Living the Vision

If you had read books on leadership, you would have known about the importance of setting a mission and a vision, and the job lies with the boss of the organisation. The purpose of having a mission and a vision is to align everyone to the same goals and to let all employee know what the company stands for. A good vision inspires all to follow, and their actions in the course of their work would reflect the common values that a company has.

However, I am sure that anyone who has worked for a living would realise that it isn’t that simple. A vision could be set, but nobody would follow. An important point to note is that the managers and supervisors down the line from the boss to the lowest ranked employee is responsible for carrying the vision. They should share in the vision and their actions should be aligned to the vision so that their direct reports could be influenced likewise.

It is now opportune to introduce the concept of the Toxic Leader. The Toxic Leader can be found in most organisations. He does not believe in the vision and has a mind of his own. His character can single-handedly destroy the passion anyone below him has for the vision. If you do anything that he does not believe in, he disapproves and you feel unvalued.

An organisation may decide that it is important to conduct team communication sessions in order to build team spirit and understanding. A Toxic Leader will frown and that and think it is a waste of time.

An organisation may decide that it is important for work life harmony and introduce advisories against managers from contacting staff about work beyond 7pm. A Toxic Leader doesn’t care and still calls you anyway.

Day after day the employees get frustrated because the things that are set in place to build workplace happiness and effectiveness are not done. Some feel that the organisation doesn’t care. But doesn’t it? The organisation cares; it is the Toxic Leader that does not. Talented employees might choose to leave one by one, leaving behind people who might just be as toxic as the Toxic Leader. The company has a vision, but no one to carry it out.

The thing is, one of the more important aspects a manager or leader should have is to “Agree to Disagree”, only after due effort has been spent communicating the arguments from each side. After the discussion is finalised, the boss makes a decision and everyone else can only follow. Not only follow, but they have to live by the decision, and live by the vision.

But of course this is a rather simplified story. Reality is much more complicated than that. The boss has the responsibility to make the right decisions, but in reality sometimes the boss makes the wrong decision and the managers might be right. The boss has the responsibility to influence such that everyone is committed and hence no Toxic Leaders are formed. In reality, the boss might be too busy to do such a thing, and leave Toxic Leaders to do their work. The bosses will not know the situation, because employees under the Toxic Leader are more likely to feel unsecure enough to report their Toxic Leader’s wrongdoing.

The morale of this entire blog post is: Down the line from the boss to the managers and supervisors, we have our role to play. Many times we think of a vision as the responsibility of the boss. However it is also the responsibility of us, as the managers and supervisors, to live out the vision no matter how busy we are. Be self aware of what we are doing and saying, and make sure that we do not become the kind of Toxic Leader that we didn’t like when we started out in the industry.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I bought this book titled “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni on Saturday. It was an extremely light book to read and I completed it within 3 hours. The book is written as a leadership fable, which means it is in a story form and easy to digest. The story follows how a new CEO observed how dysfunctional her team was and set out to change things. Naturally, at the end of the story, all was well.

But I am writing because the story seemed to reflect the way my workplace is now. Not the dysfunctional part, but the things that we do or are told to do are similar to what the CEO does to build her team. This means that my workplace had it all thought out and provided the resources and efforts required to make us less dysfunctional. So much so that if we are still dysfunctional, it would be our fault and not the organisation’s. And if you know where I work for, you would understand that there are many complaints about it. However, my opinion is that it is the people that made it this way and if we want to change the organisation, we should change from within.

The story starts off with a series of retreats being planned where they discuss personality types. In the fable, the Myers-Briggs personality model was discussed. People talk about one another’s personality and how they would like to be treated. Drawing a parallel to my workplace, we had sessions called the Command Effectiveness Programme where the boss bring us all together to chart the way ahead for the next year. In this programme, we go through a personality “test” called the Tetra Elements. Briefly speaking, the test groups us into one of the four elements and each elements have some specific personality and character. Each element have a special way of doing things and a preferred way of being approached. That the reactions you get from your colleagues are based on their personality and not what you think by standing in your own shoes.

I won’t go into detail of what the five dysfunctions are, but I will briefly talk about the few which had impacted me.

The first is “Absence of Trust”. Trust does not mean the belief that your colleague will do the things he need to do. Trust is a little less straightforward in this example, but what it means is that you do not feel comfortable enough to have constructive criticism and discussions with one another. Meetings are spent feeling bored because people keep to themselves. They do not trust each other well enough to voice out; nor do they trust each other well enough to know it will be appreciated or taken the right way.

When I first read the “Absence of Trust” chapter, I thought that it was quite an easy dysfunction and that it does not happen in the workplace. But upon further thought, this is the bedrock of how we have been conducting ourselves for the longest time. Most teams we form do not have “trust” in them. People still feel guarded and do not contribute. I reckon part of it is due to our Asian values and the other part is the structure; the rank that tells you he is your boss and hence he knows best.

