Effective Communication

By Alice Estey

May, 2014

Most everyone would agree that good communication is key to any organization functioning effectively. And yet, good communication is harder to accomplish than we think. Here are three common communication errors and some quick fixes to consider:

Error #1: “Sure, I understand.”

More often than not, we have no real idea whether we accurately understand or have been understood.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand.”

We are all familiar with these phrases and occasionally the second statement might be true. However, in my conflict work, when I ask my clients, “What is it that you think you have understood?” the message received is rarely the message that was being sent.

Try it yourself. Next time you are trying to communicate something important to someone, ask them to repeat back to you what they think they heard you say. If they missed your message, it’s no problem because you now have an opportunity to clarify. Everyone wins.

NOTE: Avoid using the phrase, “You weren’t listening.” It’s a guaranteed listening killer!

Error #2: “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…”

Too many words will kill the message.

Making an excellent point and then emphasizing it by repeating it five different ways doesn’t make for a better point. It usually has the opposite effect and causes people to stop listening. A typical human capacity for absorbing a clear message is about five to six sentences. Beyond five sentences, people’s attention strays or the message begins to get muddled.

Give people the benefit of the doubt. A message delivered ONCE in a concise and simple manner is quite sufficient. Two or three sentences are more effective than a paragraph or two. And, it takes way less time!

Error #3: “I’ve talked myself blue and nothing changes.”

A common communication mistake is to complain to the wrong party.

Just because you feel strongly about something and have possibly complained to your friends about it, doesn’t mean you have communicated it to the right people. This mistake is easy to make because taking a problem to the source can often feel scary. We may justify our avoidance by saying, “I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings,” or, “I don’t want to risk making someone angry at me,” or, “Nothing will be done about it anyway.”

These things might or might not be true, but one thing is certain: if we don’t address the problem directly, it’s pretty much guaranteed to remain a problem.


Alice Estey is a mediator and conflict management specialist. She also serves as an Alternate Dispute Resolution Advisor for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and is deployed throughout the country to assist in conflict management at FEMA disaster sites.

For upcoming sessions of Opportunity in Conflict, see Open Courses.

The Process Story

By Richard Eaton

The dog handler was apparently vaporized in the explosion along with his dog, Ben.

Over the radio in the operations room, I heard the patrol commander almost laconically report, “The dog’s gone,” and was able to make it outside in time to see a cloud of smoke towering into the South Armagh sky, followed by the unmistakable “thud” of the fatal IED going off in the far distance.

* * * * * * *

For the past 18 years I have been helping people in all kinds of organizations work together to improve their business processes. Frequently, I find they struggle mightily with the complex reality of their daily business lives to the extent that they become bogged down in the detail. Many well intentioned consultants (including yours truly) try to help out by providing flowchart software and other tools in an earnest effort to make it easier, but we can frequently create more problems than we solve.

W. Edwards Deming, the “father” of Continuous Improvement, once famously noted, “If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” So, for me anyway, a good process is like a good story with a happy ending. My dog handler story at the start of this piece had a very unhappy ending, unfortunately, largely because the chapters weren’t told in the proper order.

As you can imagine, with most things in the army there is a process for doing just about anything, including employing a trained search dog and handler for detecting improvised explosive devices or IEDs. When told properly (i.e., when the process is followed), the story can be retold by anyone on the team and it usually has a happy ending. It goes something like this:

Chapter 1: When a patrol member spots something unusual in a hedge or a field or a street, the escorting patrol forms a defensive perimeter, covering the dog handler and the dog as they go to work.

Chapter 2: From a safe position, the dog handler then “casts” the dog — directs it using voice commands and gestures — to move up to sniff out any possible explosives in or near the suspicious object. (As an aside, this is both a fascinating and a humbling process to see in action.)

Chapter 3: If there’s no problem, the handler recalls the dog and the patrol carries on. However, if the dog “indicates” or “points” at the object or surrounding area, as these dogs are well trained to do, the handler recalls the dog to safety and the patrol commander then seals off the area so no one can approach the suspicious object.

Chapter 4: A large-scale clearance operation, using engineers and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) units is then launched to neutralize or remove the danger, and we “all live happily ever after.”

Really, it’s that simple.

Of course, a variety of other things can be unfolding at the same time as the four main chapters in the story. But it is these four simple steps contained within the context of a story about IED clearing, told in the same order every time, that are the important things to remember. During my time in Northern Ireland, I led soldiers in counterinsurgency operations like this on an almost daily basis with no problems at all.

