Life Stories

Our personalities and the way we react to each other and new situations has long been a topic of interest, served by a wide range of psychometric tests.  Generally, these measure our tendency to behave in certain way along the “big five” axis: extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism, and affability.  Others, such as MBTI or PROPHET, often used in business environments, look at how we take in information and make judgements about the world.

These tests measure “traits” which are our unconscious and automatic reactions to various situations and tend to be fairly stable over long periods.  But there is more to personality than our traits.

Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, suggests we should think of personality at three levels.  Traits are the first level – creating a basic framework which suggests how we are likely to automatically respond across a wide range of situations.

The second level, which he refers to as “characteristic adaptations” includes the goals, values, and coping strategies that people use to manage and thrive in their day to day lives.  These are very dependant on the particular situation and are usually consciously created based on experience and the requirements of the role or task.   They are influenced by the underlying traits – so that a person with a higher level of neuroticism for example would have a range of different defence strategies, or a high level of openness might drive a focus on trying new experiences.   As the situation changes, these “adaptations” will also change to reflect this – although the underlying traits are still basically the same.

The third level is what McAdams calls “life stories”.    We have always been fascinated by stories – and how we make meaning of events in our worlds.   McAdams suggests that we create a narrative for ourselves that allows us to integrate what has happened to us in the past, our current situation, and an anticipated future in a way that is cohesive and allows us to define ourselves and our role in the world.  The ability to keep a coherent narrative going is at the heart of what we think of as our identity – rather than how we behave or our character traits.

Our versions of events however, are more like historical fiction as we make interpretations of what happened in the light of our own biases and selective remembering.  Psychologists have shown that what we remember depends on our goals and objectives, and so we are more likely to store and recall specific incidents and details that align with how we see ourselves.  It goes the other way too, our ability to define goals is strengthened by examples in the past of how we demonstrated agency which is a key element in many counselling sessions.

Like any good story, you need stuff to happen.  If the character in a story has no challenges, it’s not going to be interesting to the audience.   Having had periods of difficulty and then overcoming them often leads to a greater sense of wellbeing, and that it is from these challenges that we become more aware of our capabilities.  Equally, a narrative in which the character starts off well but is constantly beaten by events may not lead to a happy ending, which will be reflected in how the narrator sees the world and his resultant behaviour.

So, what do we take from this?

Firstly, its important to realise that we’re not defined by our traits.  Our personalities  and our identities, are created by a combination of our traits, our adaptations to the situations we find in our lives and the overall narrative we tell ourselves – and probably others – about our life stories.  Our adaptations are specific to particular situations, but the overall narrative enables us to create an integrated representation that helps us understand ourselves.  Our traits are largely unconscious and change slowly, but our adaptations and narrative are conscious and are more under our control.

Secondly, we’re not historians.  What we choose to remember is influenced by our narrative – and that may not be the best reality for us.  We often make decisions and then find the facts to suit – in some cases a similar bias may exist in our narratives, which could be limiting our potential, or causing us to carry resentments about people or situations which could be interpreted and remembered differently.

Finally, we own the narratives of our lives.  We can be active participants in our stories or passive observers.   How we choose to tell the story has a large bearing on whether we feel we had a hand in the outcomes and the ability to choose and influence our futures.

What is your own narrative?  Are there other ways you could tell the story that could open you up to different possibilities?


What makes coaching successful ?

Coaching is a simple concept but infinitely varied in how it can be applied.  It can combine simple exercises with profound insights into how an individual sees themselves in the world and how they can change their perceptions and behaviours.  It is too broad to have a codified set of rules – but these principles will help define what needs to be considered in a successful coaching engagement.

The relationship is key. For coaching to be effective both parties must trust each other and be able to talk openly about the issue at hand.  This may take time to develop and may be restricted to the context of the coaching engagement, but unless the coachee feels that the coach understands them and their issue and is able to see the world from their perspective, it will be difficult for them to really share what is on their minds.

Both coach and coachee are involved. Both parties have to believe that the coaching can be effective and be willing to commit wholeheartedly to exploring and creating a solution.  The coachee has to be open to change and self-learning, but so does the coach who needs to check for their own assumptions and judgements.  Zen Buddhism has a concept called “beginners mind” which refers to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions – this applies to the coach as much as the coachee.