As leaders we need to foster “trust”, but it is not an easy task. We need to build the culture and show that it is alright to have constructive criticism. That no criticism only leads to failure and not team success.

The next and final dysfunction that impacted me the most is “Absence of Accountability”. Without trust, we don’t criticise. We don’t exert accountability on people and make them responsible for their actions. This “Absence of Accountability” can happen because of two reasons. First, the person is someone you didn’t want to bother about. You do not feel close to the person to want to hold him accountable. You might be afraid that he will lash out and conflict will arise.

Secondly, it can happen because the person is someone who had contributed a lot but had that one little time where he didn’t perform well, but nobody held him accountable. It is difficult to criticise someone who had put their heart and soul into something. But if you do not hold him accountable for his misgivings, he might not be able to learn and overcome this weakness of his. It doesn’t matter what type of person he is; we have to hold everyone accountable. Thing is, to do it in a respectful way.

I am quite glad that I can rattle off 2 out of 5 dysfunctions easily to a certain depth. It might mean that I have slightly internalised the lessons. With the lessons on the five dysfunctions, I will try to build a team who will work for one another and bring us into greater heights.

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available

The book that I have read for the month of Jun is “How to be a Productivity Ninja” by Graham Allcott. I borrowed this book from the National Library (had to reserve it because it was that popular) after reading some bits of it in Popular Bookshop. I borrowed it last night and read throughout the night. Today, whenever I have breaks during the course, I read it too. I just completed it after reading the last bit at home. I also drew two mind maps!

But the main point of this post isn’t about the book. Rather, it is about this interesting concept which I have learnt from the book. It’s called the Parkinson’s Law and it goes like this: “Work expands to fill the time available”. When I read about this concept, I recognised it instantly because it is true for me. There are certain tasks which could be completed in X number of hours. Yet because I had Y hours to do it, I took my time, got distracted in the middle, and I only completed those tasks in Y hours.

It was a serious waste of time and productivity.

When we know our deadline is not today, but next week, we will tend to procrastinate and take our time to do it. Soon, we have spent too much time on this single task and only manage to hand it up on the deadline and not before.

It is interesting to note that the human mind is a lazy one and will seek to be distracted when you give it opportunities to. Linking it to the concepts I read in “Thinking Fast and Slow”, I realised that this is because the brain does not need to work much when we engage in activities that distract us easily (like Facebook, Twitter, replying messages etc) as opposed to activities that require much thinking and effort to pay attention to.

Looking back on myself, I realised that there were many times which I took my time to do certain things because I didn’t like doing it, whereas for activities that I enjoy doing or see the purpose and hence develop passion for, I find it easier to complete those tasks in a single sitting. The effort for both tasks are the same, yet for the ones I dread, I take many times longer. I could have done it faster and used the remaining time on other task, yet I didn’t because the rest of the tasks weren’t urgent. Yet by the time I completed the original task, these tasks then become urgent and require immediate attention.

As a result, I constantly feel tired and overwhelmed to the point I feel as though I have burnt out.

But need it be like this? No!

The lessons from the book could help me escape this, but I need time to try those out and see how effective it is. Will write another post on it if it is effective. There are a couple of concepts which I had already known but did not diligently do though; these concepts are from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. The Productivity Ninja book also gave me an awareness of the Pomodoro concept, which is to have 25 minutes of focused do-time, followed by 5 minutes of rest. I shall explore it and give my verdict in the future. Stay tuned!


Clarity is the solution to many problems in a young graduate’s work life. Before a graduate starts work, he is involved mainly in academics. In a day, an undergraduate will have much free time to do as he pleases, to relax and recharge before going for the next lesson. When a young graduate transits to work, this free time would be suddenly robbed from him and there isn’t any time to sort out your thoughts. You just have to continue doing the work that you require to be done.

We get inundated with work and things pile up. Nobody taught us how to deal with these growing piles or to manage this sudden spike in intensity. We lose sight of the things we need to get done and a vicious cycle develops. Because we couldn’t clear the work on time, we end up with having more work and again less times to sort out this growing mess. Less time to prioritise means the wrong things get cleared and the important things become more urgent. And more work piles up and less focus and so on and so forth.

The solution to this entire issue is simple, but not easy. The word is “Clarity”. I’ve searched for “Clarity” throughout the 3 years that I have started working. There are much material online that teaches you various ways of achieving the required focus. Heck, I even bought a book called “Clarity” which I thought would teach me how to become focused. Yet the same book ended up confusing me as it was more of being aware of how we perceive things rather than how to actively sort things out.

I’ve managed to achieve “Clarity” on good days but on bad ones I lose sight again. It isn’t difficult to achieve clarity; it is difficult to sustain it. However, on the days that I manage to get clarity, I end up having an extremely productive day. On days which I lose clarity, I get negative, I feel overwhelmed and I end up thinking, FML.

