Being of Service

I enthusiastically picked  up the phone because one of my favorite persons was on the other end. Uncharacteristically, she sounded hesitant. “Maxine” she started. “I need a favor. HRMATT needs a strategic session and we need a facilitator.” (Human Resources Management Association of Trinidad and Tobago)
I did not hesitate to respond, “Yes, I will do it.”
Then she said. “We cannot pay you. And the session will be held on a Saturday.”
This did not change my decision.

I have been flirting with HRMATT for a couple of years. I have said Yes to HRMATT when I edited articles for its magazine – HRMatters, or when I wrote articles for said magazine, or when I spoke at the last two biennial conferences. Now I finally had a date.

That Saturday I met with the HRMATT”S executive team and facilitated the strategic session. It was a Workshop and these leaders worked. They brainstormed. questioned, championed, resisted, discussed, disagreed and agreed until they landed on some mutually agreed points that they hammered out into strategic statements.

Six months later I attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) and I was nominated for President. A few minutes after, I was elected to serve as President.

I had no plans of being elected to HRMATT’s executive team. In the moment when nominated I intended to serve and as I had done before, I said Yes.  I can only conclude

  • There is no big or small act of service – they are all equally weighted
  • Saying Yes is powerful and sends waves through the Universe
  • When we show up in service, we too are served.

Will you join me in service?
I cannot promise where it will take you, but I can promise that if you don’t take the first step, you will never know.

What are you not saying Yes to? Where can you be of service?

Maxine Attong is an Organizational Development Consultant and author.  If you found value in the post, please share with your colleagues and friends.

Starbucks – Time to do the hard thing

There was an outcry over the recent actions of Starbucks team members. In one instance the barista called the police on two men who were waiting for a friend and in the other case the barista refused to issue the bathroom key to a man. In both instances, the men were identified as black.
Starbucks immediately responded. The leadership apologised and shortly thereafter team members from 8,000 stores attended racial bias training.

From these events I conclude Starbucks leadership empowers frontline staff. They trust the staff to make decisions and to act on decisions made, without seeking permission. As a result, the baristas made decisions about who were allowed access and who were not. Why? Because that is the way that Starbucks does things. It is its culture.

By extension, I conclude that if two separate employees can authoritatively discriminate against two different black males, with no fear of recourse, in two distinct circumstances, then at Starbucks, this is the way that black males are treated. It is its culture.

Company culture is reflected in what is done and deemed acceptable at the very lowest levels of an organisation. Culture is demonstrated by the actions of the persons whom are away from the mikes, away from the glitz and glamour and who will never grace the cover of the Forbes and Fortune 500. These are the people who tell the world exactly what your company stands for and its core values.

A well written apology in sincere tones and  racial bias training sessions are great first steps for the leaders to say to staff that this is not whom we are. Yet we know that words have no meaning without context, and that if leaders do not reinforce the training then it goes to naught.

Starbucks’ leaders have done the right thing, now Starbucks’ leaders need to do the hard thing. Leaders at all levels of the organisation need to self reflect, to be honest in admitting the current culture and to determine how the company should move forward. Whatever the decision, leaders need to ensure that the operations are realigned to actively support what is espoused.

I offer Starbucks leaders the following questions to begin the process:

  • Where are black males In Starbucks?
  • How do we treat with black males in the Starbucks?
  • What are the things that are said about black males in Starbucks?
  • What are the things that are not said about black males in Starbucks?
  • What sort of jokes are made about black males ?
  • What is the our policy and procedure for reporting discrimination?
  • What does the data from these policies indicate to us?
  • Are we satisfied that the policies work or are easy to use or are being used?
  • How do we discourage micro-aggression?
  • How do we educate non- POC (people of color) about micro-aggression?
  • What are the black voices within Starbucks saying on this matter?
  • What conversations do we have on race?

For the rest of us leaders, the the lesson is clear – Culture is what our staff does. What  our staff does tells the world what our culture is..

What is your company’s culture? What does your staff do that isn’t aligned to your culture? What are you going to do about it?
If you want to change your company culture and ensure that staff behaviours are aligned to your core values then drop me a line. I can help.

(photo credits :Trinichow)

A Review of Lead Your Team To Win

A review by Catherine Da Silva of Silva Publications Creating Safe Spaces .A brief review of Lead Your Team to Win .By Maxine Attong Published by River Grove Books .

In her new book Lead Your Team To Win , local author/ Management Consultant Maxine Attong sites the advantages of managing strategically by a certain keen consciousness for the holistic well being of the employee .This takes into account creating the necessary outlets and inlets for team expression, exchange ,innovation and sharing in a positive -safe space, As home is where the heart is..so too the office is where we strive to achieve our professional and life goals .

