Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

A Circle in Conversation

Jun 14, 2011 // 1 Comment » // Conversational Circles



A leader flagged-out his concerns with me regarding one of his director whom was faced with people and team challenges; she is not able to command respect and lead the team in a way that this leader expected of her.

“I am very concerned with her ability to lead the team and enable them to move in the right direction.”

“How do you arrived at this conclusion?” I asked.

“Well, for a start she just don’t seemed to be able to get the best out of her team members…she kept telling me that her people are afraid to speak up and do not have the capacity to present themselves well. She is convinced that many would benefit from an intensive training program in presentation skills and ways to get them to speak up…I don’t know that’s why I would like to hear your opinion.” lamented the leader.

I requested and met with the director the same day afternoon. After the formal and informal chat, I asked:

“Tell me a time that you are proud of your team effort.”

“Definitely! There are about 11 of them and some of them have many years of experience in this profession. A few are still very junior and I will coach and mentor them as frequent as my time permits…”

“And your frustration is…?”

“Umm…like many managers I faced the same problem in getting them to speak up and contribute their ideas during meetings and group suggestion. They are very poor in presenting their opinions and thoughts especially in client meeting…Do you have any training program in presentation skill to help them?”

“Would you let me have a conversation with them tomorrow for about 45 minutes of their time to find out more…?” I suggested.



Next morning, 10 of the team members showed up at 9.15am for a quick informal coffee before we adjourned to a small room with 11 chairs in a circle. I was not surprised by their surprises written on their faces but some were already very indifferent in their disposition.

I started with a welcome and quick story about the circle council. The flow of session was shared using a flip chart stated the agreement and guided intention so as to give us some direction.

A talking-piece was introduced as a way to garner respectful way of speaking and listening. Though it took them a few minutes to get use to the flow of things but the magic of circle enable most of them to have their voice heard; even for those who hardly speak the local languages…



Here’s some of the emails I received after the conversational circle which overran by 30 minutes:

“I noticed that I am more relaxed and more willing to listen to people to understand them, rather than being so busy reacting to them. I’ve made it a point to slow down when I speak so I can think it through.”

“Thanks for holding a great session and providing us a place to express our thoughts and feelings.”

“Being a good listener is more difficult than I ever imagined…thanks!”

May I invite you to pick up the talking-piece and start listening

Is Leadership all about Performance?

Oct 30, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Leadership Infusion | Stories Retold

Picture source: pigskinliquor via Flickr

Picture source: pigskinliquor via Flickr

A friend (let’s call him John) who’s a Sales VP of a MNC organized a sales retreat conference for his team of 20 staff members. I was engaged as a facilitator to provide teambuilding workshop on the second day after the first day of long presentation amid the hill top of a luxurious golf resort in the southern part of Johor, West Malaysia.

Like always, the teambuilding ended in high spirit. During dinner, John seems troubled as he was unusually tranquil.

“How do you think the day went?” I asked.

“Oh, I think it went well…the folks seems charged up for the year ahead…but…” His tone was tapering to a whimper.

“But you think…?” I sensed a great concern lurking.

“Every year’s the same…we end up highly motivated, charged-up but it don’t seems to last the race…” He lamented.

“But you know the problem?”

“I don’t know…I mean I know but not sure if it’s true…” John was getting hype up in confiding…

“Try me. I am keen to know what you are not sure about…” saying while staying with him at eye level.

We took our drinks and walked towards the balcony over-looking the golf course, we leaned against the edge of the balcony ledge; as if we are afraid of anyone might eavesdrop on our conversation, John said:

“Allen, frankly, I am not sure whether all these teambuilding works for my people anymore…Don’t get me wrong, I think we need such motivation and coming together from time to time, moreover, my guys enjoyed it and it’s good to reinforce the importance of mutually supportive relationship. But I am sensing that we are missing something…some critical intervention…maybe something to do with our sales leader.. . ” He was referring to his six sales directors who work very closely with the sales managers and associates that are accountable to about 15% of their group revenue.

“I am keen to learn about your observation…” I realized the opportunity to have him tell me more of what he does know.

He look over his shoulder twice as if to make sure that no one was behind us, he went on to said: “Having work with them for more than 3-4 years, accept for Paul who joined us early this year, I can confidently say that they are good with driving numbers and making sure that the folks perform to expectation.” Referring to the sales directors who eventually will step up to take his mettle.

