significantly rationalise the size of your coach portfolio and the associated cost of management.

2. Can we use days instead of sessions

Coaching is typically charged on a per-session basis, representing the time it takes for the coach to conduct a session, including their travel time, preparation and expenses.

If you have multiple coachees within your business, consider tighter scheduling of your coaching, allowing multiple sessions to take place on a single day.  This change allows for the consolidation of expenses and pricing to be negotiated on a per-day rather than per-session basis. 

3. Do we need to be in the same room?

Coaching using the telephone and web conferencing works.  In fact for most people it works as well as face-to-face coaching (for some, even better).  

It isn’t always appropriate to have ALL coaching sessions conducted virtually, and the method doesn’t work for everyone, but consider what options you have for virtual and blended modes of coaching delivery.

4. Could more cost less?

Economies of scale work in coaching too, so consider the marginal cost of increasing the number of people having coaching in your business.

When combined with some of the previous questions, there is significant scope to increase the number of assignments per coach, reduce the per-session cost and secure better rates for your business.

5. What do your coachees do next?

Experiencing coaching is an important element in the development of the coach.  In fact there aren’t many coaches who didn’t enter the world of coaching after being initially coached themselves by somebody else.

Start thinking about the coachees in your business as a potential talent pool. Could these leaders coach others in your business and reduce your reliance on external coaching providers?

A ‘race to the bottom’ cost approach to executive coaching procurement helps no-one and can severely impact the quality of provision you receive, but that doesn’t mean savings aren’t possible with a little pragmatism.

Mind the gap – maintaining learning away from the classroom.

Leadership development can be a considerable investment in time and money.  There is often a temptation to extend the perceived life of this investment by delivering programmes over long timetables, with extended gaps between the formal, classroom-based learning elements.  Instantly a 12 month programme becomes an 18 or 24 month programme, and the cost doesn’t seem so bad after all!

Whilst the logic is understandable, it is all too often counter-productive without additional investment in the ongoing engagement of the learners.  When faced with a large gap before they are brought back into a classroom (or any other ‘formal’) environment, the focus on learning quickly dissipates.

Whilst extended spacing of the classroom-based learning elements in a development programme can be successful, consider carefully your strategy for learner engagement.

Support structure

  • Do you have in place a support structure that can be readily accessed by all learners on an ongoing basis?
  • Are you pro-actively and regularly reaching out to offer support to learners on an individual and group basis?
  • Support isn’t just a job for the programme delivery team – are your key business stakeholders engaged and involved?

Collaborative platforms

  • Are you offering mechanisms for the learning community to interact with each other and the programme?
  • Are you actively encouraging and promoting their benefits and use?
  • Are business stakeholders taking an active interest, preferably through participation, in collaboration between learners?


  • Are you regularly testing the application of learning in the workplace?
  • How are you measuring the ongoing impact of the learning?
  • Are you using Action Learning Sets or group coaching to encourage peer challenge?

Behavioural focus

  • Does your learning primarily focus on knowledge transfer or encourage actual behavioural change?
  • What are you asking people to do, and how are your responding if they fail to honour their commitments?
  • How are you preparing the rest of the business for the new behaviours exhibited by your learners?  Will they act as a catalyst or barrier to change?

Building a successful online learning community

Online collaborative learning has been a hot topic for over a decade.  Since the advent of modern social networks organisations have grappled with how to best make use of these tools to support and enhance the learning experience.

Early attempts usually involved the deployment of a relatively simple set of online ‘tools’ in isolation or as an add-on to a CMS (Content Management System) in the hope (and it was little more than hope) that employees would grasp the ‘opportunity’ to interact and share in the same way they were doing with Facebook and MySpace (remember them?).

The number of tools available, their capability and sophistication, and the understanding of users has increased enormously in the intervening years, but the challenge of maintaining consistent, meaningful interaction within a group of learners remains.

Having deployed a significant number of online learning environments, we have seen that their success is a function of 4 key factors:


All too often, the purpose of the online learning environment is rather vague, being little more than an ill-considered ‘bolt-on’ to an otherwise unchanged learning process.  When building an online environment, consider 3 questions:

  • Are the goals of the online environment clearly understood and articulated?
  • Are the interconnects and handoffs between the online and offline environments built in to your learning approach?
  • Are the measures of success documented and tracked on a regular basis?


The users of your online environment are the most important consideration factor, and the one that will ultimately determine whether it is successful and valued.  Without a critical mass of participating people, online collaboration will fail.  More important than the number of users is the construction of the online population.

In addition to the learners themselves, many other stakeholders can add, and derive significant value from a collaborative learning environment.  Consider including:

  • The learning faculty – those involved in delivering the offline learning elements can use the online environment as a place to support and encourage ongoing development
  • Programme sponsors – those ultimately responsible and accountable for the business outcomes of the learning can provide valuable insight to keep learning on track
  • Learners’ line managers – using online tools is sometimes perceived as a waste of time by line managers and supervisors – inviting line managers to be part of the collaborative process can be a valuable engagement tool and help keeps learning focussed and relevant


There are many different online platforms available with varying degrees of sophistication and integration with existing systems.  Some will require significant capital investment, whilst others can be deployed in very little time at little-to-no-cost.  It’s all too easy to be bowled over with high levels of functionality, that in practice never get fully utilised.

When choosing your platform, consider:

  • Does it have the functionality to support your overall purpose?  Separate out the must-haves from the nice-to-haves.
  • Does it offer a familiar environment?  Familiarity is critical in removing barriers to use and in reducing the cost of deploying a system.  For example, most of your users will already use Facebook, so a system that uses similar terminology will make usage easier.
  • Where does it need to be ‘housed’?  Cloud-based systems often provide good value options, but the data is outside of your secure corporate network.  Is this acceptable?  Can you make it secure enough to satisfy your IT department?  If the discussions taking place were to ‘leak’ how much of an issue would this be?


Perhaps the most important element of success are your ‘Pied-Pipers’ – those who engage regularly with the system and create the compelling content that drags others in.  Our experience suggests that these will typically make up around 1% of your online learning population.

If you have a large learning population upwards of several hundred users, then 1% of these may be all you need for successful take-up.  Smaller environments with only a handful of users can work just as well, but the Pied-Pipers will need additional attention and encouragement, or you may need to adopt this role yourself.


  • Creating schedules for contribution that ‘force’ content onto your system and create reasons for people to keep visiting.
  • Having a clear policy that learning-based communications must use the online environment and ONLY the online environment
  • Create exercises in the offline environment to be completed online, such as writing a blog or producing a video.
  • Celebrate all types of contribution.  Some people will naturally want to publish, whilst others are more comfortable reacting to what is published.  Both are essential to the long-term success of the online environment.