The Safe Space is the ” happy place” within the organisation where team members should not be ostracised or criticised for venting , self expression, formulating solutions and inventing new ways to enhance processes and projects. Quite apart from the traditional top down ,linear type of management techniques ,safe spaces advocates for collaborative team efforts ,facilitated with inclusiveness and sensitivity for all involved ,towards achieving “optimal performance ” says Attong.

The 226 page book is a variable manual for those wishing to look at leadership from a different point of view. Chapters like The Concept of Caring,Trust, Decision Making ,serve to navigate the reader cleverly and with great honesty.Attong incorporates case studies , personal experiences and check lists for ease of reference and recall. It’s relativity to real life is formidable and down to earth and would be as instructive to anyone interested in establishing and maintaining conscious and creative spaces for success. “When I was solely focused on the results ,by any means necessary,the space could not be safe. ” This is one of my favourite quotes from the book,for we must go gently to and move fluidly in the spaces which are dear to us , and which dare us to think and create.

Lead Your Team To Win, available on Amazon is the second in her continued works to provide a unique approach to managing teams. Change or Die her first book occupied Amazon’s best seller list for six weeks in its category, and is readily utilised as a teaching and reference tool for Attong’s Team workshops and guest lectures at key regional and international events .

Leadership in a VUCA World

This article was published in pwc’s 2018 Budget Review on October 3, 2017

System theorists have long proven that external societal impacts affect an organisational system. When we map the correlation between societal stress levels caused by an increasing crime rate, and infrastructural deficiencies, to reduced productivity levels; we can attest that our organisations are a microcosm of the larger society. What if we can reverse this? What if our leadership can deliberately impact on the larger Trinidad and Tobago society?
We live in the VUCA ( volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, in which the butterfly effect is our new reality. Change on the world stage is felt faster and in larger proportions, leaving us with little time to react. The drastic reduction in oil and gas prices and the trickle down effects have affected all that we considered normal – access to foreign exchange, spending patterns, job stability and economic recovery. When we consider the sobering effects of climate change that have left our Caribbean neighbours devastated and the viability of social media as a platform for change, we realise that we need to review our leadership priorities.
In 2013/4 when tax revenues were at $57.2B, we could easily isolate ourselves from world trends but in 2017 when tax revenues are estimated at $38.7B ( a 31% reduction) we are forced to pay attention. Our economy has flatlined and the government’s capacity for projects has diminished. What is the role of each of us in this new scenario?
If we accept HInd’s* argument that, “on the political and governance front, we are seeing the near collapse of almost every institution of governance and service delivery by the State” then, we also accept that leadership needs to emanate from the other enterprises that constitute the business community in Trinidad and Tobago.
An unemployment rate of 4.4% (2016 Central Statistical Office) means that most of our citizens are employed in establishments where we interact and interrelate with internal and external stakeholders. We belong simultaneously to families and communities, to work teams, and to management and leadership teams within various industries that are nested in the wider Trinidad and Tobago. We are part of multiple systems, that create harmony or tensions within the workplace.

Beisser in his 1970 essay, Paradoxical Theory of Change reminds us that, “change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is …” No longer can we fold our arms and wait for the government, there is a need for a new remit from all of us who consider ourselves to be leaders.
The experiential learning experience of systems is important for our leaders to truly understand the possible far reaching impacts of his/her leadership.We need to be aware of the wholeness of “each part ( of our organisations) the dynamic relationships between the parts, the whole (higher-level) entity they form together, and the interdependence among the parts and the whole,” Stevenson** (1970, p.114).
When we deal with a team member we become conscious that we are no longer dealing with an individual, we are dealing with his family and his community. Therefore by our leadership we can make a difference that will redound to the wider Trinidad and Tobago.
The old paradigm of the maximum leader that thrived in an environment devoid of social media, with an inability to follow international trends or without the presence of  millennials needs to make way for a new remit, where we embrace the ideas of the collective. As the volatility of our external world increases, and as we are still guessing the effects of changed international policies ( Brexit, Trump administration) there is need for more collaboration in the co-sensing of our next move. The leader who makes decisions on his own or with only his leadership team is making decisions from a position that only considers the impacts on the systems that he/ they belong(s) to, with many assumptions about the impacts that will be made on the collective – the families, the communities and the wider Trinidad and Tobago.
More than ever, the call is for leadership to harness the creativity and intelligence of the people with whom we work so that we can make a positive impact on the wider Trinidad and Tobago. We can no longer wait on the economy to get better or for the price of oil and gas to recover, or for a new gas/ oil reserves to be developed. The call is urgent and the response has to be made now. Our economic situation has changed and our world has shrunk.