“So what’s your concern?” I threaded carefully and continue to look into his eyes…

“My concern?! Yes, I am not sure this is a concern but I am in fact less worry of them performing in terms of driving numbers per se but more worried for them relating and leading their direct report and people…” He was fiddling with beer mug on his right hand while sharing…

“Is that truly your concern?” I took risk in probing deeper.

“I am quite sure…in fact, many of my second tier managers had threaten to walk out just a few months ago…and the HR report shows that compensation wasn’t the main culprit.” John’s tone turn from serious to flat deadpan.

“So how do you intend to address this?” I somehow knew he might have an idea.

“That’s where I am not sure…you?” somehow he thought the same.

We spent sometime talking about coaching and leading people. We thought may be it would be timely to help the key leaders to identify their critical roles in leading the people to not just perform to their maximum potential but learning to lead others.

“Let’s organize a morning jog tomorrow before the nine-hole outing.” I suggested but to John’s amusement.

“Morning run?! What for?” he responded with suspicion.

“Trust me, you guys are going to enjoy the golf game afterwards…” I said confidently.

I remembered we spoke further on the idea and he still wasn’t sure the potential of bringing the message across to his people, but relented anyway. The next morning, we gathered as planned. The team was grouped in 3 with a fair-mixed of sales director and managers. A planned route of about 1.5km bordering the scenic view of the course garden wing. After some stretching and warming-up, the team was briefed on the route and I said:

“Go ENJOY the run TOGETHER and we shall gather for breakfast after this…” with tonal emphasis on the bolded.

As they set-off, John and I was heading toward the cafe set amid the garden wing awaiting their return. Not to my surprised, an athletic-looking sales associate arrived under 10 minutes followed by others in ones or pairs. Paul’s group was the only group of three that stayed together throughout the course. After some quick warm-down and water to quench thirst, we sat down in circle to have a debrief.

“Damien, you came in first. Tell us how was it for you.” I guessed Damien would be the most ready to share.

“I enjoyed the run. The air’s fresh, cool, nice surrounding and 1.5km is no problem for me, you know.” Damien professed with a wide grin.

“I am sure you do, thanks Damien. Who’s with Damien’s group?” I turn the attention back to the group.

“We couldn’t catch up with him…he’s too fast!” a lady by the name of Steff half-protested…”Luckily, Tony wasn’t!” referring to a senior sales director perhaps in his early 50s in the same group.

“I am an old man you know…” Tony followed-up with much laughter from the team and some nodding of heads…

“How about you Paul? Your group came in last but seems to be having fun and not breaking a sweat…” I turn to Paul’s direction.

Paul, looking rather embarrassed, responded: “I actually asked Steven and Judy to go ahead without me so that they finish the run early. But they decided to keep with me and we really ENJOY the run TOGETHER.”

“Did you?” Now facing the group to garner their response.

“WE did. It was fun running at an easy pace and being supportive of each other. We chatted along the way and enjoyed the company. In fact, we did so with much ease that the distance seems too short when we arrived…” Judy shared with obvious agreement from Tony and Steven.

“Yeah, for someone who’s hardly out in her jogging shoes…” Steven was jibbing at Judy pointing at her very new looking bright yellow sneakers.

“Thanks for the insight Judy and Steven. I would now like to invite you to note down three questions for your reflection later during your nine-holes…” I urged the team to take note.

“Firstly, what could we miss-out when Personal Performance took precedence?”

“Secondly, what else is important besides Performance?”

“And not least important, is Leading meant just Performing? If so, why? If not, how?”

John told me later they have one of the most enjoyable round of nine-holes that morning after a hearty breakfast. The folks continued to stay with the same group during their golf rounds and some of them even skip golf just to continue their sharing after breakfast. He wanted me to continue the work that we have just started with the sales leaders. As for the team, I was told that they organized bi-monthly run every alternate Friday evening – Together.

Points to Ponder:

1. Leading from behind, the view can be quite astonishing.

2. Guiding from the wing, the conversation can be quite engaging.

3. Coaching from within, the sense can be quite satisfying.

INFLUENCE – beyond just Doing but Being

Aug 11, 2010 // 3 Comments » // HR Insights | Leadership Infusion

Picture Source: Alex_Bates via Flickr

Picture Source: Alex_Bates via Flickr

Two Sundays ago, after our Sunday worship at a local church; and after fetching my second boy Eiffel from Sunday school, I was waiting for my eldest boy Timothy from the children worship hall two levels down from the adult worship hall. He is always full of enthusiasm after his bible study; armed with many questions prepared to ask me…

“Dad, you throw a pebble into a still pond and caused a ripple…the ripples spread out beautifully through the surface of the pond. What causes the ripples?” He speaks with his usual clear and  a wee bit mature voice for a 11 year old.

