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Transcript: Lessons for Emerging Leaders - Part 2 (EP4)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.


Brendan Rogers: Hello, everybody. Welcome back. I'm Brendan Rogers, the host of The Culture of Things podcast. This is Episode 4, Part 2. This episode is the second half of my chat with Martin West. As a reminder, Martin is the owner of a consultancy business called X-Gap, which is short for Execution Gap. 

X-Gap focuses on helping leaders create conversations that produce healthy team performance. Martin has co-authored a recently released book called Hard Road, A Leader's Journey Begins. If you haven't already, I encourage you to go back and listen to Episode 4, Part 1 before listening to this episode. If you have already listened to Part 1, let's dive into this episode as Martin shares the other four parts of the model from the book and some more lessons for emerging leaders.

Brendan Rogers: Look mate, let's move on to the second part of the model - Build Strong Relationships. So just give us a bit of a summary about what that's about and where that came from.

Martin West: Okay. That was about having good, strong one-on-one relationships with people in your team. The origins of this is an observation that you can have goals right. You can have interaction or team health right, within a team, but if it's not built on strong relationships that you as a leader personally have with individuals in your team, then it can be a house of cards and it can come down quite quickly. And their observation was that some leaders had not taken a time to spend one-on-one time with individuals in their team just to get to know them and to find out what their aspirations are and to ask just some simple questions about how they like to be managed. 

A lot of things in teams and work and organisations and business, I feel, are baked into a schedule. You know, quarterly meetings, annual meetings, the weekly staff meeting. A lot of those things seem to be common language and baked in. But one of the things that's not baked in, not baked in well, is the one-on-one and just having a one-on-one for no other reason than to find out how the individual is that your leading is going, what are their strengths, what are they struggling with, what did they like about your leadership, what motivates them, demotivates them. Just some simple questions. So, this second part of that model, Build Strong Relationships, came from watching this part missing from what leaders do. And again, a short story, I ran a workshop with a client. There were only four people in the room and it was half a day. And I could tell at the end of the workshop that something was not quite right. And so I just went off script. I just asked a simple question. I asked everyone in the room to rate the quality of the relationships with everyone else in the room. We had the leader, we had three other team members and I just said rate it red, yellow, green and go and put your answer up on the whiteboard. So each person went up to the whiteboard. They listed the other people's names underneath and wrote red, yellow, and green. And lo and behold, three people out of a team of four were red. And they rated each other red. And so I'm looking at it, and I said, guys, we’ve just spent four hours together. You're telling me that out of the four people in this room, three of you have been working together for more than five years, and you’re rating your personal relationship with each other red. And they all nodded. And I said, should we try and fix that? And again, they all nodded. And then that led to a whole conversation to find out why’s it red? And it turned out the cause was actually quite straightforward. 

It was simple to understand. Not simple to fix but simple to understand. What killed me was, I didn't uncover this until the end. And so this relationships topic is all about understanding the strength of the relationship that exists between you and the team members and within the team. Why, because if they are red or yellow, then it almost doesn't matter what else you're trying to get done. It's not gonna get done quickly.

Brendan Rogers: Yeah. It really reminds me of, you mentioned Patrick Lencioni earlier as well and the The Five Dysfunctions (of a Team), and trust and conflict being the first two, or the fear of conflict. So, again, if those relationships aren't there and they're not strong, then how can people have the conversations they need to have to get the improvement and the results they need to have. It's just to me, it's just not logic. It's not possible.

Martin West: No, that's right. And, it’s not hard to fix as a leader. I think you just got to dedicate yourself to doing a one-on-one. And asking maybe two or three very simple questions. One of them would be, “What motivates you? What demotivates you?”. And another question would be, “What do you like about my leadership style and perhaps anything I can improve?”. And another third question I love to pose is, “Where do you see yourself in three years time?” I think if you can uncover those sorts of questions in a very informal way, it helps build the picture and builds the relationship.  

Brendan Rogers: Yes, mate. Great questions and you know, and great simplicity you're providing as well. Can I just ask again, for listeners, and particularly you mentioned earlier how it's very, very difficult as a leader, you know. We get dragged into so much stuff and day to day in the urgent rather than the important and relationships certainly fits into that important category. If a leader’s not doing this and having those one-on-ones, what's some simple advice you can give them just to build that habit? What would you say to them?