So what went wrong with this particular story?

The dog handler apparently told the story of Chapter 3 wrong. For whatever reason — no one will ever really know why, of course — Ben indicated, and the handler didn’t believe him. Unaccountably, the handler then walked up to where Ben was standing rigidly at point to check things out and BOOM. No more Ben. No more handler.

Luckily, most of the frustrating process stories we wrestle with on a daily basis deal with consequences that are somewhat less dire than in the example I’ve shared here. Nevertheless, if you find yourself mired in the detail, take a step back and work with your team to tell a story about the process you are trying to fix. If one of the chapters seems out of place, work together to retell the story until it makes sense, and more often than not I think you’ll find that you will, like me, live happily ever after!

Richard Eaton is a principal of Berlin Eaton.

Badges: A Powerful Tool to Recognize Skill and Achievement

By Sir John Daniel, O.C.

I commend Roy Group for choosing Open Badges to certify the skills and knowledge acquired at its learning events. Open Badges expand the ways that we can recognize the outcomes of continuing professional development to keep pace with the diversifying learning needs of today’s organizations. They are part of a wider trend, sometimes called ‘post-traditional’ higher education, to open up opportunities for learning on new dimensions.

One dimension is to open up learning content: open educational resources are making material on every imaginable topic freely available on the internet for copying, sharing, modifying and re-mixing. Another dimension is to open up teaching: massive open online courses (MOOCs) now available free worldwide, give informal training opportunities to millions. The third and vital dimension is opening up certification and recognition.

Most people, when they learn new skills and knowledge, want their extra expertise to be recognized – by their colleagues, by their employers and by the wider society. Traditional frameworks of certificates, diplomas and degrees provide such certification at many levels of education and training. But today these traditional frameworks no longer provide suitable recognition for many of the outcomes of the diverse processes through which people learn new knowledge and skills.

One reason is that traditional qualifications usually require people to study for longer than they really need to learn many important contemporary skills. Today’s trends are toward more intense learning experiences and breaking down long courses into short modules.

A second key issue is that the best body to certify the successful learning of many modern skills is not an academic institution, but rather the community of practice that uses those skills on a daily basis.

Third, the papers that come with traditional qualifications (certificates and transcripts) don’t give much information on the competences learners acquired and how they were learned and tested. In pre-internet days this would have made such papers long and tedious. Digital technologies create new possibilities, as they do for learning generally.

Open Badges address all three of these weaknesses in traditional qualifications systems. First, they can provide recognition for learning events of any duration, from a single lecture to a multi-year program. For example, the DeTao Masters Academy, a pioneer of Open Badges in China, uses them to certify its learners after events ranging from a lecture by one of its Masters (subject to a successful examination) to a three-year program in film animation.

Second, any individual, group or institution can issue badges. The currency of the badge depends on the credibility of the entity issuing it. Open Badges began in the software industry, where the best people to assess competence in a particular programming skill are those who work with the software involved. This allows newer organizations, such as Roy Group, to issue badges. The badges can include endorsements from organizations that have found the learning events covered by a particular badge useful for their staff. Such endorsements give badges added credibility.

Third, Open Badges are based on web technology. Mozilla developed it as an open-source platform combining consistency and flexibility. By clicking on a badge that an individual presents, you can see who issued the badge, what content/skills it covers, how they were taught and assessed, how long the training lasted, which organizations endorse its value, and so on.

Badges serve many purposes. Some well-known universities, such as Purdue University in the United States, award them to motivate students for acquiring particular skills within a longer traditional credit course, as well as to interest children in subjects like veterinary medicine, that they might study later.

Roy Group has gained a high reputation for its practical way of developing leadership skills that people can retain and use successfully for years. It is now demonstrating its own leadership by using Open Badges to recognize formally the skills and experience that its clients acquire.


Sir John Daniel is a 40-year veteran of Open, Distance and Online Learning whose career has focused on the meeting point of technology, education and development. In recognition of his efforts towards “educating the world,” each of the three countries in which he has lived and worked have distinguished his achievements with national honours: France – Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Chevalier–1986; Officier–1991); United Kingdom – Knight Bachelor (1994); Canada – Order of Canada (Officer–2013).

Among Sir John’s 340 publications are his books Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education (Kogan Page, 1996) and Mega-Schools, Technology and Teachers: Achieving Education for All (Routledge, 2010).