“Hmm…the first ripple.” I was trying to be scientific about it and was prepared to explain the law of physics…

“Nope!” came a immediate negative ascertain from Tim.

“Uhhh…the pond! Without the pond there won’t be any ripples…” sensing there might be some riddle-like trickery…

“Noooo…that’s an obvious Dad…Think!” Tim was half laughing and staring at me.

“Oh…I know, I know…THE PEBBLE! Without the pebble there won’t be any reaction in the first place.” I thought I got it at last and saying in much confidence and matter-of-factly.

“No Dad, its YOU! You caused the ripples by throwing the pebble into the pond…” He replied with a tad of ridicule and as he finished, he ran away looking for his brother Eiffel down the hallway.

I stood there thinking and still smarting away from the implications of what my son has ‘taught’ me…and the whole of Sunday I was still thinking about the meaning of INFLUENCE.

A recent conversation with a client lead us to explore the notion of Influence; they recognized the importance of people managers being in the position of accountability and positive impacts on their people…

“So would you like to share with me about your leaders in this organization; especially the managers.” I asked.

“Oh, we have about 15 senior to junior managers across the functions, they are in their early 30s to mid-50s…” She lamented matter-of-factly.

When she has finished, I asked: “Who do you think they are to others?”.

“What do you mean?” she responded impatiently.

Sensing a window of opportunity to dwell deep…I asked: “As a manager, what would you say about your influence to others that matters in this organization?”

“Umm…I guess I am very much a positive influence especially to the younger colleagues and new staff.” She continued: “I for one is pretty new to this organization; therefore I have no historic baggage with me here…for example…”.

“That’s great! I am glad you did. So how do you think I may help this organization?” I asked in earnest.

“My colleague will agree with me that one of the biggest challenges for our managers in general are the willingness to take accountability so that they will influence others to do so…We hope they can be more responsible beyond their scope of work.” she responded spontaneously.

“Tell me more.” I sensed the flow…

“Don’t get me wrong. Our people are very good in what they are supposed to do and they are experts in their respective field…But we also happened to believe that we have great products that will change the well-being of people around the world, but we also understand that we need people that are willing to bring this organization to where we should belong…”

Cave Ripples_Donald Noble via FlickrWe have a wonderful conversation sharing and understanding observations, examples, behaviors and assumptions that gives me great insight to the probable challenges the people in this organization may face. One of the key message when we meet with the team next month, is to help them be aware of their behaviors and action that may influence others and how they may want to commit to change that may impact others around them and the organization.

Have you ever ask:

‘What is my influence to the people around me?’

‘What is the implication of my thoughts, feeling and my action to my colleagues?’

‘How can people that I care or people that I have yet know could be in the realm of my influence?’

Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew

Jun 11, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Stories Retold

Cover of Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew

I was at Professor Tom Plate’s public lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in conjunction with the book-launch the other week. I must confessed that the word ‘Conversation’ was the main draw for me even though I am a great admirer of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

I went with so many questions in my mind:

What kind of conversation could an American journalist have with MM Lee especially with so many run-ins he has with western journalism in the past?

What sort of conversationalist Tom would rate MM Lee after spending two-days interviewing him at Istana?

Many would regard MM Lee as a great intellect (which some might agree that they are not so good as a listener) throughout his political career, how would Tom rate MM Lee as a listener?

In the end, I was quite captivated by the story he shared about the time he spent with MM Lee that I felt there is no need for me to ask those inconsequence questions.

Professor Tom shared that his interview with MM Lee was quite an emotional roller-coaster ride. He uses famous movie character and scenarios such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Godfather and even Rush Hour (Singapore Style).

I find it to be one of the lightest reading MM Lee related book by far. Enjoy!

The true mark of leadership – got the guts to follow?

May 10, 2010 // No Comments » // Leadership Infusion | Stories Retold

I got this interesting video clip from YouTube and thought of a similar lesson learned…some years ago.

In 2004, I facilitated a management retreat that consist of eight senior management staff and several middle managers from a healthcare organization. The kind of retreat that people gather, get to know one another, talk and discuss, plan for the year ahead and some team-building exercise to basically learn something about themselves while having fun.

For one such team-building activity, the team were given a challenge to step on a series of numbers on the ground at the quickest possible time in a certain sequences which all the number-pads were marked out with tape at a certain distance. One of the rules implied that every member in the team will have to at least step once along with some other rules which the team have to comply…if not, the team will have to go back to the re-starting line. As the team has only 6 opportunities to complete the task with the best possible score (time), each unsuccessful try was becoming very intense for them especially so for the “leader” of the group.

