Future England cricket captain – work on your strengths

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Focus on your strengths – they’re what got you where you are.  Easily said, harder to do.  When debriefing 360 feedback the majority of executives will “hunt the negative”.  Finding the criticism in the report and either moving defensively against it or wrestling with it to see how they can improve.  But you didn’t get to be the senior leader because of your weaknesses, you got there because of your strengths.  Building from your strengths rather than over-focusing on your weaknesses makes sense.

I was reminded of this in a BBC article on Joe Root – the upcoming star of England cricket.  Here is a quote from him

“When I came back from Australia, I realised a lot of the time out there I was trying to work on things I wasn’t too good at – and putting all my energy into that, rather than spending more time strengthening the stuff I am good at.”

Now, I’m sure he didn’t stop tackling weaknesses but if you’ve made the England team as a cricketer playing a certain way then there is an awful danger that a coach has you focus on your weaknesses and those weaknesses invade your thoughts and confidence.  His coach at the time (the now sacked Peter Moores) instead led him to build from his strengths.

Here is a quote from the Managing Director of an advertising agency who used us for debriefing 360 degree feedback

“I’ve been privy to several 360 experiences during my 30-year career, and this one topped them all by a long shot.

Not only did I walk away embracing a few key actions to help ensure our agency continues to flourish, but also I thoroughly enjoyed the debrief conversation, appreciated the perspective, and valued your insights.

I especially respected the concept of going from one’s strengths – as I’ve seen how 360’s can derail easily on a side-item or so.  Indeed,  you and your process have a wonderful way of focusing on the important stuff!”

Not often you can link a future England captain’s development to that of a US marketing agency director!



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How to improve performance appraisals; what the research tells us

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A recent article on the effectiveness of Performance Appraisals, cited research conducted by Rice University (hence the reason it caught my eye!) – the study points to some inherent problems with the traditional annual review process and suggests what steps organisations can take to improve it.

The key message is that frequent feedback, be that formal or informal, is a better way to bring about performance improvement and behavioural change in individuals

Furthermore the research draws out the benefits of such regular feedback as impacting on the wider performance management process  - “The more employers can create a culture that facilitates ongoing communication and feedback among employees, the more productive and beneficial the performance-appraisal process will be, according to the research.”

In our work with clients, this connection between implementing performance appraisals successfully, whilst creating a more effective feedback culture, is becoming ever more intricately linked – our ‘Meaningful Conversations’ training modules extend beyond Line Managers to employees too, as the need for everyone to be adept at writing or giving feedback to others, becomes increasingly paramount.

Our next webinar on Friday 22nd May@1pm BST will be a taster of one of our ‘Meaningful Conversations’ modules, ‘Giving Feedback’ – register below to join us.

John (Rice)


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Inspirational Video – LeasePlan Women’s Arctic Challenge

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We felt compelled to share this short, inspirational video from one of our clients, LeasePlan. It’s truly amazing to watch and will lift your spirits…!

This 10 minute video tells the whole story of the LeasePlan Women’s Arctic Challenge team. In April 2015, 13 women from LeasePlan UK, completed a traverse of Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle.

They overcome temperatures well below minus 30 degrees on their expedition as part of the company’s worldwide initiative to challenge how people think about diversity and inclusion.

The Challenge is a radically different approach to the gender equality question with the team acting as an inspiration to challenge their own preconceptions and self-belief and show us that we’re all capable of far more than we’ve ever dreamed.

Our heartfelt congratulations to everyone involved, and a particular message of admiration and congratulations goes out to Viv Bowra, Learning & Development Manager.

All the team at Bowland Solutions

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3 steps to getting the software right…

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The software industry is riddled with implementation failures – some public such as the NHS IT system and others that we will have experienced quietly (or not so quietly) in our internal work place systems. What makes it so difficult? After 24 years (gulp) in and around software I’ve come to conclude that it is the challenge of the mix of big picture and small detail. Let me see if I can explain how Bowland, after many years, has settled on a way of working that we feel works well.