*Ronald Hinds address T&T Chamber of Commerce & Industry address Sept 2017

*Stevenson, H., 2010. Paradox: A Gestalt theory of change for organizations. Gestalt Review, 14(2), pp.111-126

Who do you impact with your leadership?

What are the possible far reaching impacts of your leadership?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win. She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

Is Leadership the Engineer’s Kryptonite?

Excerpts from the Speech given at Association of Professional Engineers Trinidad and Tobago 57th Annual Awards and Honour Function.

I have worked with engineers for most of my working career in the old and gas sector. These women and men are absolutely brilliant. Yet I have witnessed many A class Engineers struggle to become A class managers. Therefore I can only ask “Is leadership the Engineer’s Kryptonite?”
I reached out via Linked In to some of my engineering colleagues around the world and posed two questions:

  1. What are the challenges that engineers face when they get into management/ Leadership positions?
  2. What are the three pieces of advice that you will give an engineer who is moving into a leadership[/ management position?

I will reframe the feedback and the remedies using my Organisational Development language.  The three challenges the engineer faces are

  1. Leadership style
  2. Thingification of the organisation
  3. Understanding the field

Leadership style
Engineers are promoted to management as a reward for a performing a technical job well ( thus far this is the way that organisations have figured this out). As a result the engineer steps into leadership, behaving the way that he always has, doing the things that have worked well for him, in the past.

She acts as a hero – A great engineer knows everything about her job. She has many years’ experience and knows exactly what to do. Just as Superman does not allow the firemen to extinguish the flames of the burning building, this manager tells team members what to do, without allowing team members to problem solve. She is impatient with failure, since she preferences success over failure’s value as a learning tool. She misses the field work and compensates by micro managing teams and getting involved with the minutiae of daily activities. Some of these heroes do not share knowledge and as a result, team members are often frustrated. While they admire and respect the  manager’s intelligence and experience, they are concerned that they won’t develop the talents that will in turn make them great engineers.
He is a shadow leader – This manager stands with his back to the sun, casting a long shadow over the team. These managers want mini-mes, they want team members to act and think like them and to do things the way that they do them. They forget that they have the benefit of experience and that they were allowed to hone their own personal style.
He displays Paternalism This attitude is reflected in the manager’s thinking that he “knows best” or “it’s my way or the highway”. This leads to the stifling of the opinions and the eventual dumbing down of the team members.  How would you know if you are paternalistic? If you find yourself saying “ after all I have done for them” or referring to team members as “ungrateful” or “selfish” then you may be paternalistic.

Some remedies for these afflictions are:
Be a Host not a Hero – if ever you went to or hosted a great party you know what to do. A great host selects the guest list, ensures that the food choices cater for religious restrictions and allergies, introduces people to each other, then leaves guests to enjoy the party even while keeping a watchful eye. The manager who acts as a host supports the growth and development of team members, helps them to network and keeps a birds eye view on what is happening with the team.

Let the sunlight fall on team members instead of casting shadows. Allow team members to develop their own style and support them to do so. Allow them to be recognised for doing great things. They won’t steal your thunder, because every win for a team member is a win for you as leader.

Build adult to adult relationships with team members. They are not kids. These are people who balance budgets, take care of households and care for aging parents. They deserve to have their intelligence and creativity honoured and to be treated with dignity in our interactions with them.

Thingification of an organisation – Engineers deal with things. Therefore leading teams provides a contradictory experience. Gone is the high probability of the consequences of actions and decisions taken, since an organisation is not a thing. An organisation comprises of humans who are interrelating and interacting through communication with each other along the parameters of process, function or department of the organisations’ structure. This creates situations of high unpredictability since different people react differently to different situations.
Engineers are great at fixing things and slowly he comes to realise that he can’t fix people, and there is no formula that serves all people.

A manager needs to work on his relationships with the individuals in his team. He needs to understand what makes each team member tick and motivate each of them from this place. The manager can view himself as a mentor and adopt this attitude when dealing with his people. Leaders can take the opportunity to self reflect and do the personal work that may be getting in the way of their own professional development. Wherever we go we take all of whom we are so the messiness of our personal situations if not resolved eventually seep unto the jobs.