Martin West: First I'd say, just think about the concept. Think about that. What do I think the strength of the relationship is with each person in my team, individually? Just, because before you do anything, you got to value the topic. Do I place value on the strength of my relationships? That's, you've gotta be honest with yourself. As a leader, if you’re not mentally in place where you value the strength of those relationships, then it really doesn't matter what I say next. And you know sometimes leaders are in seasons where they’re new, they’re just scrambling, they can’t see time to add one-on-ones. So the first step is just to ask yourself, do I value having strong one-on-one relationships with my team members and maybe not progress any further with what I'm about to say next until you get to the point of deciding yes, this is super important. Now, I've got the brain space. My next piece of advice would be try and find, if I went to the simplest frequency and tip, it would be find a time every six weeks to sit down one-on-one with each person in your team. Now ideally it should be more frequently than that, but if you want to got for the simplest advice every six weeks, and it could be coffee with no agenda. Just want to sit down, diarise one-on-ones, each person in your team once every six weeks. If you just do that, you'll be making progress because you're investing time and then if you need to formalise some sort of agenda, perhaps you can go into those questions I said earlier on. It’s just once every six weeks, one-on-one, 30 minutes, maybe 60 minutes, coffee, and get into the habit of doing that.  

Brendan Rogers: That's fantastic advice, mate. I really liked the, I like both points, but particularly that first point. It's, you know, again, this is not a tick-the-box exercise. If you are not invested in it, if you don't believe that relationships are a key part of you being a great leader and getting the best out of your team, then don't just give it lip service. Don't do it...  

Martin West: Nah. Don’t do it.

Brendan Rogers: ...because every, all your actions and behaviours after that will not support, you know, that you believe in it. They'll actually support that you don't believe in it.  

Martin West: No. And you'll cancel and we see leaders cancel all the time. And canceling one-on-ones is a shocker. It telegraphs such a poor message. You’re much better not scheduling in the first place. And I get it sometimes leaders are overwhelmed. And I Martin, “I can’t schedule one-on-one; I’ve got to deal with this crisis or I've got to go and impress my boss, or I've got to go and create some momentum myself personally.” I get it. I'm not saying you have to do this from day one, but at some point you have to face up to what value do I place on relationships.  

Brendan Rogers: And that's it. I think it gets back to that old saying that what you value you’ll prioritise and you'll put time to it.

Martin West: That’s right. Exactly. Much better weighting if you value it rather than pretending and canceling.  

Brendan Rogers: Absolutely. Mate, let's move to the third part of the model alignment and cultivating team alignment.  

Martin West: Okay. This part of the model for new leaders is what our business was for the past 10 years. It's answering four questions as a team. I’ll say what the four questions are. but I want to right up front say that the key here is getting buy-in. And so the four questions we think teams need an answer to, to successfully produce results and improve their performance. Question one, “Why do we exist, what's our purpose?”. Question two, “describe success”. Describe some points in the future, normally, one, may be two years and get really clear on what success looks like for the team at that point. Question three, “What do we have to focus on in the next six months?”. The key here is not having a big list - three or four things, nothing more than that. You know, if everything's important, nothing's important. So question three is what do we need to focus on to help drive us toward that picture of success. And then the final question, the fourth one is, “What do I need to execute?”. If we know what question one is, the reason, the purpose, and then we know where we're heading describing success, now we know what to focus on. The last piece of the jigsaw is really being clear personally, what do you need to focus on? What do you need to execute? And keeping that real simple, so they’re the four questions. And it's really a workshop that we advocate the leader leads the team through to get buy-in. 

Brendan Rogers: Mate, what I really love about that and, and again, you know, the model I just really, really love, again the simplicity of it, but probably for some of those leaders out there that are, you know, thinking more, you know, relationships and self-awareness is all good, but we've got to get stuff done. And that really, to me focuses on that alignment and cultivating a team. This is where we get stuff done. But you get stuff done better when you've got the self-awareness and when you build the relationships because you'll work together better.  

