Kay Hoggett Executive Coaching and Life Coaching
London City and by video call

What can we learn from the 7% in the Covid crisis

There have been a few articles on the comparative success of female leaders in steering their country through the Coronavirus crisis. The common factors have been a stance of considered and scientifically informed risk awareness, and a ‘be prepared’ strategy. Tactics have included early and strict lockdown (New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Finland) and extensive testing and tracing (Iceland, Taiwan, Germany). All of this enhanced by attention to accurate, transparent and empathic communication. Angela Merkel, a scientist by training, gave an elegant and clear explanation of the crucial R0 contagion measure that has been watched around the world. Norway’s Erna Solberg gave a press conference for children.

The outlier is Belgium, which has the highest reported per capita death rate in the world (excluding tiny San Marino) and a female PM. The word reported is important. Belgium’s approach to reporting is unusual in the West; it has always included deaths in the community and in care homes, and includes deaths in which Covid-19 is only suspected to have played a part, even if there has been no test. It seems likely, when all the epidemiological analysis has been done, that Belgium will not remain top of the grim league table. Sophie Wilmes, who only formally became head of government on 17 March 2020, by which time there were over 1,200 cases and 10 deaths, has adopted a strategy of transparency, caution and communication.

It seems the 7% of countries that have a woman leader can count themselves lucky. Lucky to have a leader whose focus is on realistic risk assessment, decisive and resolute action and honest communication. Contrast this with the hubris, prevarication and dissembling or dishonesty of the worst national leaders.

Of course it is simplistic and unhelpful to conclude, in Orwellian style, ‘female good, male bad’. Many male leaders have also done a great job – Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis is an impressive example. In spite of and driven by the limitations of his country’s health service and a decade of difficult economic circumstances, he too has acted with resolve and foresight.

Articles. Lockdown graph

But neither should we ignore the fact that female leaders have performed exceptionally well. Mark Handley, a computer scientist at University College London, has spent decades analysing data, and has been producing comparative analyses of Covid-19 case and death rates. His 1st May update includes a graph of ‘successful countries’ – those that have managed to decrease new cases to 20% of their peak, and keep them down. Of the 19 countries on that graph, six are led by women. To put this in context, only 7% of countries globally have a female head of government, but over 30% of countries dealing successfully with Coronavirus have.

The qualities displayed by these female leaders are consistent with the findings of a growing body of research showing that companies with at least three women on the board benefit from better financial performance. Yet, progress on gender diversity on boards is woeful, and even the improvements which are reported can mask a reality in which the female contribution is limited to non executive roles.

Let’s hope that one of the things we learn from this crisis will be to collectively decide that progress on gender diversity is not a nice to have but a necessity.

A Bridge Too Far

This VE Day weekend I re-watched the classic war film A Bridge Too Far, about 'operation Market Garden', the allied attempt to take and hold crucial Dutch bridges in September 1944. The key objective was to seize the furthest bridge, at Arnhem. If successful the operation would have liberated the Netherlands and allowed the allies to press on into the Nazi industrialised heartland.

Sadly, the operation was a ‘costly failure’ (National Army Museum), although the partial liberation of the Netherlands, at a time when many Dutch people were starving, was an important gain. The allies had to retreat from Arnhem, and about 25,000 people were killed or wounded.
There was no deficit of courage or tenacity by the units involved. Men fought bravely and lost their lives. The failure lay largely in the planning and senior leadership of the operation. The planning had an ambitious and optimistic bias and there was insufficient attention to known risks and issues. As the operation progressed, this bias persisted, and opportunities to mitigate the situation were missed. Arguably, similar failures have marked some countries’ responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

There is an important lesson here for all involved in programme, project and change management. Especially when under pressure from an ambitious boss, or driven by our own sense of drive and optimism, we can be seduced to gloss over risks and commit to goals and timescales that are close to impossible. I know I was sometimes guilty of that. A sense of momentum and commitment to the objective is necessary, not least for motivation of the team. But this must be balanced with early and robust attention to risk analysis and realistic planning, and a stance of honesty and clarity – ‘speaking truth unto power’.

What do you think?

Susan's Lockdown Life

Articles. Woman working

“Before lockdown I didn't know life could be like this - it's like I've been given permission to live the way that makes me feel good”.

This is an extract from an exchange of emails with my former client who I’ll call Susan. She was talking about her relatively introverted nature and how the way we are living at the moment suits her well.

