June 18, 2023




In this 8020Info Water Cooler  we consider ways to benefit from disagreements, give references, nurture client referrals, organize your summer reading, prepare as a first-time manager, and design strategies better than “best practices”. Enjoy!

1. Ways to Gain from Disagreement

A team of academics recently surveyed more than 500 executives from different organizations and found “fight” was the noun most commonly associated with conflict at work. The most common adjective: “dysfunctional”.

But disagreements don’t have to turn out that way.

“When handled appropriately, disagreements lead to better results,” Hanne Collins, Charles Dorison, Francesca Gino, and Julia Minson write in Harvard Business Review.

They recommend these three approaches:

  • Focus on what you have to learn:  You probably enter disagreements with the intent of proving your point and winning over the other side. That just invites, or adds to, conflict. Instead, when people approach conflicts with a willingness to learn, they fare better.
  • Don’t underestimate the other side’s willingness to learn from you: The team’s studies have consistently shown that, during conflictual conversations, most people state they are more willing than their conversation partner to learn about the other side’s opposing perspective.

“Beliefs about their partner’s willingness to learn from them were the single most important predictor of conflict outcomes,” the academics note.

  • Be explicit about your intentions: Given that your counterpart is also likely to underestimate your willingness to learn about them, you should be more explicit about your intentions. And it takes only a few sentences to make that point.

If you demonstrate openness and learning —the kind of behaviour you hope to elicit— it reduces conflict and leads to better results.


2. How to Give a Reference

Consultant Julie Zhuo believes references make the hiring world go round. But most of us are cautious when asked for one, concerned we might somehow run into legal problems.

“If you want to ask for references of your network, be the kind of person who will also give references to your network,” she writes on her blog. And the best reference is an honest reference backed by facts.

Here’s how to do so:

  • Describe the context of your work together: That can vary from “we worked closely across a dozen projects for the past three years” versus “we were both at Company X and saw each other maybe five times in big meetings seven years ago. I can only speak to what I saw in those meetings and what I know of their general reputation from that time.”
  • Describe how you’d feel if you had to work with this person again: You might consider it wonderful to work with them again or, for whatever reasons, not want them on your team.
  • Describe how you compare this person to others you’ve worked with in that role: She might be amongst the top 10% of people in the field or just average.
  • Describe what things you would trust or not trust this person to do: For example, “this person is excellent at rallying support for ambiguous initiatives but not the best to establish a high level of quality.”

Zhuo asks you to remember people change, but you can still help the hiring manager with this feedback.

3. Four Categories for Your Summer Reading

If things slow down for you in the summer, it’s an opportunity to catch up on reading. On his blog, consultant Wally Bock recalls watching his father pack books for summer vacation, deliberately choosing from three categories, to which Bock has since added one more.

  • Something you’ve always wanted to read: Often this was a “big thinking” book or a deeper look at a topic that fascinated his father. Some summers it might be an intriguing novel.
  • Something to read for fun: For his father, this was usually fiction, often several books by the same author, like the year he immersed himself in James Michener.
  • A ‘pump-priming’ book: His father would choose a book outside his usual range of reading, based on recommendations of others. One year it was a book on post-World War II German church architecture, another year on the painter Paul Gauguin.
  • Re-read a great book: Bock likes to go back each summer to something special he read previously.

What might you pick for those categories this summer?

4. How to Attract More Referrals

Referrals are one of the best ways to grow your business and therefore shouldn’t be left to happenstance. CEO coach Randall Craig recommends this dual analysis:

  • Upstream: What categories of businesses serve your clients before you? “For wealth managers, it may include bankers, solo insurance agents, and accountants,” he notes on his blog.
  • Downstream: Identify the businesses that serve your clients after you have done your work. Very often, their marketing efforts yield opportunities that require your work before they can start on their own.


5. Zingers

  • What Shouldn’t You Be Doing? What tasks can be performed only by you, or someone in your role, to improve your team’s outcomes? Consultant Stephen Lynch asks clients to track their time for four weeks to determine which tasks are high-level, high-leverage activities and which need to be delegated or de-emphasized.  (Source: StephenLynch.net).
  • Facial Signals: Teach your face to express your heart, advises executive coach Dan Rockwell.  (Source: Leadership Freak).
  • Family Business Stumbles: More than half of new CEOs at family businesses fail, even when a transition is unhurried, and whether chosen internally or externally. Executive recruiter Marty O’Doherty says the big factor contributing to success or failure was not lack of ability, but rather a poor fit with the culture of the family enterprise, weak EQ [emotional quotient] and leadership style, and misalignment with the family on the direction of the business. (Source: CanadianFamilyOffices).
  • Model Land: Erica Thompson, a senior policy fellow at London School of Economics, warns about the limitations of mathematical modelling. Whole careers can be spent by theorists in Model Land doing difficult and exciting things, but they don’t necessarily apply to the real world. (Source: strategy + business).
  • Feedback Filter: With complex projects, prioritize feedback from people with taste, skill and influence, not proximity or volume, suggests entrepreneur Seth Godin.  (Source: Seth’s Blog).