But what is Clarity.

Clarity is:

  1. Being aware of all the things you need to do
  2. Being in control

There are different ways that one might use to achieve clarity, and the same method might not work for all. Hence, the purpose of writing is merely to share and encourage others to try it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, well that’s one less method to do.

I manage my clarity through a combination of several mechanisms, but all of which have the same purpose: to be aware of the things I need to do. Here are the things that I do to keep my clarity; I will not go into much depth because that might be a post for another day.

  1. Managing my “Baskets”. These are not physical baskets but metaphorical ones. I have baskets where I store my to-do lists and the basket serves to group the task by projects. Some examples include “Things to Research”, “Safety” (because I am the Safety Officer), “Mess” (because of my role in the mess) etc. With these baskets, I know what I need to do.
  2. Managing my “Inbox”. The email inbox can be a daunting mountain to climb. I get an average of 50 emails a day. To fight the email inbox, I try to apply certain techniques (which coincidentally, another blogger had described here) to move through my emails. There are certain things that do not require attention, and there are some which requires more attention. I sort them out into “baskets” based on urgency and at the same time, write them in my project “baskets”. Things that require less than 2 minutes, I do them immediately and for those that require more time, it is off into the sorting hat they go. We have to make it a point to have 0 mail at the end of the day. It is do-able, we just have to believe in it. Things that are good to note for information, I scribble them into a big notebook full of interesting tidbits that help me recall what tasks were done previously but not yet closed.
  3. Making use of the Trusty Moleskine. I just got my first Moleskine, but previously I was using a notebook from Typo. Whatever works. My personal preference are notebooks that open fully at each page, so both Moleskine and Typo filled the job. I learnt a technique from the internet which I use for my Moleskine. I divide the notebook into segments. You must have at least 2 segments: Tasklist and Scribbles. Tasklist are to account for your baskets and scribbles are what you write in meetings, in short, notes. At the end of the day, the tasks that arise from notes must be transferred to the Tasklist. To manage the scribbles, you can paginate each page. This helps when you have scribbles of the same nature but are not running consecutively as perhaps, another meeting took up that page in between. You can then put “transferred to page 5″ for example. Yes, if you read correctly, I have two notebooks (point 2 and point 3).
  4. Doing Reviews. Reviewing all the things you have written on a periodic basis is important. Your mind cannot remember everything; that is why you wrote them down. If you didn’t review them, you wouldn’t know what you forgot. Reviewing makes you remember what you need to do. There are 2 reviews that we should do, one on a weekly basis and one on a daily basis. The weekly basis review is to consolidate what has been done or what has to be done to give you an overview. The daily review enables you to plan your day. I use a 1-3-5 method to be discussed in another post.

Now, it does seem like a lot of work to be done for clarity. Doesn’t it contribute to more work? Yes it does, but the productivity gained from clarity would offset it. You don’t need much time for review. A 10 minute period each day to look through your task list would help. What you have to take note is to diligently fill up your baskets and review them so you can lessen the tasks listed inside.

Try it and you will see. It worked for me; it might work for you. What is the more difficult thing is to sustain these actions. Personally, I have yet to find a solution to sustaining this effort. If you know of any solutions, share it with me.

Too Quick To Judge

I thought of this example while driving to work one day.

Imagine that your boss had been promoted and a new guy has been transferred to your department to replace him. Within a few days, he managed to discover some mistakes of yours which you were aware of and had been taking steps to overcome. He comes up to you and questions “why is the situation like this?”. You explain to him and try to assure him that everything is under control. He seemed alright, but a few hours later you discovered that he had been asking around, and it doesn’t sound good.

How would you feel?

While the example was based on reality, I tweaked some minor parts in order to present a story which I could write about. If the new boss came in with a questioning attitude, people would get defensive. It’s human nature! Common thoughts include “He does not understand the difficulties in which we face when the mistake was made, yet he came in, full of air, judging on the work we do”. Another example could be “he just wants to save his own ass by drawing a clear line on whose responsibility it should be”.

Both ways do not paint a good picture for the new boss, and relations might be strained instead. Not a good way to build a first impression.

We have to realize that while we interpret the boss’s intention as hostile, the hostility is but our representation of reality; he might not have intended for you to feel this way. His intentions might be good.

Question is, if you were the new boss, how could you have conducted yourself different so that you seem more amicable and forgiving instead?

Humans hate conflict. We tend to move away or find a place to hide when our bosses shows the first signs of hostility. Hostility does not build high performing teams. On the other hand, cooperation, coupled with a willingness to help out, builds ties and camaraderie.

Hence it should be no surprise that the best way to approach your subordinate in the initial phase of team building is to avoid unnecessary conflict and build rapport. For example, “I recognize that we have committed an error in the past, but we should move on and rectify our mistake. Let’s find a way out together”.

