Mindfulness – an unhelpful cliché that misses the point

Mindfulness and the broader topic of employee well-being has swept onto the development agenda over the last couple of years.  In its wake are thousands of managers frantically trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Happier employees work harder, stay longer and deliver better results.  A study in December concluded that “Happiness seems to motivate greater effort, increasing output without affecting its quality and thus boosting productivity”.

Mindfulness, strictly speaking, is a form of meditation.  If that makes you happy then great, but recognise that the things that make others happy are many and varied.  A run in a city in the morning when the sun is coming up makes me happy.  Variety in my work and certainty about the future also makes me happy.  For an employer who gives me all three I’ll work harder and stay longer!

The issue with the ‘mindfulness’ cliché is that it risks turning employee happiness and well-being into a fad.  The most successful organisations have been investing in employee well-being for years, and they’ll continue to do so once ‘mindfulness’ disappears from the front pages of the newspapers.

The majority of organisations however will jump on the ‘mindfulness’ bandwagon, throw a bit of money at someone who will demonstrate meditation techniques, be disappointed at the results, declare it a failure and contribute to the decline of employee well-being as an area of focus.

If you really want to make the people in your team happy, try understanding what motivates them and then working with them to make practical changes to the work environment.

That’s not ‘mindfulness’, it’s good leadership.

Leadership development in action: Nyomi’s story

Just under a year ago we completed a 2 year high potential (HIPO) development programme with Shred-it, the the world’s leading secure information destruction company and part of Stericycle Inc.

We welcomed participants from across Shred-it’s EMEAA operations, from the UK, Ireland, Germany and South Africa to a programme that would equip them to be leaders of the future, by focusing on enhancing their understanding of business and what it takes to lead and inspire others.

Nyomi Loftus joined the programme as an Internal Sales Representative.  Throughout the programme she proved herself to be inquisitive, bold and humble.  We were delighted to hear from Nyomi recently with an update on her progress.

Firstly I wanted to get in touch to say a massive thank you for the work you did with me during the HIPO program.

Since the program finished I applied and got a position as an Internal Sales Team Leader.  I have now been in the role for 6 months. During that time I have been consistently looking back over the material that we covered.

I have grown my team from 5 people to 8 and managed to drive their performance to now being consistently over 120% to target.

Yesterday I passed my probation and it got me thinking about the true value achieved from taking part in your training.

I am sure you will pleased to hear that I am now the proud owner of a reflections diary.

Overall, I believe that the program came at the perfect time for me, it really helped me cement some focus when the rest of my life was very difficult.

When I think back to Nyomi that did the interviews for that programme, I see a totally different person both personally and professionally.

Hope you are doing well and imparting your wisdom on other professionals.

I thank you and everyone else involved in the program for helping me to understand my true potential.

Nyomi Loftus  |  Internal Sales Team Leader

Stericycle, Inc.

Thanks Nyomi for letting us share your story, congratulations on your success, and the very best of luck for the future!

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.

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

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.

New year resolutions. The first step on the road to hell or an opportunity not to be missed?

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it seems to me that the road through January is paved with failed resolutions.

There is a great deal of good advice about how to make meaningful resolutions – think small, make incremental steps, create habits etc. but I want to focus on how we, as organisational leaders can use the start of the New Year to really drive engagement levels and help provide purposeful support in the development arena.

Psychologically, the New Year is a great time for both reflection and planning.  It provides a natural point in time when we are encouraged to look back at what we have achieved in the previous twelve months and what we aspire to achieve in the following year.

Organisations generally do not take advantage of this process of reflection and planning yet it seems to me to be the ideal time to engage in development planning.

It is a great time to ask employees:

  • What do you want to achieve in your career over the next twelve months?
  • What skills and knowledge do you want to gain this year?
  • How will you add greater value this year than last?
  • What development activities have you considered to enable you to achieve your career goals?
  • How can we help?

It is, of course, vitally important to ask the last question so that employees know that the business is supporting them in their ongoing development and that the process of development is owned by themselves – the organisation should be supporting, not ‘doing’.

These career development resolutions can be as hard to maintain as the resolution about losing weight or going to the gym, so some of the same advice applies – don’t make the steps too ambitious, try to focus on changing behavioural habits with a focus on what you want to achieve as opposed to what you want to change.

Of course the greatest support for any resolution is affirming the positive benefits of the change, being supported in making the change and receiving positive feedback through the process of change – all of which are entirely in the gift of the leadership team of the business.

Having used this time of year many times to stimulate personal growth and career development pathways, I have consistently found that support, encouragement and positive feedback help the New Year resolutions to be grounded, habit-forming and, above all, sustainable.

Happy New Year!