On the last opportunity to ‘get it right’, the COO (Chief Operation Officer) planned to be standing right beside one of the team member who was ‘considered’ the weakest link because she was always slow in stepping her number pad. True to the COO worst fear, when the time came for the ‘weak-link’ to execute her task, she was so overwhelmed by the pressure to perform that she froze momentarily (which in turn wasting precious seconds). In that split moment, what happened next became a great learning point for the team; the leader himself physically carried the petite lady by her waist and just like ‘stamping’ a gigantic rubber-stamp on a passport, forcing her both feet unto the number-pad to complete her task! That action brought laughter all around including the poor lady and what followed during the debrief was very memorable for everyone…including me.

During the sharing session, the leader was full of thoughts and admitted that the eagerness to get the ‘result’ had got the better of him. When asked “Have you observed any behavior during the activity that is congruent to the behaviors back in the workplace?”

He spoke bravely: “Yes, the very behavior of me ‘carrying’ her to make sure that she complete her task was a realization of how I am most of the time guilty of being task oriented and not able to empower others; but more importantly I have often placed result and performance over and above all other thing that matters…especially the heart of the people…”

Silence followed after his sharing and I ceased the opportunity for their learning and asked: “Within the wisdom of this team, what matters and what’s possible?”

The leader continued: “Frankly, there is a lack of situational leadership within this organization and largely due to our zero tolerance of error. In that people becoming very dependable on ‘leaders’ making all decision…We can’t and this can’t continue. We need strong followers that are able to take risk and influence others to make things happen.” Wise words from deep learning…till today, he still head that organization and is now a member of parliament.

Are you in a position of leading but are adverse to others taking risk?

Do you think that leadership has been over-glorified and that there are few ‘affective’ followers in your organization?

Not sure? Let’s have a chat…

Be inclusive in your talent strategy.

Mar 17, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Leadership Infusion

Picture source: Vestaligo via Flickr

Picture source: Vestaligo via Flickr

A matryoshka doll, also known as a Russian nested doll or a babushka doll, is a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other. The word “matryoshka” is derived from the Russian female first name “Matryona”. The word “babushka”  is the Russian word for grandmother.

Some years ago, I chanced upon one set of such dolls in a gift shop and was intrigued by the concept behind the design. I did some research and found that during Perestroika (Russian term for political and economical reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev), the leaders of the Soviet Union became a common theme depicted on matryoshkas. Starting with the largest, Mikhail Gorbachev, then Leonid Brezhnev (Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko almost never appear due to the short length of their respective terms), then Nikita Khrushchev, Josef Stalin and finally the smallest, Vladimir Lenin. Newer versions start with Dmitry Medvedev and then follow with Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Joseph Stalin and then Vladimir Lenin.

One story goes about how a chairman of a global firm called for a board meeting one day. At the boardroom table,  at the front of each boardroom members he placed a similar matryoshka doll. The chairman said: “Lift it up, its you inside…”. They went on to lift the doll one by one by opening up the top-half, for every bigger version they saw a smaller version and one after another it got smaller and smaller until revealing the smallest doll eventually. There’s a note at the end with the smallest doll that says: ” If you are conscientiously hiring people that are ‘smaller’ or less capable than you, someday we will become a midget organization. In contrast, if we put in effort in hiring talents that are ‘bigger’ or more capable and talented than us, we will be building giants for the future.”

Two years ago, I wrote in an in-house HR newsletter how we can learn from the matryoshka doll about leadership. Leaders in organization should embrace talents that are ‘bigger’ and more capable than oneself, so that you can help build an organisation of giants.

Are your next level managers hold the same hiring ideology? Are you decreasing so others may increase? Do you have your ‘generals’ in your organisation that are afraid of ‘decreasing‘ so others might ‘increase’?

At ConversationCircles, we can help you to infuse leadership concept and ideology in a way that is inclusive and embracing. Talk to me today at +65-96559409 or email at


Sharing story as a way to motivate.

Mar 16, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Change Initiation | Conversational Circles | Leadership Infusion


Photo source: Mr. Mark via

Photo source: Mr. Mark via

Every veins and  lines probably have a story to tell…

I have a friend whom recently become quite sought after in the circle of motivational speaking. He was sharing how excited he was and good money too given that’s not what his main income’s source…

“What would you speak about to motivate others?”

“Can people really be motivated by hearing from someone else?