When thinking about a system, initially we all have a picture of what we want. Usually, quite quickly, the IT people want the detail. They want to know what happens when every button is pressed, what should happen in a certain field. As a layperson it is easy to immediately feel overwhelmed and inadequate and unable to communicate what you want. In providing IT with the detail required you can somehow feel the point of the system can be lost. I’ve spent a lot of my career on both sides of that debate – I’ve been a coder frustrated with the lack of clarity of the requirement and I’ve been a user frustrated with a technically clever solution that doesn’t quite do what I want.

The IT industry has recognised this – trying to move from rigid, long, detailed functional specifications to a more “agile” approach that produces the minimum required and then iteratively builds upon it. In Bowland we have tried many things – some succesful, some less so.

Over time we have finally settled on a process that we find works brilliantly with our HR audience and the wider user base. We draw the requirement, we mock-up the requirement, and then we build.

So, first we draw the screens, This is easy and cheap to do and it gives a visual big picture. It allows us to see whether we have a shared picture of what we are trying to achieve. We heep drawing it until we are all happy. This may be as simple as seeing a new appraisal form laid out but by seeing it everyone gets to understand what is going to happen. The drawings can be shared amongst key users and feedback gathered widely.

Then we mock-up the system. Technically we create the HTML. The screens are built and will look exactly as they will when finished…we also storyboard it a little so that you can interact a little and see how each bit hangs together. It gives everyone a feel for how the system will be. It is a little more expensive than drawing but we are still pretty flexible on changes. The detail starts to come out naturally as we discuss what is on screen, what needs to happen, which words should be changed, etc.

And then finally we build the code. Because of the infrastructure we have in place this is often a small task for us – a bit of tailoring of the existing functionality. But we have the ability to do something new to reflect the unique nature of this particular client.

We then test – by this stage there is no question on whether this is what was wanted as over each iteration nothing significant has changed … it just evolved.

Essentially we are iteratating, each stage building on the other. By seeing the solution early and feeling the solution at an early stage the big picture is built in and the details emerge as we go.

You’d think this would take longer but it doesn’t – it’s quicker because fewer mistakes are made, there are no nasty surprises, and the iterating is done in tools (drawing) that are meant for the task.

We have recently implemented a surge of performance review/360 systems in this way and we are very pleased with the results.

Often when writing we talk about best practice in performance review or 360, or discuss the wider context of performance appraisal and development. Software plays a big role in ensuring the process is quiet and simple and its probably worth reminding everyone that we do have software underneath our consulting support!


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Guest post – The neuroscience of meaningful conversations

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It really is a pleasure to share this guest post, written especially for us by Jan Hills at Head Heart + Brain, and which delves into what neuroscience has to offer in respect of deepening our understanding of, and capability to have, meaningful conversations:

Meaningful conversations

Of course we should all have them. Meaningful conversations I mean. But how do you make sure you do? Frequently, conversations linked to performance are anything but meaningful. Either too stiff and staccato, following some set piece format HR have provided and you being too worried to go ‘off track’ in case it gets out of control or a bit meandering where half of what you wanted to say never gets said.

We think there are a number of elements to ensuring conversations are meaningful. On the surface the formula is simple ensure there is a clear purpose and high trust. Oh great that’s sorted then! But how do you ensure that? The ideas below use our understanding of the brain, yours and the person’s you are trying to have the conversation with. Both brains need to be engaged and in the right stage to make the conversation meaningful.

The other person’s brain

You need to consider how the employee or colleague is going to feel: imagine where they are on the subject and how they will react. Whether that’s getting the results of their 360, reviewing their annual performance or just agreeing goals.

Most people assume this kind of empathy requires them to feel the same feelings as the employee. This is known as emotional empathy,” meaning an instantaneous body-to-body connection with the other person’s feelings. It involves tuning in to another person’s emotions and requires the ability to read facial, vocal and other non-verbal signs of how another person feels, moment by moment.