For more information about Roy Group Open Badges, visit badges.roygroup.net.

In Self 2 We Trust

By Tim Gallwey

The Inner Game is about high performance, learning from experience and enjoying all of one’s life. After 40 years of observation, these three attributes are what happen spontaneously when a person is working or playing from their natural self. You can observe all three in young children who are just being themselves, showing the many qualities we admire and love.

A good example is three-year-old Michael Patton of Dublin, Ireland who made the news a few years back in a home video that captured him giggling and nonchalantly hitting a string of chip shots through a hole in the roof of his playhouse.

Yet, somewhere in the process of trying to control them to be the kind of children we think they should be in order to fit in with society, we parents and teachers make it more and more difficult for growing children to access the original qualities and attributes they were born with.

At a Roy Group gathering recently, I asked participants to make a list of the inherent attributes they observe in young children. Here is what made the list:

  • spontaneity
  • curiosity
  • an appetite for learning
  • joy
  • giving and receiving love
  • trust
  • openness
  • autonomy
  • creativity
  • fearlessness
  • innate confidence
  • no judgment
  • contentment (once basic needs are met)
  • freedom
  • knowing exactly what they want/need
  • energy
  • no worry

After listing these attributes and reflecting upon them, it was impossible for the participants not to develop an admiration for our human existence and to realize that they were once the same way: spontaneous, curious, joyful — free.

And then a rather confronting question came up: “So, what happened?”

This began the discussion about the emergence of Self 1 and its ability to decide, “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do this,” “I’m always wrong,” “So-and-So is so much smarter than I am” or even “I’m the smartest, the best!” “Look what I can do!” etc.

My recognition of this phenomenon started while on sabbatical from a career in higher education, when I was instructing tennis. This was a time when my Self 1 was strongly crippling me. I began to notice that most of the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” I was imposing on my students, though technically correct, actually interfered with learning and performance. So instead of just looking at the students’ strokes and correcting every instance of “incorrectness,” I started asking a different kind of question: I wonder what’s going on in the minds of these tennis players when the ball comes toward them?

What I discovered changed the very foundation of how I taught. For the most part, the tennis students were trying to remember my instructions, trying hard to do what I said they should, and trying hard not to do whatever I had told them they shouldn’t. In the act of “trying hard” they tightened too many muscles and their shots looked stiff and mechanical. To complicate things further, when I would sometimes say, “Relax,” they would get really confused. By “teaching” tennis, I was making tennis harder to learn.

As I started paying more attention to the learning process and less attention to the teaching, I myself learned a lot. Not so much about teaching, but about what actually supports learning and what gets in the way. I learned that, when I asked my students to pay attention to what was happening in their experience, they learned naturally, as children do, more quickly, and, surprisingly, with the enjoyment of seeing themselves improve without being taught how. Instead of analyzing why a student wasn’t hitting the ball in the middle of the racquet, then giving three or four corrections based on that analysis, I simply asked the player after each shot to point out the place where the ball actually hit. I would often say, “Don’t try to hit the ball in the centre,” (just to calm Self 1 down) “but be as accurate as you can about where the ball hits.” About 95% of the time, it took fewer than seven swings before the student was pointing each time to the centre of the racquet.

“Are you trying to hit in the centre?” I would ask neutrally, and the reply was often something like, “No, I’m not doing it, my racquet is doing it.”

“Pretty smart racquet,” I would reply. “How does it feel? What do you notice? What are the results?”

“It feels great, more solid, sounds better, and the results are much better.”

“If you weren’t trying to do it, how do you really think it was happening?” I would ask.

“I have no idea,” was the usual reply.

My only guess at the time was that, when thinking about the shoulds and shouldn’ts and trying to hit the ball correctly, the player didn’t see the ball very well. Later, I realized that my instructions had been invoking the players’ stress system — releasing stress hormones —and, in simple terms, evoking the fight-flight-freeze-flock response. In such an environment, the player saw the approaching ball as a “threat” or “a probable mistake” flying through the air. They would often back up (flight), then tighten too many muscles to lash out at the ball (fight), while trying to conform (flock) to how everyone else did it.

Of course, the player’s physiological reactions attended to this perception of the ball, and the results were usually worse than desired. Thus the player would confirm his pre-thinking: “I don’t have a very good backhand. I’m not a very good tennis player. In fact, I guess I’m just not good at sports.” And, finally, after a few more disastrous shots, “I’m not a very good person.”