Understand the field. Systems theorists share that we are all connected to multi systems. For example, an engineering manager is part of his engineering team, and also part of the management team, which is nested in your organisation. The organisation is part of an industry sector which belongs to all businesses operating in Trinidad. All businesses are part of Trinidad and Tobago, nested within the Caribbean and the wider world. This means that a manager now bumps up against other systems that he did not have to engage with when he was an engineer. When I worked in oil and gas I had many interesting interactions with engineers. When a piece of equipment needed replacing, engineers did wonderful research to identify what was the most technologically advanced piece of equipment. As an accountant my interest was in three things. Is it within budget?  What is the return on investment? What is the payback period? My selection process was based on highest return on investment, the shortest payback period and the cost within budget. Engineer managers need to have similar dialogues with other non technical managers in their respective fields. As part of a management team he is expected to understand that the business needs are beyond the newest technology.  He needs to appreciate that there are external and internal stakeholders who may not be part of the daily operations but whose decisions impact on what occurs on a daily basis. Those of us who operate in multinationals know that an event that occurs in China may impact on local business decisions.
The Manager is advised to expand his professional networks, both within and external to the organisation, to include non technical professionals. Expand the reading base beyond Popular Mechanics to include management and leadership information. And while in transition from technical expert to manager get a mentor or a coach.

All is not lost for the engineering manager because he / she can decide that he/she wants to be a better leader and this is a powerful first step. Some questions to assist with the transition will be:
How do you define leadership?
What is your reason for leading a team?
What is your stance as a manager/leader?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win. She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

Tips for Effective Leaders

As leaders we will have many successes and failures. I had several failures that matched my many achievements. In last week’s blog I shared ten tips that will assist leaders to be effective. In this blog I will share more of what I learned.
To be effective, leaders need to:

  • Leaders need to count to 10
  • Leaders need to be able to fail and to support failure
  • Leaders need to be consistent
  • Leaders need to be responsible
  • Leaders need to be honest
  • Leaders need to be trustworthy
  • Leaders need to be fair
  • Leaders need to be open to suggestions
  • Leaders need to ask open ended questions
  • Leaders not to take themselves seriously
  • Leaders need to have fun with their teams

Over the next weeks I will be sharing more details on each of these tips.  If you have any questions on any of these tips, feel free to let me know.

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win. She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

Ten Tips for Leaders

All leaders will develop their own definition of leadership. Mine is simply harnessing the creativity and intelligence of the people that I work with. This definition governs my actions, my behaviours and my leadership style.  I needed to change old behaviours and adopt new  attitudes to lead as I believed.  From this I developed a list of what worked for me and did not work.  Today I share with you the first 10 tips for effective leadership.

To be effective, leaders need to:

  1. Actively work on personal development
  2. Assume that team members act from a place of good intentions
  3. Be humble
  4. Be able to hear a different opinion and not feel threatened
  5. Communicate effectively
  6. Check the motive behind personal thoughts and actions
  7. Give team members the benefit of the doubt
  8. Have a sense of humour
  9. Say sorry or “I was wrong” and not have a meltdown.
  10. Understand personal  level of emotional intelligence

Which of these ten tips resonate with you?  Which of these do not?

P.S. If you want any further explanation on any of the tips, drop me a line and I will give some more details. I will share the rest of the changes that I needed to make next week.

This blog is an adaptation of Lead Your Team to Win (Attong, 2014)

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational  Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, and an Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

3 ways Leaders help teams do great work

Steve Jobs, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be satisfied, is to do what you believe is great work”

This quote from Steve Jobs resonates deeply with me. There was a time that I felt that the work that I did was not great. It was accurate, and well received, but I didn’t feel that it made a difference – to the company nor to the people with whom I worked. I didn’t feel heard or seen and I didn’t think that anyone was particularly interested in my ideas ( At times, I was told that no one was interested.)
These experiences set me off on a lifelong journey – to find meaningful work. Work that will pay the bills, work that will leave me with a deep sense of achievement, and work that will make a difference to the people around me. Thus began an exciting, tumultuous journey during which I discovered my happy and sweet spot.
Many leaders have similar stories that explain the careers they enjoy. They can trace the decisions and choices, the roads that they took and the paths that they denied to get to the career/ role that fulfils them on a daily basis.
Leaders, let’s extend this sense of satisfaction to our teams.  As we stand in front of our teams, this week, I ask that we take a look at the faces before us, listen to the comments and observe the relationships, and ask ourselves – Are team members doing great work?
As we harness the creativity and intelligence of our teams in pursuit of our leadership, we can assist team members to do great work, or find the work that they believe is great work.
While it’s a matter of personal choice and how you view your leadership, I ask you to consider with whom do you prefer work? Do you want to work with team members who believe that they are doing great work or those who are working in misery, wishing that they were doing something else or that they were working differently?
I guarantee that it’s much easier to achieve team objectives when the people we work with believe that they are doing great work.  I can share with you three tips that I have successfully used to help team members to find satisfaction in the work they do and to believe that they are doing great work.