Does the above make you feel better? I bet it does. Aside from recognizing that it is a common duty to work things out, the boss accepts responsibility of the mistake even when he wasn’t in charge originally. By accepting the mistake, there isn’t any line drawn between you who screwed up and I as the almighty boss. Moving on then becomes a team goal than an individual goal. It also reduces the tension and stress of the individual.

I am a firm believer of coaching and accepting that my subordinates makes mistakes. We must always remember the times when we are the subordinate and think, “What is it that I wouldn’t like if my boss did to me”. Lessen the distinction between you as the boss and him as the subordinate and morale might slowly creep back up!

How unnecessary anger destroys your professional image

I had an urge to write about this due to an experience I had this morning. I wanted to write because this comes from the viewpoint of an employee and how an employee feels. In addition, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about setting organisational culture and that culture also helps you retain your people aside from monetary and other welfare benefits.

I was required to send an information dissemination email out to certain groups of people, except that this group was too big and I wasn’t sure of the structure of other business entities. As such, I was advised by a superior to pursue it from a top-down approach, and direct the information to the bosses instead and have the bosses decide whom that information should be sent to.

In the next morning after I sent the mail, I received a phone call from one of the bosses whom I have never seen before or interacted with. The first thing that came over was “Am I a mailbox to you?” And he continued with a barrage of questions designed to hint of my incompetence and how he shouldn’t be doing my job for me. All I could do was apologise and tell him that I will sort it out myself. He hung up the phone without an additional word.

The incident left me feeling unnerved and hugely affected. It was a good morning and he ruined it. I tried hard to control my emotions so other people would not realise and I hoped I would not accidentally ruin other people’s mornings as well.

But what made me upset was that I wasn’t incompetent. I could have tried searching for the relevant personnel on the address book, but that might mean that some would not have gotten the necessary information. In addition, I didn’t have a real chance of explaining myself and I felt wronged.

In the field of Neuro-linguistic Programming, one of the presuppositions that we learn is “The Map is not the Territory”. What it means is, our visual representations of the world around us might not be the reality of what has happened. Briefly speaking, what the boss interpret of my actions was different from what I sought to do. I did not seek to look incompetent; I was advised to approach it this way.

However, I realised that it is too late to repair the damage. I’m not talking about the damage of my reputation in the boss’s eye. Rather, the damage of his representation in my mind. I will only be able to see him as someone who called me over the phone to give me a good scolding without finding out the reasons why I did what I did. The relationship is strained, and I have yet to meet the guy in person. I don’t even know how he looks like!

And I think it is really sad that someone you do not know holds such an image of you. Such torn relationships can never be easily mended, and your impression in the eyes of your subordinates will stay bad for some time. All you will appear to be is someone who didn’t care for others, whose ego is bigger than his compassion; someone who was rude.

The question is, why would we want to end up like this? If we did not assume, and approach the person in a different way, we might even gain some respect. For example, calling the person up and telling him “I will help you disseminate the information, but perhaps in the future you can do it this way…”. The subordinate would feel grateful for the advice and your help. He would have respect for you even if the both of you have not met.

Look at the vast difference..feelings of positivity vs negativity.

Also, let it be known that positive emotions are the building blocks of high performing teams. As we seek to become more productive and do more with less, you need all the high performing teams that you can get.

That said, I am also suddenly aware that my own actions can have the same consequences towards my subordinates. It has also given me more control over things I might choose to say and I can effect changes I want to see in the organisation through my sphere of influence. So thank you, that particular boss, for ruining my perfect morning.

Learning More When I Was Younger; Should Have

When I was younger, I sat in the back of the passenger car watching the world go by. There were trees, buildings, schools, clouds and many other fascinating things. Now, I drive and all I see is the road in front of me. Occasionally, I look through the rearview mirror and I can see the car right behind me. Compared to the good old days, the viewpoint sure isn’t much.

And I am quite convinced that this is the kind of life that we are leading once we start work. The analogy was used to point out how we know better now that we should have appreciate the times in the past more as we have lost the time to enjoy the scenery. But really, I thought, if only I could have learnt more when I was younger, or paid more attention to specific subjects.

Before I entered my workplace proper, there was a period of training. Those days were fun where life was good and all we had to do was study. When we started working, you realise that there will be a pile of work for you to do, on the assumption that you knew what you were taught. However we soon know that all we did remember was the awareness that such a topic exists, and we have to re-learn everything again, and on our own time, no less.

But we could have just paid more attention right at the beginning so that we remember more and hence spend less time training for what we should have learnt from the past. The time spent could be used to tackle the future or preparing for what is to come.

I hope that people who are on their training courses would gain some insight from this post and place more emphasis so as to not make the mistakes that I did. In future I might blog more about how to learn better and focus more..but that’s a post for another day.