Self 1’s favorite trick is to get you to identify yourself with your performance. It wants you to think you are Self 1 or, as my Dad used to say, “I’m a self-made man.”

Of course he meant something different, but remembering Dad’s phrase made me shudder at the thought of my Self 1 trying to make me who I was, rather than discovering the self I had always been and would always be during the journey of my life: an independent being with consciousness, with choice, and with a treasure of unimaginable seeds of potential that I could enjoy as they grew and developed.

Who would have thought that the journey was designed to be a beautiful and graceful process of learning through experience as well as learning to understand and appreciate the value of the gift we have been given, simply by being a human being?


W. Timothy Gallwey is the bestselling author of The Inner Game, a series of books which set forth a new methodology for the development of personal and professional excellence in a variety of fields. His long-term clients include Apple, AT&T, The Coca Cola Company, and Rolls Royce, where The Inner Game is applied to leadership, sales, change management and teamwork.

Tim was a special guest leader at Roy Group’s first ever Mastery Forum in Victoria in May of 2013.

BRought In vs. Bought In

By Bob Chartier

Leaders need to be careful whenever they hear themselves saying the words “buy-in” . . . very, very, careful. The people they are talking to just may be having a strong allergic reaction to that phrase.

As a “lifer” on the front lines of organizations, I always felt that buy-in was somehow an obligation or even worse, my fault. If organizational initiatives did not work, it was because we did not buy in deeply enough. Inevitably, it felt the worst on those days when management called us all together for an all-staff meeting to present us with the new strategic plan or some other important “thrust.” (How’s that for a piece of cool retro jargon?)

In my imagination and the imaginations of those sitting next to me, the management team had been off to some island with a facilitator, a five iron and a flip chart, and were now ready to announce the new plan. Oh, how we lived in rapturous anticipation of — once again — having something rolled out over the top of us.

There they were at the front of the room, sitting in a row, addressing the masses while pounding through a 36-page PowerPoint deck, and almost always wrapping up with a perky exhortation of, “Now, all that we need to make this work is your buy-in!”

It always made me feel like one of those old dudes in the balcony on The Muppet Show. All I could think was, “How about taking me along to the resort next time if you really want my buy-in?”

Ten years later, I discovered systems thinking. One year after that, I had the amazing opportunity to facilitate a process with our entire organization in a community hall. Everyone from the summer interns to the director general was there. With the right design of the day and practitioners who knew how to run it, we hosted hundreds of small and large conversations across classification lines, across departmental lines and across long-held mental model lines.

We wound up the day with over 120 recommendations, ideas and possibilities covering a wall at the end of the hall. Our Director General closed the day by saying, “I have been going through these recommendations. Some are brilliant, some might be possible and some are never going to happen. Three weeks from now, we are heading off to the island to do our annual planning exercise. I am taking this valuable intelligence with us and we are going to use it to have the conversations that we need to have.”

And he did.

When management returned and called us together, we could see elements of our day together in that new plan … not everything, but enough to know they had listened and used the most timely and relevant suggestions that we had offered. We had been invited in at the front end of the work, instead of trying to be sold to, out the back.

We didn’t need to be bought in, because we had been brought in.

We should be asking some hard question these days. Are we still using a tired old model where the senior team gets to design the future and everyone else just needs to do what they are told? Or are we the kinds of leaders that co-create, that create space for the conversations that need to happen, and who actually believe that every single person in our organization has seen glimpses and heard whispers of what we could yet be?


Bob Chartier is a songwriter, organizational myth-buster and committed Canadian public servant. He is also Roy Group’s learning lead on engagement.

For upcoming sessions of Tools of Engagement, see Open Courses.

Focus on Self

By Ian Chisholm

When we first heard the simple expression “You are the Work” it seemed an obvious, innocent and familiar theme.

Being in the field of leadership development, we often remind others and ourselves that in addition to the demands of our jobs – meetings, tasks, assignments, projects – it would also be wise to build in some time to work on ourselves: learn something new, challenge ourselves, express something creatively, or even just take time to read, think or rest. Take a message like this on board a little or a lot, and any of us start moving in a good direction. A good reminder. A comfortable stretch.

But “You are the Work” is one of those phrases that keeps beckoning at you – the kind you repeat to yourself at the bus stop. Our safe, original interpretation doesn’t really do it justice.