Research shows this type of empathy depends on our tuning in to our own body’s emotional signals, which automatically mirror the other person’s feelings. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls the brain areas that create this type of empathy the “we” circuitry. This is the mentalising system which helps us think about and understand others’ motivations, goals and feelings.

Not that kind of empathy

In our view is this is not the kind of empathy to activate when you are planning or engaged in a meaningful conversation unless it’s with your lover or someone you hope will become your lover! Its not terribly helpful in business and especially when there are some difficult messages you need to deliver.

This is what sets off the panic alarm. Feeling the feelings of the other person triggers a classic threat response: “Don’t want to go there!” Which puts you into avoidance mode, or calls for a lot of mental energy to override it in your limbic brain.

Redirecting that energy takes resources away from your prefrontal cortex, your rational planning and goal focused part of the brian. Which is why even the best-organised person can end up having a muddled conversation, with evidence being forgotten and a generally chaotic result.

The right kind of empathy

Instead, what’s more helpful is for you is to take on the other person’s perspective. You need to engage your curiosity, rather than your emotions, with the other person’s reality.

This has been called “cognitive empathy,” or perspective-taking, and is what we typically describe as being able to see the world through other people’s eyes, or “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

Cognitive empathy is mind-to-mind, rather than body-to-body, and gives us a mental sense of how another person’s thinking works.

This way of thinking about another person’s perspective gives an understanding of their view – it can tell us how best to communicate with that person: what matters most to them, their models of the world, and even what words to use – or avoid – when talking with them. Using similar expressions and words builds rapport and avoids misunderstandings.

And that pays off in many ways, including reducing your uncertainty about how the conversation will go: a major factor that can get in the way in a meaningful conversation and trigger your colleague’s or employee’s threat response because they unconsciously read your uncertainty as incongruent with your words.

And there is another type of empathy which can usefully be deployed.

“Empathic concern” taps into the brain’s circuitry for parental love, and helps people get in touch with their feelings of compassion, and express their care for the other person. Best deployed once any difficult part of the discussion is complete and the next steps have been agreed: this is when you let your employee or colleague know that you’ll support them.


The other person to focus on is, of course, you.

We’ve covered some of the ways in which the right kind of empathetic preparation can help people manage their threat response in our CORE video.

As a starting point you need to understand, and possibly challenge, your own mind-set. If you have a fixed mind-set, you basically believe “someone can either do it, or they can’t,” you are never going to find it worthwhile conducting a difficult performance review or 360 feedback session. “What’s the point – they’ll never change” will be what you are thinking.

You may also need help in challenging the common business belief that a good manager will keep emotion out of this process. But science has shown suppressing your emotions is likely to make things worse rather that better. It increases the response of the amygdala the brain’s emotional centre.

One way of managing emotions rather than suppressing them is to learn reappraisal skills. We find that with a little practice, you can reappraise why the conversation needs to happen and why it needs to go well. The insights from perspective taking preparation can help in this.

Giving a poor performer a warning may seem cruel, but leaving them to lose more confidence as they struggle on in a role that’s not suited to them is even harsher. Giving tough messages about 360 feedback is hard, but letting the newly appointed team leader flounder puts the whole team in jeopardy.

And lastly, learn to tap into the mental and physical state that’s going to work best for you in the conversation, and learn to monitor this state in the moment. Taking a few seconds to think about the state of mind which will serve you best; remembering a time when you were fully in that state and re-experiencing it is all it takes.

You’re not going to be able to introduce an instant yogic understanding if you are not used to being attuned to your body. But very simple exercises like power poses or relaxing the shoulders can be instantly helpful, and you can use these simple techniques in everyday situations and not just the conversations you know are important or which you’ve been dreading the most.

Jan Hills

Jan set up Head Heart + Brain to change the way leadership and capability development is designed and delivered. With a Masters in the Neuroscience of Leadership she’s the driving force behind our brain-savvy approach.