Susan was articulating something I come across a lot in my coaching and therapy practice, but not usually in positive terms. What I often hear is a statement of self-criticism. The exact wording can vary, but often the meaning is along the lines of “I am different ….. I am not OK …… I need to change …… I need to be more like ……..” Sometimes, it becomes clear that someone has said my client needs to change. That someone is usually a friend, family member, boss or colleague. Sometimes it is a therapist or coach.

Sometimes people do need to make changes in their lives – their habits, behaviours or patterns of relating - when it is something that they come to understand needs changing, for their own wellbeing and personal growth.

Fundamental personality traits
But sometimes, what is being discussed is a more fundamental personality trait of extroversion or introversion. I have worked with extroverts who have been criticised for their way of being, but more commonly it seems to be introverts who have absorbed a message that they are not ok.

When I explore this further with an introverted client, what often becomes clear is that something about their living or working environment is not a good fit for their needs. Or somebody around them believes that their relative quietness and social preferences are the cause of any difficulties that they are dealing with. I have found that, instead of trying to ‘help clients to change’, helping them to explore and understand this aspect of their personality can be an important step in overcoming the difficulties they are facing.

The first thing to understand is that introversion and extroversion can be seen as existing on a scale. A person can be highly, somewhat or a bit extroverted or introverted, and many people are around the mid point of the scale – known as ambiverts.

Energy and meaning
“I have been thinking so much about introversion lately. I genuinely don’t think people understand what an introvert is”. Susan is right, there is unfortunately a lack of understanding.

The most helpful way to understand these personality traits is from the perspectives of energy and meaning. An extrovert finds that being with groups of people in sometimes busy and noisy environments energises them and makes them feel good. Conversely, they may find being alone uncomfortable and alien, and will make an effort to be with other people again.

An introvert, on the other hand, feels comfortable being alone and uses alone time to recharge their batteries. They are likely to find environments like busy open plan offices and parties tiring and uncomfortable; these experiences drain their energy.

Susan is enjoying life at the moment, because she enjoys alone time and finds it restorative, compared to her normal working life in a loud and busy office. She is now considering how she can design her working life after lockdown to better suit her needs.

The second key characteristic concerns meaning. An introvert finds meaning and purpose in their life by looking inside themselves. They have their own perspective on what matters in their life, and make considerable efforts to pursue what matters to them. They may not feel a strong immediate need to share with others their knowledge and discoveries – they are happy to ‘be in their own head’.

An extrovert finds meaning and purpose primarily through their external interactions. They may have strong need to be in social environments, and to verbalise whatever is on their mind. This is the root of the pattern, often incomprehensible to more introverted partners, of an extrovert giving a ‘running commentary’ about what they are doing and thinking. And of the ability to make ‘small talk’ which is often useful, but not likely to come naturally to a more introverted soul.

Myths and criticisms
Unfortunately there are a number of myths that still persist about the introversion - extroversion scale. In UK and US society, most of the myths represent criticisms of introverts. This seems to be partly because societies also have ‘personalities’. US society (and to a lesser extent UK society) displays relatively extrovert characteristics, whereas Japan and Finland have societies that function in more introverted ways.

A second possible reason for the persistence of myths is that whilst many introverts, with their interest in figuring out how things work, may have a reasonable understanding of what makes an extrovert tick, many extroverts’ understanding of what an introvert is actually like may be less well developed. They may conclude that the introvert choosing to work in a quiet corner and avoiding big social events is lacking in confidence or somehow ‘not ok’.

One myth is that introverts don’t like people, or are anti-social. This is untrue – introverts like being with others, and often have friendships that are very important to them. The difference is that they have a preference for smaller numbers, for deep connection based on exchange of ideas and understanding, and for time with others to be balanced with time alone. So, an introvert might enjoy a party at which they meet a few people with whom they can have a meaningful conversation in a quieter corner. Having enjoyed the party in this way, they might crave an evening at home with a book or some favourite music.

Another myth relates to the introvert’s ability to be ‘seen and heard’, for example, by giving talks, speaking in meetings, managing teams and other activities that are exposing. It is true that an introvert might in some situations struggle with this type of thing, and extroverts can mistake this for ‘lack of confidence’. What is clear though, is that an introvert is often an extremely effective speaker, communicator and manager of people. The difference lies in the context. If an introvert connects with the subject of a talk or a meeting, or with the work at hand, they often possess a very strong drive and passion to communicate and lead, which shines out from their talk, contribution or management style.

Another version of this particular myth relates to leadership capacity. Some still believe that an introvert cannot be a leader, because it requires significant interaction with others. But in fact introverts, with their ability to understand people and organisations, to create a compelling vision of the future, and to inspire others with their vision, are often formidable leaders. Nelson Mandela was a self-identified introvert, and few would doubt his effectiveness as a leader.

Susan has noticed how these myths affect people’s thinking about introversion -“I have told a couple of people I am an introvert, and am always told 'oh, but you can't be, you're not shy' or ' surely not, you run a business'”. In fact she is founder, owner and MD of an extremely successful company.

Different ways of being
The reality of course is that neither introversion nor extroversion is superior – they are just different ways of being, with different strengths and potential for difficulties. Is it useful for an extrovert to try to be more reflective? Or for an introvert to be more comfortable in busy environments? Yes. A lot of my work is about increasing clients’ flexibility, so that they have more capacity to overcome difficulties and become their ‘best selves’.

But we need to be careful here. Before change and flexibility come self awareness and, vitally, acceptance. Acceptance is important in relation to the extroversion-introversion tendency, because it is not likely that a person who is somewhat or very introvert could turn into an extrovert, and vice-versa.

Wellbeing is enhanced by understanding and accepting our nature. For an introvert, the shift is that instead of feeling that there is something wrong with them because they don’t want to go to the party, hate the open plan office, and are looking forward to getting home to their book, they now recognise that this is fundamentally their way of being, and it is not wrong. With this acceptance, self-criticism declines and useful flexibility can be embraced.

After lockdown Susan will still want and need to attend client meetings and spend time with her team. But the self awareness and acceptance that lockdown has fostered will mean that she can also attend to her own needs and preferences for quiet and solitude.

Working life for introverts after lockdown
Susan is lucky in that her seniority means she has control over her working arrangements. Companies with staff who are normally office based need to consider their people’s needs and preferences when planning their working arrangements after lockdown. In addition to introvert or extrovert preferences, people are affected by distance from work, whether they have space at home for working long term, caring responsibilities and a host of other personal factors.

So instead of returning to the old presentee-ism model, or jumping to a cost-saving 100% home working solution, companies need to offer flexibility. Many businesses have discovered for the first time that they can trust their people – trusting them to make effective choices balancing their personal needs and those of the business is the next step. Candidates will prefer businesses who can do this and businesses will benefit from cost savings and a committed workforce.

What is your company doing to plan for more flexibility in our post lockdown world?

Note: Susan is not her real name. She gave permission for extracts from her emails to be included here.

Southgate's England - A lesson in Leadership

What did Southgate do to enable his relatively inexperienced team to get to a football World Cup semi final? No doubt there was attention to fitness, tactics, technique, nutrition and a thousand other factors. But there was also a focus on the psychology of performance, both at team and individual level.

We’ve all heard about the work that was done to break the twenty year spell of failure and fear of penalty shoot outs. There was work on: ‘how we do it’ and also ‘how we think about it’. To improve ‘how we do it’ Southgate commissioned research into how England players approached taking penalties. One lesson was that in the past they, and other unsuccessful penalty takers, tended to rush on hearing the referee’s whistle, so he got them to slow down and approach the penalty in a way and at a pace that suited them.

To improve ‘how we think about it’, psychologist Dr Pippa Grange was brought in to work with the mindset of the potential penalty takers. She got them to visualise successful shots. They learned how to ‘own the process’ – approaching the penalty in their own way, a key factor in slowing things down. And they were encouraged to voice their fears about penalties (and other aspects of their performance), and share their vulnerabilities with the team.

The psychological work with the team is also evident in their post match interviews: the players talk of “making our own history” – these men have been helped to set aside the limiting beliefs of the past. They always speak in terms of team success, and credit other team members – there is a team culture of support and trust. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford spoke after the Columbia game of his personal strengths in goal – someone had clearly been working with him to set aside the supposed disadvantage of being relatively short for a goalie, and to focus on his unique talents, build his self belief and bring his ‘best self’ to his game.

Off the pitch Southgate has encouraged a culture of fun and friendship alongside hard work. He himself exudes calm and professionalism, both during matches and in dealing with the media. He clearly respects and supports his players, and they him. He leads by example. The culture that Southgate has fostered - ‘how we do things around here’ - underpins their performance as a team.

It matters what leaders pay attention to. Southgate not only made intelligent use of information to drive change. He also turned his focus to a key area which perhaps had been neglected in the past: the psychological foundations of outstanding team and individual performance.

Southgate’s England is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when leaders pay genuine attention to their people and what they need to bring their best performance to their game.

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