Martin West: Exactly. Look, we have screwed this up as a company. The first ten years, this is where we would have started the model at alignment, but after making the mistakes I made and seeing that quality of relationships is absolutely critical and the step prior to that, having some level of self-awareness is key, it's now not the first part of the model, but it is very key. It’s definitely key. This is all about what is the game plan and how are we going to execute the game plan.  

Brendan Rogers: Well, I have to ask and something completely random has jumped into my head. But do all of your clients know that you've been treating them as Guinea pigs for the last 20 years?

Martin West: (Laughs) Look, all our best stuff comes from our clients. I tell them, I try to tell them.

Brendan Rogers    12:32    Look, it's the best learning ground isn't it? It's the best learning ground.  

Martin West: Yeah. Like, we're definitely not saying we know everything. You know, clients teach us as least as much as we help them. There’s no doubt about that and we enjoy it. Especially, you know, our close clients, ones with longer team relationships with we can be more upfront, more frank and really enjoy the journey. They know us warts and all, the stuff we're good at, the stuff we’re not. Many of our close clients realise that my business partner and I are better together. I had one client, tell me that once, they said, look, Westy, we love what you do, but you’re better when Braggy is with you. And, I’m going, OK, thanks! And I knew it. I already knew that. And vice versa they say the same to him. So, once you get good client relationships, they start being pretty honest with you, which is good.  

Brendan Rogers: And on the topic mate, I mean the sum of the parts together is better than just the individual parts, right? So again, you and Mark make a great team. 

Martin West: Yeah.

Brendan Rogers: I love what you said before about, you know, you don't know everything, but I think the key message in this is yeah, none of us knows everything, but you are really open to improvement, like a lot of the great leaders out there and, that's what distinguishes you from maybe the average versus, to what you're achieving today.  

Martin West: Yeah, I mean I can be a slow learner. Some of these lessons, I mean the first big pivot we made in the business took us 10 years. That’s a long time to realise that team health and behaviours in the team are important.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, dare I say it, you and Mark are just mere males like us and maybe you need a little bit of female influence to help you move forward a little bit quicker, but let's not go into that area just now...

Martin West: Yeah, yeah. I’ve got a female coach in the US.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, let's move on to the fourth part around discipline and establishing team discipline. Before you explain that, I get the feel and the sense, and I guess some of my experience says, this is probably the tough part, less so about, maybe, determining the behaviours around that and what the team disciplines are. But more the application and the constant accountability attached to that. How about you explain some more?  

Martin West: So the next discipline, the next lesson, is, out of the five is discipline. And it's really an accountability discipline. And the easiest way I can tee this is by saying, up until this point, all we've done is establish a plan, build great relationships and gotten self-aware. We don't know what's actually happens. And so, the team meeting is the cornerstone of the discipline that we're talking about here. You know, there are several aspects of the discipline, but the weekly team meeting is the cornerstone. And the reason that's a cornerstone, because it's the game, it's the time where you get to see what happened, what did not happen, what do we need to do differently next.. And you get to see the behaviour from the team come to the surface. 

We've got a very specific way we think that team meeting should be run every week. But the overarching point is, unless you've got some way to track progress with the game, all you've got is a great plan. So this is really about execution, what got executed and discipline just means something that's repeated. For instance, if I was to ask you, Brendan, how often do you exercise? 

Brendan Rogers: About three times a week?

Martin West: Okay. Three times a week is a discipline. I haven't asked you what you do, how long you do it for, 3 times a week is a discipline. If you'd said three times a month, I’d go, not really discipline. Maybe it's something that you dabble in every now and then. So discipline just means something that is repeated regularly. It doesn't mean it has to be great. It doesn’t mean it has to be the same every time. It just, it's the repetition that's the key and we think the key part of that, is the weekly team meeting.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, I don't want to put words into your mouth, but I get the sense that understanding discipline, and in my opinion there is a severe lack of discipline in, to be fair, the global society, and people's behaviours. Is this the toughest part of the model for leaders to really grasp and to really show the discipline needed?

Martin West: Again, because I'm saying that the big point here is the weekly team meeting, you know there's a monthly meeting with things that should happen, a quarterly meeting, but the weekly’s the key. Once, I found that most teams already do meetings, so it's not like the meeting’s foreign. It’s just that most of them are not done well. Two-thirds of the meeting is agendaised, it’s static, there’s no engagement, there might be a little bit of discussions and debate, what we try to do is flip that around. We limit the amount of pre-set agenda for a weekly team meeting and maximise the amount of what we call “real time” agenda or discussion and debate. And I find once a team gets a taste of a different way of doing the team meeting, then the discipline part of it, i.e, doing it each week becomes a lot easier. So it's like trying the new way is part of the key. Most teams, I think, know that meetings are part of the culture. It's just their experience of them has been really bad. And so we try and show how you can have a really good experience with team meetings and once clients experience a new way of doing it, they get addicted to it. They say, this is great. How did we ever do things differently than this way?

Brendan Rogers: Yeah. Once again, a great point. I mean I'm not sure that there's a lot of leaders out there that are enjoying the meetings that they're having and you know, to use your analogy about being at the game, you know, the game they're playing. So anything that can be done to help them and understand how to have better meetings, it's, surely everyone would have to be quite open to that.

Martin West: Yeah, otherwise, the plan you did in the previous lesson around alignment it's just, it’s, static. Where as, we know that teams and work are dynamic. Stuff changes every week and the only way to stay on top of that is that team meeting. Otherwise you've got a bit of paper that sits in the drawer and you're just hoping for the best or you're really good at e-mail and that neither of those is a substitute for a robust, dynamic, interesting, sometimes conflict-filled weekly team meeting.

Brendan Rogers: You just touched on something we haven't spoken about and I guess we'll go into a little bit of that, but all of these bits are connected and let’s, we'll talk about the connection of these, but let's share about the last part of the model around coaching.  

Martin West: Coaching. The reason we find that this is the last and most important part of the model is ultimately your job as a leader is about other people in the team. It's not about you. And it takes people sometimes a little time to realize that it's not about me, it's about others. So you have to change your mindset and ultimately your role as a leader and the thing that will bring you the most satisfaction is if you can see individuals in the team improve and therefore the team collectively improve. 

If you can sit back and look at the team and think you've helped individuals on the team become better and you can find the brain space to do that, and a simple method to doing that, that is the most satisfying part of being a leader of a team. And we advocate a very simple approach to coaching, called the Three Box Approach to coaching, which is imagine in your mind, a visual picture of one box, let's say it's down the bottom right corner of a whiteboard and, it listed current performance. Right there is where you want to get clear with someone you're coaching, what their current performance is. How are they currently producing, performing or delivering.

The next box is the upper left corner arrow pointing toward its future performance. That's the description in two or three dot points and where we will love to see you as an individual in the future. Two or three dot points on performance delivery, or behaviour at some point in the future. And then the key box is the third box, which is really where you need to help individuals understand you’re in it with them is the how. And the third box is almost pointing halfway between the other two boxes.

It's the how, it's really an agreement on what are the steps we're going to take in the next weeks and months to help you get from current to future. And that how, is really the coaching box. It's where as a coach you're working with the individual, getting clear on what is it that needs to happen; how does it need to happen? How can you help them and make sure you’re not scaring them with massive steps. Doesn't need to be big changes. We think coaching is key. It's the juice behind being a team leader. You know, all the previous steps are important. Getting self, you don't become a team leader just to get self aware, or just to build strong relationships or to build, get alignment or discipline. Ultimately, you're in a leadership role and I think the thing that brings most satisfaction, it does for me as a consultant, it's helping individuals and teams improve and so, coaching is critical for that.

Brendan Rogers: And I think it's, I'm pretty sure, you and I would agree on this page is that, look, if that's not your motive and you know why you've gone into, why you’ve gone into leadership positions, then you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

Martin West: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. (Laughs) That's right. And sometimes, it’s, you know, especially new leaders, sometimes you’re just trying to survive. And so when a new leader reads this book and they see coaching in there, they might think, uh, man, how am I going to have time for that? Even if you don’t have time for it, but you just absorb that ultimately I'm going to get most satisfaction not out of getting promoted, but out of seeing people improve. Even if they can just absorb that point. That's going to be really helpful.