Before Head Heart + Brain Jan ran her own successful consulting business and was COO at an investment bank, so brings a huge amount of experience to the table in leadership and dealing with practical business issues.

Jan is author of Brain-savvy HR: a neuroscience evidence base and Brain-savvy Leading: neuroscience tips and tools

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HR in Law Awards – Congratulations to both winners and contenders!

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A brief note to say congratulations to all those firms who had their work recognised and praised at the inaugural HR in Law Awards event last night. It was a great evening hosted by Alexander Armstrong, and we were delighted to have sponsored the ‘Excellence in Learning & Development’ category, presenting the award to Penningtons Manches, with both Mishcon De Reya and Trowers & Hamlins highly commended for their initiatives.

All bias aside, we were naturally very pleased to see one of our clients, Trowers & Hamlins, go on to win several additional awards; HR Business Impact and Best CSR Initiative, with the latter work winning a ‘Grand Prix’ overall prize of the evening for an initiative that saw them working with East Potential, a charity that aims to improve the lives of socially disadvantaged individuals in East London and Essex.





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Whose conversation is it anyway?

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If you wanted to know how the performance appraisal process was working – who would you ask? Would you ask the appraisers whether they felt they’d got their key messages across, set clear goals, fairly assessed performance, identified training needs, and given a nice bolt of motivation? Or would you ask the appraisees whether they were clear on their goals, understood how their performance was seen, how they viewed the last year, had a chance to discuss the coming year, their ambitions and the development they were looking for over the coming months and years?

I’d ask the appraisees. I would be much more interested in what message was received and what experience was had than on what message was sent and how the appraiser felt things had gone. I guess that is why we send out employee engagement surveys that ask questions in this area.

Which suggests to me that the conversation(s) around appraisal – whether the annual event, or the regular sessions – should be viewed as the appraisee’s conversation. This mindset would have the appraiser consider the individual appraisee. How do I best set the scene for the conversation? How do I ensure the appraisee has a voice, and that I listen? How do I deliver on my purpose within the session in a way that ensures the messages are received positively and deliver the intended outcomes?

As a manager it is important that you deliver on your intended purpose in the appraisal process but it isn’t you who decides whether you delivered or not. And your appraisee may have a different agenda that also must be met for the appraisal meetings to be successful. Makes it a bit harder knowing that.


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Free Webinar – Meaningful Conversations – Giving Feedback

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Friday 22nd May 2015@1pm (BST)


Join us for the second of our series of ‘Meaningful Conversations’ webinars which will cover all of the key performance management conversations which Line Managers have to conduct with their team from setting objectives through to the performance appraisal.


Eventbrite - Complimentary Webinar - Meaningful Conversations - Giving Feedback


Following the first webinar which looked how to set objectives, we now move onto the key step of giving feedback to individuals; it is not only critical that you give feedback, but also how you give that feedback which makes the difference.

Our series of ‘Meaningful Conversations’ webinars and classroom-based training modules build the capability and confidence of Line Managers, so that they can not only follow a process that works, but critically they can approach these performance management conversations in a way which builds and preserves the trust in the relationships they have with their direct reports.

This one hour webinar explores the key elements which ensure a feedback conversation is successful:

  • Takeaway our ‘Meaningful Conversations’ model which is fundamental to any successful performance management conversation
  • Learn how to give praise and encourage productive behaviours
  • Takeaway a 4 step process in how to give feedback when performance or behaviour is below expectations.
Previous attendees comments:
  • I like the way in which these webinars are facilitated, they are structured with ease and clarity, and personable The interactive and engaging way it involves the audience even though they are remote is great.
  • Really clear. Good presenter, excellent use of interactions
  • In depth and the work on meaningful conversations was good. Well structured, lots of interaction and group participation.

Eventbrite - Complimentary Webinar - Meaningful Conversations - Giving Feedback


We hope you can join us on Friday 22nd May.



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