  1. Help team members set personal vision – Just as a journey starts with a destination, the personal vision, becomes a compass point that provides guidance.  It simplifies decision making as we are on the path as only one question becomes important – “Will this action help me achieve vision?” Team members can realign personal and professional choices to vision, to discover what great work means to them.
  2. Share your experiences – We learn what is possible from hearing the experiences of others. We can mimic their actions, or we can build on the foundation set or we can be inspired to be bold, to take a risk or to do something different. Leaders note that tone ,timing and intention are important considerations when sharing. This will keep us from boasting or bombarding team members with stories at inappropriate or unwelcome times or pretending that our journey was a simple or easy affair, or that we knew everything at every step of the way. As we share our story we can honestly tell of our failures and successes, what prompted decisions  and the benefits, the fallouts, and the repercussions of the choices we made.
  3. Listen to them – As team members are figuring out the way forward, or establishing their personal vision, they need to talk, to explore, to understand where they are at. They will need a non-judgemental neutral ear that listens from a place of deep compassion and curiosity. The leaders stance during these interactions is critical for the team member to dare to set a personal vision. The leader’s encouraging ear gives the team member the freedom to explore and the confidence to think beyond his current expectations.

Sometimes to find great work the team member’s job may need to change, or they may need to join another team or another organisation. One of the best gifts that a leader can give his team is the belief that great work exists and that they have the means to find it.

How can you help team members do great work?  What will it take for your team members to believe that they are doing great work?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational  Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

Shadows vs Mirrors – Leadership Paradox

When I was a kid, I loved playing with my shadow. With my back to the sun, I casted my shadow over everything, fascinated by the way it grew and diminished according to the placement of the sun.
As a teenager, I walked in others’ shadows to learn the ropes, to understand the best paths to walk and to easily fit in. By adulthood, I accepted that to grow I had to forge my own path, take what I learnt in the safety of the shadows and convert it to my truth as I exposed myself to the sun.
Larry Senn, in his 1970 doctoral thesis popularised the idea of “shadow of a leader.” His research showed that organisations often become shadows of their leaders.
People want to emulate leaders even without being bullied or coerced (to do so). Staff mimic the language, the style and the behaviour of the leaders as they try to understand the culture, to fit in, to negotiate and manoeuvre their way through the organisation, and to be promoted.
Whether intentional or not, leaders set the culture of the organisation by their expressions of personal likes or dislikes, their personal traits and characteristics and their behaviour.
They stand with their backs to the sun casting long shadows over the organisation. No doubt that Senn was onto something but should we as leaders some 47 years later, be casting shadows in our organisations?
We want our teams to have the same core values and to be aligned to organisational vision, but does this translate to staff being “a chip off the old block?”
Yes we want the stability that homogeneity brings, but how does that serve us in times of change?
We are all human, therefore by design we have flaws. Consequently, as leaders there are times when we are flawed in our thoughts, words and deeds. What if the shadows we cast include our flaws? What if as leaders we project shadows that conjure shadow puppets (changing fingers and hands to wonderful sights) – that are miles from the truth?

When I determined how I wanted to lead and decided the reasons why I wanted to lead I was no longer interested in having mini-mes on my team. While team members and I needed to be on the same page with respect to core values, vision and how we wanted to work, it was important that each team member bring who (s)he was to the workplace. In this way, we created a team of diverse opinions and skills, we challenged each other, we provided different opinions and thoughts and in this way we each grew.
I often held up a mirror to myself to see what I needed to change. I also held that mirror up for team members so that they could see themselves and autocorrect as they needed to. At times, I had to hold the mirror up for the team and determine what qualities were missing in the team, then decide to adopt and encourage others to adopt the relevant behaviour.

Leaders can consider being a mirror in and for the organisations in which we work. We can model the organisational culture that we want, even when it bucks the prevalent culture. We can reflect another way of working that invites meaningful conflict which may be suppressed when all staff sing off the same hymn sheet. We can promote the growth and development of individuals so that they display their full intelligence. We can create environments for risk taking that invite creativity. We can harness the variety and diversity that team members bring to spur our organisations forward.

To look in the mirror, we have to step out of the shadows, become aware, take responsibility and determine with team members what actions need to be taken to achieve our agreed destination.

Whose shadow are you walking in? What shadows are you casting on your team?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations.  She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational  Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.