There needs to be an outcome. This may need to be redefined and enhanced – or even changed – during the process, but coaching is intended to produce a tangible change in understanding and behaviour, not just be a nice chat.  The coach’s role is to hold the space and manage the overall coaching process and needs to ensure that there is a general direction for the dialogue which can be translated into specific actions.  The coachee needs to suggest these actions and be committed to seeing them realised.

Life goes on. Coaching happens in the middle of other activities, family and work events, and changes in the broader context.  There may be other immediate concerns or family issues outside of the scope of the coaching – but of concern to the coachee which will have an impact on their focus.  The situation may change significantly during the coaching process which may require the required outcomes to be re-evaluated.  Both the coach and coachee must be aware of the wider context in which the coachee exists and be sensitive to how this is impacting on the engagement.

Its not about techniques. There are many different coaching tools and techniques, but they are often interchangeable depending on the situation and personal preference.  What is important is that the coach is flexible about what approach is brought to each element of a session – and understands why it is relevant in that instance.   The observation that “to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail” applies to coaching as well.

Change takes time. We are so used to everything happening fast that we often underestimate how long it takes to change ourselves. Personal change happens in biological time rather than electronic time.  Coaching session are often set up over an extended period with perhaps a month between them, to allow for reflection and the ability to create new habits.  Much of the real change work takes place outside of the sessions – and its important to allow for time to do this –perhaps including structured exercises to allow the coachee to observe and reflect on what their perceptions and reactions are.

Optimistic Paranoia

Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with the chairman of a large technology company.  He was asked what key traits he looked for in his board.   He summarised his answer as “optimistic paranoia”.


This phrase has stuck with me as a convenient shorthand for the balance we need to achieve in creating or running a business.

 Optimistic – because we need to believe in what we are doing and that there will be a positive outcome.  The saying “whether you believe you will, or whether you believe you won’t –  you’re probably right” carries a lot of truth.  Recent work in the field of Positive Psychology has confirmed the importance to our relationships, success in life and general well being of having an ability to think – and be – positive.   As well as affecting our own success, this can also rub-off on others with the resulting wider benefits.  This is particularly important when people are looking to you for guidance or inspiration – if you don’t visibly believe in the outcome why should others?

Paranoia –  is a more difficult word. It has a medical meaning related to delusions of persecution or conspiracy.   This was not what the chairman was suggesting, but rather the need to constantly stay aware of what was going on in the wider environment that might have an impact.  The key point was to address the potential risk of optimism – complacency.  If we believe that everything will always turn out for the best, we may well miss the actions that we need to take to ensure that the positive outcome becomes reality.

“What could go wrong” is an important question, and being aware of the potential downsides does not make us negative – it makes us realistic.  It requires that we stay alert and are constantly scanning for new challenges that might have an impact on our activity.  Being explicit about our assumptions, and ensuring we have thought them through to understand their reality is also important.

The key is getting the right balance.   It requires always believing in oneself and the potential for success in any venture – but also staying grounded and aware of what could come up that will need to be addressed.

As an exercise, ask yourself: where do I sit on these dimensions?

  • Am I optimistic and positive about what I am doing and do the people I interact with see this in me?
  • Am I sufficiently aware and realistic about the challenges, understanding the assumptions I am making and staying aware of the wider environment?


Calum Byers


3 Criteria for winning your next role

Whether it’s a permanent career move, an interim assignment or a consulting contract there are 3 key criteria for success in finding a role –  Affability, Availability and Ability.


Affability.   People buy from people – and even more so when the “product” is a person.   Affability has multiple definitions – all of which are relevant here.    It can mean “easy to approach”, “friendly”, “at ease”, or “with an obliging manner”.  It also means “polite”, “natural” and “warm”.  There have been many articles about the importance of Emotional Intelligence and the importance of responding to other’s feelings.   Being affable is a convenient shorthand for this – someone who is pleasant to be around because they make people feel relaxed and good about themselves.

It also overlaps with cultural fit – it implies a level of flexibility around interactions with people.  This suggests being able to interpret and fit in with the existing culture and communications expectations of the organisation or project team that is being joined.

Think about how you people would see you in an interview context – but also as a member of the team.  Would they enjoy working with you?


Availability.   This seems very obvious – but its not just whether you are interested in the role and not currently engaged on a longer-term commitment, it is whether people know you are available.   Many roles that come up are not advertised – they go to people who are networked with the organisation – or they go via recruiters who have their own lists of people.   Unless the person with the role knows that you are – or might be – available, and how to get hold of you, they will pass on to the next person on their list.

A few simple steps can help with this –  having an up to date LinkedIn profile is a good start.   Having a small list of recruiters who you keep in touch with – and update on status changes is also beneficial for both parties.   And finally – networking as much as you can, to ensure that your own circle widens and that people in your circle have a good idea of what you can offer. They need to remember you if they hear of something within their own circle of acquaintances – and are much more likely to do this if it’s a simple and well-defined proposition.

Think about where your next role or opportunity might come from – are they aware of you and do they know that you are interested and available?


Ability.    Again, this seems obvious but a few points are worth making.   Generally, ability will be a table stake – no one is going to hire you as an FD unless you’re a well-qualified accountant.  Once you’ve passed that bar however, how your ability compares with other equivalently qualified candidates may be difficult to assess objectively –  and the affability and perhaps availability factors really come into play.   Being the “best” candidate has several aspects and it is likely that there will be several very able alternatives.

That said – you’re not going to get to the interview unless you are visibly capable of doing the role – ideally having done it successfully in the past.  In line with the availability questions – is your ability to do the role well signposted?  Do you have an existing job title or role that indicates you have similar responsibilities – and some information on your profile that shows you have accomplished objectives in line with this responsibility?   In short, make sure you look credible, and can be referenced by a contact in your network or a recruiter, who are confident you will not make them look bad if you fall woefully short of the “ability hurdle”.


There are many factors that will influence whether you are successful in getting a role, some of which are outside your control.   What you can do though,  is ensure you are recognised as Affable, Available and Able.   Good luck!

Leadership – Asking the right questions.

Management is about answers.   Leadership is about questions”.

There have been many acres of newsprint dedicated to defining the difference between management and leadership and there is no simple answer.  If we assume that the purpose of leadership is to move toward some common aim, then clearly there will be a need to take decisive actions and provide a level of clarity about the options available.   However – a good leader should be able to do a lot more than that.

The questions the leader asks should look at different aspects:

The challenge itself

  • What is the purpose of what we are doing – do we really understand it ?
  • What are the assumptions we are making ?   If we reframe the problem could we see it in a different way ?

The team

  • How are we best using our resources – are we enabling people to fulfil their full potential ?
  • How could we as a team operate more effectively ?

The leader

  • How do I add the most value here ?
  • What should I be doing or not be doing to enable the team to grow ?

These questions should be shared with the team, to ensure they are part of the solution – but also to make them consider some of the assumptions they are making within their own areas of the overall activity.   Often, asking the right questions can go a long way toward defining an answer, by getting different perspectives and testing them within the team or the with other stakeholders.

As an organisation gets larger and more complex, it is increasingly difficult for senior leaders to get transparency through the multiple levels, with each level adding some filtering.  It can be helpful to ask the same set of questions at different levels in an organisation to assess how well the overall objectives are understood – and how different levels and functions answer.  How the company is perceived, and what are seen as priorities may be very different, and need to be recognised by senior managers who may be insulated by their hierarchy.

As an exercise, ask yourself –  if you re-framed a current problem – would you see it differently?  Are you enabling people to fulfill their potential – or just focussed on short term results? What could you stop doing – to enable the team to grow?

Leadership – Integrity

A key element of how we see Leaders – and how we select leadership candidates – is their  integrity.   But what does this mean ?

Integrity can be defined in two ways  :   as being honest and as having strong moral principles;  but also as being whole and undivided.

Both of these aspects are important in assessing leadership – particularly when we are trying to establish what makes a good leader.   Hitler and Stalin had many of the traits that are useful in leadership – intelligence, communication skills and a good understanding of human nature, but we do not hold them up as exemplars of good leaders.  Many politicians fail as leaders as well, and perhaps the common factor is a perceived or real lack of integrity.

Warren Buffett said about hiring leaders:

“…you look for three qualities.  Integrity, intelligence and energy.  If you don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you.”  

This captures the dilemma – capabilities and drive are essential qualities for a leader –  but if harnessed to the wrong purposes they can cause untold damage to their teams – other stakeholders and often, themselves.

As a leader, there are a number of areas we can reflect on.