The word “The” is a major clue that there might be some mental model shifting that needs to happen. A more accurate phrase to describe the nudge that we have been providing to our clients is really something like: “You are also important – if there is time, when the corporate priorities have been accomplished.”

Not quite as catchy, somehow. Certainly not worthy of a T-shirt. If we really thought about the implications of taking a phrase like “You are the Work” on board, it might change how we position our identity with the potential of what we do.

When taken to the nth degree, it means that each of us is THE most important piece of work we will ever be responsible for. Any of those things that we thought were The Work are really just external opportunities to test our internal operating system in the world (and engage fully in the ongoing process of designing it further.)

Meetings become opportunities to connect with others. Tasks are a chance to demonstrate that we keep our word, fully – even in the presence of time and cost constraints. Assignments become a chance for us to understand new realms and develop those practices that allow us to be more fully who we are. Projects become another chance to strive for a masterpiece.

“You are the Work” might sit uncomfortably with the “service above self” aficionados as far too self-centered, self-absorbed and self-serving. After all, this sort of mental model means that we are more important than the jobs we hold or the organizations we work for. And that is heresy of the highest order. If we buy into this narcissism, the work will surely suffer. The world will surely suffer. Or will it?

It would seem that many of the current mental models influencing work uphold vast overextension, personal compromise, gross imbalance and self-sacrifice. So before it is disregarded, take a look at the quality of work that would come about when a focus on self is at the core. People would engage each other, properly. People would be accountable for their work products, on time and on budget. People would have an appetite for learning and making themselves more valuable. People would ask for feedback and use it to strive for finer and finer results. People would begin to choose challenges worthy of who they are.

And when individuals working this way come together, what happens in terms of meeting the core purpose of organizations? Mindful, principled and deeply meaningful work. Hmmm. Just what the world needs more of.


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

A Strong Steer

By Ian Chisholm

In August 2004, I was alone on the Isle of Skye finishing my final month as the first CEO of the Columba 1400 International Leadership Centre. My wife and our three children had returned to Vancouver to stay with her mum and dad, and set up our new life there, giving me a chance to tidy up all loose ends in the transition (a.k.a. work my ass off.)

It was a tough time for me. Some regrets had snuck in about things that we had not accomplished at the Centre. I refer to it now as a bad case of CEOitis (which I have realized is quite common amongst senior leaders who leave their post). A strange resentment had festered to a point where people were noticing my mood and were undoubtedly looking forward to resetting the organization with a new CEO. I can imagine that I looked whipped — because I was: grey, tired out, and disappointed in all that had not been accomplished.

Sue and Ron Myers are very special friends of mine that I met in New York in the 1990s. They are both the kind of trusted advisors that a young executive needs in his life. Their deep experience has seen them advising CEOs and entrepreneurs over decades. They both enjoyed Skye, had made the trip several times, and had arranged one final visit to spend a few days with me in my last month at the helm.

I don’t know what they saw or sensed or noticed in me, but they arranged an appointment with me for an afternoon in my cottage (which, at this point had three wooden chairs, a toaster, a case of beer and a hockey bag with my clothes and shaving kit).

We sat down together in the front room by the fire. They wasted no time in giving me the talking-to of my young life.

They called out things by name that they had heard me complaining about — and told me to keep a lid on it. They identified the old ideas that I was clinging onto as if they were the only things that I would ever create — and told me that they never wanted me to talk about them again, and to get busy creating new ones. Sue told me to stop beating myself up and looking for attention. But most of all, in their closing argument, Ron told me that what he wanted to see in me immediately — right there in that room — was an immense sense of J-O-Y for everything that had been accomplished on my watch. (He actually spelled it out for effect, which was C-O-O-L).

He didn’t need me to brag about my accomplishments, or even talk about them, but I did have to take JOY in them. If there was no room for joy, then I would have to dump something else that was taking space inside me, so that there was room for it. And he told me to keep dumping, until there was room for a boatload of J-O-Y.

My leadership had affected thousands of people. And I needed to take that on. It hadn’t been perfect; there were regrets; I’d taken a few tough hits; I had sacrificed important things in my life for the endeavour at hand. But I had made a big old dent in the universe. And that meant that I had every reason to connect to JOY, and to leave the rest behind.

And they just wouldn’t accept any other way forward.

My head went down and I started to cry — and then laugh. And then I cried some more and laughed some more, and we drank that beer in the fridge and laughed again. In the weeks ahead, my last on Skye, I reflected on all that had happened, and had no choice other than to admit that Sue and Ron Myers were right — and that they had helped me move on to the next chapter of my life.

Many of you will know that I believe in the power of a non-directive approach and the ownership and responsibility that this approach creates. But what I learned that day is that there is a time when good friends, and trusted advisors, need to lay advice down so clearly that you have no choice but to pick it up — as a strong steer in the right direction — and go forward differently.


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.

The Journey

By Jared Smith

Hang on, because the path to grow your business can be fraught with peril. This is just not a journey for the weak of heart.

Last August, my executive team met with Roy Group for a two-day retreat. The purpose was to focus on making tough decisions that will help us move forward. After several discussions, it soon became clear that a more focused approach in the marketplace would eventually position us ahead of our competition. But in order to commit to a more streamlined offering, we had to take a few steps backward (in revenue and market share) in order to hopefully make a giant leap forward.

It’s easy to say, “Let’s narrow our service offering,” but actually following through on this kind of self-imposed constraint is a different story. It resulted in us examining our skill set, assessing our strengths and eliminating some unprofitable clients who just didn’t fit what we have to offer.

But, as luck would have it, this was not an opportune time for us to make a decision like this. Shortly after our retreat, two major accounts made announcements that they could no longer work with us for reasons beyond our control: the CEO of one account had passed away, and another account was acquired by one of their competitors.

What we thought would be a short-term revenue crunch turned into a full-blown crisis. Just when we thought we had made a terrible mistake, Roy Group pointed out that this was “the call” — a mythical milestone that every heroic venture includes. They were using language from the Hero’s Journey, from the life’s work of Joseph Campbell.

With open minds and eager ears, we listened as they explained the architecture of the Hero’s Journey, a series of events that Campbell believed marked the key points in every human story. It goes something like this:

The hero begins in the ordinary world. When “the call” appears, they enter an unknown world of strange powers and events. This call reveals a crisis that is unexpected, unpredicted, and daunting to the core. Shouldering the gravity of this crisis becomes unbearable, and the hero within the story is filled with doubt, isolation, anxiety and fear, and finds themselves in “the pit of despair” as depression, darkness, and hopelessness set in. If the hero can just endure, the theme of hope makes an entrance, closely followed by the most familiar themes of friendship, family, mentorship and tribe. A new order of things begins to show itself, and there is a bold “emergence”. Fueled with newfound allies and strength, the hero becomes capable of a victory that could not have been imagined in the pit of despair.

During the great banquet or whatever celebration follows the triumph, the hero connects to a sense that there is a new challenge approaching over the horizon. With this, “the hero’s return” marks the time in the story where the hero makes a courageous choice to quest again, to serve again, to lead again, to be tested again, and to throw themselves to forces larger than them, once again.

As entrepreneurs, executives, and leaders, we know this story. It is ours. It resonated with our situation and accurately portrayed the choices we had in front of us. With help from Roy Group, Incite got through.

Here are a few of the lessons I took from this:

    • Be conscious and honest about where you are in the cycle of the Hero’s Journey and know what it is time for.
    • Recognize when you’re in the “pit of despair”. Engage the chance to have your mettle tested, and know that there is always a way forward.
    • Plan ahead and know that the decision to grow will inevitably introduce some form of crisis into your organization.

Good luck on your journey!


Jared Smith is a long-time friend of Roy Group and long-time community leader in Edmonton, Alberta.

Conduct: Culture or Character?

By Mark Bell

Recently, for whatever reason, I have been acutely tuned into and moved by small but big acts of compassion from people who have put themselves at the heart of a situation and offered their best to lead. These seem to be individuals who were not concerned so much about “the job” and much more interested in the actual work.

A recent example got me thinking: has the organization these leaders are members of wonderfully nurtured a culture to enable such simple and authentic levels of presence? Or is it that whatever their culture might be, “good people” will unerringly behave in the most appropriate and meaningful ways?

I have often also pondered why some people seem to do excellent work no matter the task, circumstance or environment. I have a friend who excelled wherever he earned his money. During our student years, I worked with him in bars, on building sites, in offices and on farms. He has since gone on to apprentice in his profession and has grown to be a senior leader. In each of these arenas he has done wonderful work — no matter the variety of role, the clients he was facing, the people he worked with, or who reported to him. Culture? Stellar individual? Character? Emotional intelligence? All of these and more?

An anecdote for you. A while back, I took a flight with a low-cost carrier. There are no frills here: the targets for this organization are to sell as much as possible while in the air, turn around, get people on their bottoms faster than you can say, “Is this seat taken?”, and get back up off the ground as quickly as possible.

As we take off, a gentleman in an aisle seat three rows in front of me seems to pass out and collapse across the aisle, held in only by his seat belt. This is the first of this unfortunate man’s ever-worsening, very ill moments during our flight.

Throughout the flight all the attendants, and the Spanish male steward in particular, care for him as though they are travelling with him, as though he is a member of their family. The sales trolley is unceremoniously dumped; he is cleaned and freshened over and over, quietly, sensitively and with great attention. He is spoken to throughout, softly, almost in calm whispers, drawing as little attention to his embarrassment as possible.

Upon landing, the steward ensures everyone else waits, for far longer than the 20 minutes he is allocated in order to get the plane back in the air, as he personally helps this gentleman regain his bearings and gradually come to. The steward behaves as though there is no one else there, while simultaneously managing to seamlessly engage with all the other passengers.

It is past 11 o’clock now, but none of the weary, mainly business travellers complains about the delay. We all seem mesmerized by the elegance of this steward’s kindness and attention. Without speaking, he insists that we also think only of this other person. We feel transported to a calmer, kinder place. We are moved by his humanity. As I leave, the steward is now wishing everyone else a good evening. I say, “Thank you,” and he nods back to say that he understands what I really mean. There is a hush in the baggage collection area and strangers are talking quietly to each other.

Now, I have no idea if the organizational culture of that low-cost carrier creates this kind of powerful leadership. I have no idea if there is a rule that says this is what you must do if you are a steward in this situation. I am fairly sure it wouldn’t have mattered: this steward simply could not not have behaved as he did.

I imagine this steward would have been a success in bars, on building sites, in offices, on farms or in any other profession. It is who he is.


Mark Bell is a special advisor to Roy Group and co-founder, with Ian Chisholm and Robert Henderson, of re-find the future.

Missed Opportunity: A Coaching Approach to Conflict

By Bradley Chisholm

I think it is only human to look back on past experiences and feel regret about missed opportunities. I am pretty hard on myself, so I feel this way at times. I have also been able to see a common thread that binds many of these missed opportunities: I did not lean into conflict the way I should have. The situations, the people I worked with and my leadership would be much stronger today if I had saddled up some courage, believed in who I was and walked into more difficult conversations.

My story is not unique. We work with many senior and emerging leaders who, although fearless when it comes to taking risks, making a courtroom submission or designing an ambitious strategic plan, sidestep when it comes time to address uncomfortable, difficult situations with their colleagues. For many of those leaders who have just retired, their single greatest regret was not capitalizing on the value that these situations could have created.

Most of our clients have been introduced to a coaching approach to leadership at some point in their engagement with us. They embrace the practical tools and the underlying philosophy. The question they inevitably ask is, How does this approach work when emotions are high? When you have “skin in the game” and when an inevitable change of course is really, really uncomfortable?

We have been working a lot with this question. Over the last three years, we have been building an approach that will both help our clients navigate conflict in a more productive way but that also fits with the coaching approach to leadership they have already been introduced to.

Without getting into detail about the approach, I wanted to touch briefly on the thread that connects coaching and this powerful way of seeing and approaching conflict. The philosophy of coaching that resonated most with me was the idea that wisdom does not only exist within me, but in the system as well. Often what is needed are well-crafted, objective questions and the space to let the answers emerge.

I was excited about my introduction to conflict. I walked into the room with Anne-Marie Daniel and Alice Estey — both masters in the world of conflict resolution. I thought I was going to be learning the skills that would allow me to send the all-convincing message, to stand my ground and change the behaviours of others. Although that was part of the learning, it was only a small part. Most of the work, to my surprise, focused on changing my perspective, becoming more objective (even when I was personally entangled), listening for the gems, and crafting the types of questions that get to the heart of the matter.

Sound familiar? What I learned from Anne-Marie and Alice was that the foundations of coaching play a powerful role in not only managing conflict but finding opportunity in it.

I am practicing. I just wish my practice would have started years earlier.


Bradley Chisholm is a former partner of Roy Group now serving as the Chief Officer, Strategy and Governance for the BC College of Nursing Professionals.

For upcoming sessions of Opportunity in Conflict, see Open Courses.