6. The List: Tips for First-Time Managers

Things first-time managers must do to be great leaders:

For many people, the best way to learn how to be a great manager may be watching and learning directly from great managers. In Fast Company, Beyond Barriers CEO Nikki Barua offers these additional tips to help first-time managers set themselves up for success:

Shift Your Mindset.

  • Get things done through others: You need to shift from doing everything yourself to delegating, training and empowering your team.
  • Foster an “always learning” culture: Embrace diverse perspectives and adopt a growth mindset, making it safer to take risks, seek out feedback and learn from failures.
  • Nurture relationships: Beyond completing tasks and meeting deadlines, you need to support your team, help them feel valued and connect them to the mission.

Expand Your Skillset.

  • Communicate effectively: Jotting down a couple of priorities and sharing them in a meeting is not enough. Communicate your vision, expectations and the steps to be taken. And you will have to reiterate your definition of success more often than you might think necessary.
  • Unlock potential: Learn what makes individual team members tick and find ways to connect their work to their motivations and strengths.
  • Establish accountability: This goes hand in hand with delegating responsibility. Learn to clarify expectations, boundaries and consequences.

Build Your Toolset.

  • Use coaching questions: Remind yourself to WAIT (“Why Am I Talking”). Instead, lead with questions that coach people to find solutions themselves.
  • Build feedback loops: It may be easier at times to avoid uncomfortable conversations, but establishing 360-degree feedback loops will build relationships and provide your team with constructive feedback.
  • Prioritize your own wellbeing: This means managing your own expanded workload, eliminating low priorities, and avoiding distractions while following a healthy daily regimen.


7.  Around Our Water Cooler

A Strategy Better than Best Practice

Most of our clients work within complex systems. Their operating environments involve many interconnected players, complex dynamics, multiple ways of seizing opportunities, framing problems and solving them.

And we have always been reluctant to recommend “best practices” as an automatic go-to or default strategy.

As Jen Briselli from Topology Insights sees it, “best practice is, by definition, past practice”. You’re at risk of relying on outdated or irrelevant insights or being distracted by “red herrings”.

We would add that, to be successful, many strategies today also need to be context-specific.

As a form of crystallized learning, best practices can be useful in simple or predictable scenarios — not so much when complex, fluid situations require more agility and creative adaptation. Interdependent components of a system and their relationships are constantly changing, giving rise to unpredictable, emergent behaviours. And what works for another organization may not work for you.

It can be difficult to deeply understand complex systems and, as Briselli points out, there are no easy “silver bullet” solutions. More dynamic strategy-making, however, will sense first, then respond. Options might include:

  • Feeding your situation analysis with diverse perspectives, models and disciplines.
  • Experimenting with lighter and faster interventions, which support continuously learning and adapting.
  • Looking beyond short-term actions, successes and failures — we need to look at why we do what we do, and then: What’s the next right thing to do?
  • Finally, reducing the “distance” between sources of decision-critical information and the people who need it to take action: Distribute decision-making power and leverage the collective intelligence of the network.

She sums it up this way: “When you find yourself trying to solve isolated problems instead of managing the holistic mess, ditch best practices and embrace context-specific emergent practices by sensing first, then responding.”

What We’re Reading:

  • Harvey’s Pick: Stop moaning about younger employees and read McGill Professor Karl Moore’s new book Generation Why, which offers an explanation of how their formative years shaped Millennials and Generation Z, and  specific approaches to lead them more effectively.
  • Rob’s Pick: In his fourth book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday looks at the treacherous nature of ego — how ambition, hubris and pride poison our aspirations, limit us in success, and bog us down after a failure. Spiced with engaging examples and stories about historical and contemporary leaders, it is less a self-help book and more a guide to insightful personal reflection.


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8020Info helps senior leadership teams and boards develop, clarify and build consensus behind strategic priorities. Our services support strategic planning and change processes, marketing communications and research / stakeholder consultations. We would be pleased to discuss your needs and welcome enquiries.

8.  Closing Thought

“The longer the meeting, the less is accomplished.”

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple