Lisa Haselton interviews Maxine Attong (me)

Interview with business writer Maxine Attong

I’m chatting with non-fiction business writer Maxine Attong today. We’re focused on her newest book, Lead Your Team to Win – Achieve Optimal Performance by Providing a Safe Space for Employees.

Welcome, Maxine. What inspired you to write this book?
My first book – Change or Die – the Business Process Improvement Manual – is is a technical book and a great reference manual for persons interested in business processes. I wrote this book from my head, since it documents my client experiences and work that I actually did in the Business Process Improvement field. After that book, I was challenged to write something that appealed to a wider audience by several of my friends. I also gained more confidence to write about me, to share some of my thoughts and a bit of myself with my audience. Lead Your Team to Win is my heart book – as such there is a lot which has a lot of me in it, my thoughts, my experiences and to say how I felt about leadership. That was one part of the inspiration. The other part is that over the years of working in corporate environments I noticed that people did not really show up at work and I know that this was keeping productivity back. I also noticed that a lot of us show up differently at work that we do in the other parts of our lives and I reflected on how this separation affected me. As a coach I keep noticing the separation in clients and how it hampered their effectiveness. In my quest to be an effective leader I wanted a style that worked for me as I am not as someone who I was not.

Excerpt: Pages 14-16 of Lead Your Team to Win – Achieve Optimal Performance by Providing a Safe Space for Employees

I wanted a leadership style that would work with my personality and still allow me to have a winning team. I knew that creating a safe space in my office was essential to achieving this since it would:
• Get people to work creatively and generate ideas and new solutions.
• Develop an incredible team with outstanding performance that ensured me, as the leader, promotions and wins. (My assumption is that each time a team member wins, the leader automatically gets one or two wins.) To achieve wins, team members must have big ideas and the guts to implement them. They need to fail and believe that while there’s a cost to failure, there’s no personal loss; and they can certainly try again. To win, the team needs to work together, think strategically about their actions, and always weigh consequences. The safe space provides a cocoon in which ideas are hatched, nurtured, and grown before being released for scrutiny by a wider audience.
• Provide a stable environment in which everyone can perform, even on the days when nothing seems to go right.
• Allow team members to bring to work the adult parts of themselves that they often park at the office door and retrieve when they leave the office. This safe space gives them permission to be the responsible, accountable, decision-making, trying-to-be the-best-they-could-be people they are outside of the office. These people make tough decisions every day about household budgets, their children’s future, and aging parents. They fail and keep going, juggling different balls to keep their lives and those of their loved ones on an even keel.
• Permit team members to think, and in so doing challenge me to think more. They need to ask questions so I can explain and become clearer, and thus we can all generate even more great ideas and make better decisions.
• Motivate the team so people feel good about what they are doing, and work well because of these positive feelings. When the team members feel safe, they’ll take risks that will bring rewards, and will accept challenges to grow professionally and personally.
• Keep my big ego in check, to ensure that my natural tendencies to be a benevolent autocrat don’t overtake my humanity. This keeps me honest and responsible for the things I do and say at the office. It also gives me the freedom to change my mind and not be seen as indecisive, and releases me from the burden of feeling I always have to be right.
• Satisfy my curiosity about leadership and the many strategies I’ve read about. I wanted to create an alternative style that would work with my personality and allow me to remain true to myself. I wanted to present an alternate and realistic tool that people like me could easily implement with their teams.

The safe space provides a dynamic and creative environment for the free exchange of ideas, and encourages team members to make decisions and take action. While it promotes team accountability, it does not release the leader from the ultimate responsibility for making the final decisions. The idea promotes a shared team consciousness about the reality of the bigger political landscape within which the team operates, and dissuades any pretensions of naïvety about how the organization and various stakeholders need to be maneuvered. Thus, it provides a reality check for the team and its members.

What exciting story are you working on next?
Right now I am resting. My first book was published in 2012 and Lead Your Team to Win in Sept 2014. I have two ideas in my head. One is about the strategic office – how to develop it and maintain it in the office. The other is about female leadership and its peculiarities. My head is leaning towards the strategy and the heart towards female leadership. So until that battle is sorted and the image forms I am not going to take any steps forward. One book will emerge and that is that book that I am going to write. While that is sorting itself out I am writing short stories which is a frightening exercise into self.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I thought of myself as a writer when I was a kid and teenager. Through my young adult years I became an accountant and reclaimed my writer title in my 30s when I stopped being an accountant. I think that my writing status is now confirmed since I wrote my second book – Lead Your Team to Win. It is my heart book and makes me feel as I did when I was a kid.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I work a full time job in corporate. I work from nine to five from Monday to Friday so I write in the evenings. My days start off with journaling in the morning, a gym workout or a run, then I go to work. I start to write around 7 p.m. after I have wound down from the day’s work. It is something that does not tire me, so I end around 10 p.m. If I am in the zone I keep going until whatever time and have a hard day the next day. I write for at least 5 hours on a Saturday. On Sundays I rest completely, no writing except for the morning journal.

How do I find time to write?
When I am writing a book I think of all the hours that I am working as wasted time that I can spend writing. I spend the lunch times in agony since I do not write on the company’s time or property. When I get home I am eager to start writing. In a way, writing helps me focus on the work day, since work offers a distraction and a time for thoughts to shape in my head as I focus on something else. I have the ability to completely switch off work when I get home so I have the time to write.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I bought a red chair for my first book and wrote every sentence on that red chair. It was the place that I went to to edit, and finalize the book. I purchased a green chair for my next book and was writing from it. My partner sat in the green chair one day and did some work on it and that was the end of the chair for me. After he sat on it the chair lost its magic for me and I never sat on it again. I reserved one end of the sofa as mine and finished Lead Your Team to Win from there. I have to claim a writing space and no one must invade it ever.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a writer. I knew this since I was 8. I won my first camera as the first prize for a short story that I submitted. Over the years I won vouchers for books in various competitions and my letters to the editors were regularly published. I wrote hundreds of short stories and poems, I was always writing as a kid and as a teenager. But I did not become a writer, I became an accountant and then my writing stopped.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I realize that writing is a balancing factor of my life. In the years that I did not write I felt that something was missing and that life was chaotic. When I returned to writing I felt that this is what I was meant to do.

Maxine Attong’s personal mission statement is to “Enhance the lives of the persons with whom I make contact”. This is supported by her beliefs that:
1) Human beings are creative
2) Human beings are intelligent
3) Human beings want to make a positive contribution.

Her beliefs are evident in her writing as she celebrates the power and intelligence of people and shares the tools needed to succeed.
Maxine is a Gestalt Organizational Development practitioner, a Certified Professional Facilitator and a Certified Evidence Based Coach.
In these roles she facilitates workshops and meetings for work teams and other groups to come to decisions that everyone can live with, while providing safe and confidential environments in which her clients can achieve business or personal goals.
Maxine remains a Certified Management Accountant and is a member of the Society of Management Accountants, Ontario.

Maxine currently works as the Assistant Vice President – Strategic Planning and Implementation- at the Guardian General Insurance Company Limited.

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