Brendan Rogers: Well, even the best players have coaches. That's why they're the best, right?

Martin West: That's right. That's exactly right.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, wrapping up the model. So I'm a new leader. I pick up the book, I spend the money on it. Fantastic. I have a read and I'm going to spend the next 6 or 12 months on self-awareness because, I think I need to. Is that how I should apply this or can I move between? How linked, how interconnected are these things? 

Martin West: I would work on the first two really quickly. If I was looking at the model, I'd be trying to, and I’m a new leader, I’d put a peg in the sand a date, where I’m trying to do step three, that's the alignment task. And I put that peg maybe three months out. And if you weren't feeling confident, maybe four months, five months out. You need to put a peg in the sand where you're going to have the team together and decide to work your way through the four questions under alignment, which is purpose, success, What are we going to focus on? What each person is going to execute? The time between now and then is where you work on those first two, self-awareness and building strong relationships. If you'd asked me of all the things in the book, if I was just to do two, if I was to walk away and just do one or two, where would the starting point be? The two I would say start with are, do-the-self-awareness exercise. Get some feedback from your team and maybe a peer and maybe a boss on your strengths and weaknesses. Just get that as honestly as you can. And the second thing was start wrapping your head around how to do really good weekly team meetings. That'd be the two starting points. If you can get those two things into your rhythm, make a start on those two, that'd be the place to start.

Brendan Rogers: That's fantastic, mate. Thanks for sharing that advice. And, I think for me, what I really want to get across as well is that, you don't just tick one off, and you're done with it. You know, these things are living and breathing. It's alive. And you should always be constantly working on each part.

Martin West: Yeah. Yeah. No, that's true. That's true and I think they fall in, some people are going to be naturally stronger at some things than others. There’ll be some people who are listening to this that are great at the alignment part but may need to do some work on their self-awareness and relationships. Others will be great at those two, but aren’t so great at the alignment and weekly team discipline. So I think you've got to match your own situation and wiring and personality a bit for this. And each person should be able to work out, ‘okay, I know I need to do some work here’.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, I've taken a lot of your time today and I really appreciate you explaining the model in such detail and that is just going to be so helpful for our listeners. There's so much gold to be taken from that. If we go into, just wrapping this up, what's the impact that you and Mark are trying to have on leaders, and particularly emerging leaders through this book? What are you trying to achieve?

Martin West: Really, really simple, mate. Help them never become the limit to their team. We want every leader to have the right tools, the right skills, and be positioned so that they're always ahead of the team because if they’re always ahead of the team their team will keep improving. And, like I said at the beginning, some of this has come out of pain. It's watching senior leaders who are the limits to their team, I thought, “Man, if only you had a different approach, maybe not say, but 10 years ago, if you'd been able to absorb, some of these, some of these lessons we're talking about here, if you were 20 years into your career, some of these changes are hard to make. If you’re two years or five years or seven years in your career and you're just starting your leadership journey, you can make these changes pretty quickly. So, it’s helping leaders never become the limit to their team.  

Brendan Rogers: Mate, I love the simplicity of that message. Fantastic. Mate, just as a final word for our listeners, if you could give them one bit of advice and really, you've given so many bits of advice through this interview, but if there was one bit of advice you'd like to give to leaders today, what would that be?

Martin West: The advice I’d give is one that I think I like to use personally in our own business and with our clients. I'm trying to think of the right words to describe it, but the advice is to be more open and the word is ‘vulnerable’. And what I mean by that is if you know a conversation needs to happen with a client or a team member or a boss or a peer or a wife or a husband, don’t put it off. You know, it requires vulnerability and courage to face up to the things that we know are holding us back, that we're not doing anything about. It might be financial discipline, physical discipline, it might be someone in our team. But most of us have something holding us back and if we spend even just a few minutes thinking about it, most of us can pinpoint what that is.