“How long you think they will stay motivated after hearing you?” came my barrage of questions.

He responded matter-of-factly: “Sure they do, they like to listen to my stories about failures and successes, rags to riches and it never fails to resonate in them…they LOVE it!”. “Umm…as for whether they remain motivated or not, who knows; aren’t they suppose to be able to self-motivate?!”…

Last year, I attended a workshop organized by National Book Development Council of Singapore titled: ‘ Narrative Techniques For Business’. The two days seminar essentially help us to understand the value of stories (or ‘grapevine’ depending on how you see it) within an organization setting and how to use narrative-based activities to design change that impact organization. I was mesmerized by the intriguing process of Preparation, Discovery, Sensemaking/Intervention Design and Monitoring, and how this process; if apply appropriately are able to help organisation facilitate intervention from hiring or firing to mergers and acquisition decision.

Stories are everywhere.

Christina Baldwin, who had pioneered the field of journal writing and women leadership; authored a wonderful book titled: “Storycatcher — Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power  and Practice of Story”. In the book, she open with the preface that says: “Every person is born into life as a blank page – and every person leaves life as a full book.”

We all have stories that are uniquely our own. Even when we shared similar features in our story that we can find common ground of understanding and viewpoint. Last week, the Straits Times interview-report  the father of 3M’s Post-it notes scheme Dr. Geoff Nicholson, he commented that CEOs should do well in telling stories; and that will have profound impact to spur staff to be innovative, he stressed.

When was the last time you share with or listen to someone’s story?

Walk the Talk – 言行一致

Mar 04, 2010 // 3 Comments » // From The Inside Out | Leadership Infusion

Photo source: Liu Ying via

Photo source: Liu Ying via

When I first heard of this phrase “Walk the Talk” many years ago, I was mesmerized by the simple yet profound implication of its meaning.

In my previous regional role, I had the privileged to have conversations with colleagues in China on this topic when running a regional program on Personal Leadership. I was keen to find out whether “Walk the Talk” is a western concept or an oriental treasure…my friends from Beijing have enlightened me.

The term 言行一致 can be traced back to China’s early literature treasure of 儒家之 四书五经 which recorded the most vibrant time in politics, military, foreign affairs and cultural incidents and Confucius thinking. Included in 四书, is the book of 《大学》and 《中庸》originated from 《礼记》,and it is from 《中庸》that teaches the Way of Being。 I was told  that this is the fundamental principle of 儒学思想。

The ‘Way’ is to be neutral and balance,and all ways and choices will lead to consequences。One of the way to achieve “中和” or balance is 至诚无妄,which 诚 is the key to the understanding。诚 in 儒家 context is not just about ’honesty’ or ‘frank’ ,it is about being truly and objectively forthright that matter。The practice and meditation of 诚 which supposed to achieve three levels of being are:

  • To Self - 博学之 (to learn),审问之 (to ask),慎思之(to reflect),明辨之(to probe),笃行之(to act)。
  • To Others - 己所不欲,勿施于人。(to not do to others what you will not do to self)
  • Walk the Talk  - 言顾行,行顾言。(consider the act when you say and when acting consider what you have said)

I was mesmerized by the depth of understanding on this simple yet profound phrase of Walk the Talk by my Chinese counterparts…but we also agreed that knowing the meaning is one thing but practicing it with consistency is another…

What do you think?


Mar 02, 2010 // No Comments » // Leadership Infusion

Photo source: reclassic2 via

Photo source: reclassic2 via

When I first coined this term “servitude” in 2005 while having coffee with a senior HR Director, I intended the term to mean Service + Attitude and  I was sharing enthusiastically about how to infuse a culture of excellence service into organisation. I argued that for an organisation to develop a strategic service culture, the leaders will have to take the lead; and that means the very top person of the organisation walk the talk by serving at the front-line to set an example and to understand what it takes to provide excellence service to customers. I went on to say that the ‘servitude’ should be an illustration of senior management commitment to service excellence and in time would impact the entire service culture of the organisation.

I went to look for the meaning of the term “servitude” and found the following:



slavery or bondage of any kind: political or intellectual servitude. (


1 : a condition in which one lacks liberty especially to determine one’s course of action or way of life
2 : a right by which something (as a piece of land) owned by one person is subject to a specified use or enjoyment by another (Merriam-Webster)

With the negative connotation, I wasn’t sure that’s the right word to use in that context…

But I noted with interest on The Straits Times headlines today:  ”Bad service? The buck stops with the CEO.”

It will be interesting to see the talk eventually starts walking…or the walk talks only?