  • Consistency.  Being whole and undivided can be thought of as having a single overarching set of values that are consistently applied no matter what the situation or the specific interaction.  This creates a sense of authenticity – that what is seen of us is the real deal – which enables trust.
  • Self-awareness.    Are we being truly honest with ourselves – about the motives for particular actions ?  Are these actions consistent with our “inner compass” – or are we reacting to a particular situation or set of emotions ?
  • How we handle conflicts of interest.  These can arise in many ways – what is important is to recognise them and to ensure that the factors influencing a decision are fully understood at a personal level.   How this is seen by others is also critical, particularly if they are looking for opportunities to find fault or bias the decision-making process.

As an exercise, ask yourself how you define integrity?   How does this impact the way you act as a leader – and the way you expect your team and colleagues to act with you?

Leadership – Self Awareness

Leadership can be simply defined as “motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal”.   What this means in practice, and what it takes to be a “good” leader has been a topic of discussion for thousands of years.

As a leader – whether as a CEO or someone captaining the school football team – a good place to start is within.   As ever, Drucker has a helpful quote:

self-assessment is the first action requirement of leadership, the constant re-sharpening and refocussing and never being really satisfied

The requires a good understanding of your own innate strengths and weaknesses and how you can best use your strengths to achieve your overall purpose.  But it also requires that you have really thought about what that purpose is – and the extent to which it is something you have chosen and own the outcome. As Drucker says, by going back and revisiting our purpose (why) and ensuring we are focussed on achieving this (how and what),  rather than sitting back and allowing it to happen – is a key requirement of a leader.

Self-awareness is more than this though.  In order to provide a useful assessment of ones’ own performance it needs to be put in a context.   Self-awareness does this by looking at oneself from multiple perspectives – looking inwards as well as outwards.  It can be thought of as developing an external image of how the people with whom the leader is interacting see him, but also by realising how the leader sees other people.

Often without recognising it we make  judgements about people – and these colour our conversations and actions.  We attribute behaviour to perceived personality traits or to our understanding of a situation – often jumping to conclusions, with a bias for or against –  depending on whether or not we “like” the person.

A good leader must understand people – but must also be aware of their own internal biases and assumptions.   What are the underlying assumptions that the leader has about the group in general –  and about specific people?   Are these assumptions really based on the group or individuals – or are they internal to the leader that he has carried over from previous roles, or as part of the way he sees the world?

Thinking about how one reacts to others at a subconscious level, and what the underlying concerns are, may give some insight into how this will come across in verbal and physical communication.  Most people have an instinctive reaction to aspects of others, but have never really thought about what these criteria are.

As an exercise, try writing down the 3 or 4 criteria that you use when you first meet someone.   What does this tell you about yourself?   How could this impact the way that you react to different people?   As a leader – does this change anything about your style – or the way you assess yourself?


The Three “C”s of Leadership

The British Army has been providing courses on leadership development at Sandhurst since 1812 when it was recognised that leading men into battle required more than an aristocratic background. I was at a leadership seminar there recently where the commandant was reflecting on what they saw as the criteria for leadership.
He summarised them as the three “C” s – Courage, Capability and Character. It is interesting to reflect on how well these map directly onto leadership in a business context.

Although not generally asked to put their lives on the line – being a leader requires courage. It can be difficult to hold the line on an unpopular initiative, or to move well outside a comfort zone to take on new challenges. One definition of courage is “to act in accordance with one’s beliefs, especially in the face of strong opposition” and this is critical for a leader to ensure that they can remain consistent and keep an activity – and a team – focussed on the overall objective. Sometimes, a leader may have to maintain a distance from colleagues – this can be very lonely and takes courage to live with the realities of leadership challenges without the ability to share the load.

To be credible as a leader, the nature of the task being undertaken must be understood and the leader be seen to be adding real value – either directly based on their experience in that field – or indirectly through their ability to motivate and aspire the team. Intelligence, communication skills and creativity are all factors which contribute to the ability of the leader to add value – and to be seen to be doing so by the team and other stakeholders.

This is perhaps the broadest and most interesting topic. At Sandhurst, there is a very thorough selection school which tests courage and capability but which is particularly focussed on character. There are several aspects to this including openness, self-confidence, self-awareness and resilience – but perhaps the most important is integrity. I’ll come back to this in a later post.

An exercise: how well does this model map onto how you assess people for leadership roles? What would be the aspects of character that you would look for – and which are the most important?