The hard part is actually doing something about it and most of it starts with a conversation with someone. So my parting advice would be try and write down the thing that you think is holding you back in this context as leader of the team. I find nine times out of  ten, it's going to point to a conversation you need to have with someone. Put that person's name in the blank space. Who is it that I need to go and talk too? And my advice would be to have the vulnerability and courage to do that exercise. Go and have the conversation with the team member, the peer, the boss, the person. You know you'd been putting it off, it needs to happen. Go and make it happen.

Brendan Rogers: That's great advice, mate. So really, the summary of that for me was being vulnerable is the starting point. So as a leader, be more vulnerable and that will create the opportunity for conversation and who knows what's happening and what happens from there.

Martin West: That's right. And everyone, all of us, including you, Brendan and me, has a conversation we probably should've had a week or a month or a year ago that we haven't had. We need to have it. It doesn't require a lot of thinking to work out what it is and with whom. I find most good things are on the other side of the right conversation.

Brendan Rogers: And, and again, it's a great point that you raised because it, yeah, you are living and breathing this, I'm living and breathing this in my business, but we can still find this tough, you know, we reflect back and think, did I really have the right conversation a week or two weeks or a month ago? So it's not easy. I get it, but probably that, again, going back to your model and being self-aware around that and who you are, then that and that can help and being vulnerable to  move forward with that. That really sets a solid foundation.

Martin West: It’s been great chatting, mate.

Brendan Rogers: Mate, thank you very much. As a final, final point, now, how can, if listeners wanted to ask you a question, you're a man with unbelievable experience. If our listeners wanted to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

Martin West: Three ways - one is contact you. You can give them my details.

Brendan Rogers: Ohh, that sounds like a buck pass.  

Martin West: Uh, no. (Laughs) My email is martin.west@xgap.com. And the third way would be the same details are on the website for the book, which is hardroadleadership.com. We've set a website up just for the book called hardroadleadership.com. My contact details are there as well.

Brendan Rogers: Excellent. So yes, hardroadleadership.com. Fantastic website. There's an online coaching course associated with the book as well. So, look and you can buy the book online through that website. So, I'd thoroughly recommend, it's a fantastic read, great nuggets, as you can hear from the interview today. Martin has some fantastic insight. And the work that him and Mark, his business partner have done and putting this book together is fantastic. And the exciting thing is that from what I read through the book and the later part, is that there's a Book 2 and a Book 3 that'll be coming out at some stage in the future. So I look forward to hearing that. Martin, thank you very much for your time, mate. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. It was a fantastic stroke of luck meeting you and having you in my life and thanks very much for sharing today.

Martin West: Appreciate your time Brendan. Great knowing you too. Thanks for having me on, mate.

(Music plays)

Brendan Rogers: That concludes my two-part interview with Martin. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed bringing it to you. Once again, it was really tough to only pick three key takeaways from this second part of my conversation with Martin, but, here they are.

My first key takeaway - building strong relationships, particularly one-on-one, relationships. Do you value one-on-one relationships? If you do, you will have the brain space and you'll make the time to do them. It's absolutely vital to take the time to get to know the people in your team as real people. If you aren't making the time for it, you need to consider this question that Martin mentions: What value are you placing on relationships in your team?

My second key takeaway: coaching and helping people improve. Ultimately, your job as a leader is about other people in the team. It's not about you. This thinking requires a mindset shift in some leaders. As a leader, there should be nothing more satisfying than seeing other people in the team improve. Martin talks about a simple Three Box Coaching model. Firstly, get clear on current performance, then decide on what the future performance looks like and then agree the steps to take to improve from current to future. I really love the quote Martin mentioned, “Coaching is the juice behind being a team leader”.

My third key takeaway is related to Martin's final piece of advice for leaders and he said, “Be vulnerable and courageous”. Talk about things that we know are holding us back and impacting on performance. Write down what you think is holding you back in the context of leading a team and show the vulnerability and courage and do something about it. As Martin said, most good things are on the other side of the right conversation.

So, in summary, build strong one-on-one relationships. Get good at coaching and helping people improve. Be vulnerable and courageous and have the conversations that you need to have.

Brendan Rogers: If you have any questions or feedback about this episode, please feel free to send me a message at brendan@brendanrogers.com.au.

Thank you for listening. Stay safe. Until next time.  


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