Permalink to Connect People With The ‘Why’ Of The Work They Are Doing

Connect People With The ‘Why’ Of The Work They Are Doing

“…You have to connect people with the why. They have to understand the deeper meaning of the work they are doing and even if the work doesn’t connect to them directly then they must understand how the organization creates deeper meaning in the community…”


These were the words of one of the senior leaders that we interviewed for our Intentional Leaders research. We asked these leaders what challenges they were facing, how they were tackling those challenges and what they found to be effective in addressing these issues.

One of the principles that became particularly clear in our conversations was that team members of all generations, but particularly Millennials, want to see a direct connection between their own values and the work that they are doing. Failing that, they want their organization to be making a difference in the community.

One of the senior leaders told us that he has to work hard as a leader to know his team members well – to understand their motivation and their aspirations and then to connect the team member with work that would best suit them.

This is different from trying to be friends with your team members. Leaders still carry the responsibility of driving the organizational strategy forward. In order to do so, they must know their staff, know their capabilities and work with them to ensure that they are giving their best work. They must communicate the meaning of the work and connect it to the capability of each team member.

To give you an example: Helen is the CFO of a manufacturing company that creates products out of extruded plastics. The organization’s most popular product is a display shelf sold through a client to retail stores.

Helen’s team is a mixture of hard-working, honest accountants drawn from several generations.  As you would expect, her team is ethical and motivated by the principle of professionalism.

But Helen goes further.  When a new staff person comes on board, she makes a point of taking them on a tour of the plant, explaining the different roles of the people working on the plant floor. She also takes the time to find out what kinds of volunteering the staff person does in their spare time, what causes they like to support and what they like to do in their leisure time.

When it comes time for the annual fundraising appeal for charities in the community, she makes sure to involve staff in picking the organizations that would receive the support. Helen’s team members feel respected and appreciated for who they are outside of work and typically put in more effort within their working day.

Staff connect to the “why” of the work and that builds loyalty and commitment which drives productivity.

Permalink to Prerequisite for a great leader

Prerequisite for a great leader

Illustration by Creativity and Innovation Keynote speaker, Simon Banks.

Illustration by Creativity and Innovation Keynote speaker, Simon Banks.


Dr. Stephen Brown, an Australian educator, made this statement and it has a very simple power.

You may be a leader by virtue of position and by virtue of having direct reports but do you have leaders working for you who are mentoring and coaching and producing leaders?

My daughter works in the advertising industry and from the very beginning of her work experience, it was clear that she not only had to learn her job and perform well but she also was not going to be promoted until she had taught someone her job. And she had to teach her job well enough that if she was promoted, she was free to do the new job.  And by the way, her first performance review was one of the best, most thorough performance reviews I have ever seen. It was a coaching document all on its own and it not only addressed how she was performing in many different aspects of her job but it also addressed how she was mentoring her direct report, a summer intern in the most junior position in the organization.

Our clients in the mining industry are fanatical about safety and one of the requirements of first-line supervisors, was to lead a “safety share” every morning and at the beginning of every shift.  The safety share is a way to model awareness, teach about the work that the team is to tackle that day and to create a team that helps each other be safe.  The supervisors also ask team members to contribute a safety share of their own from time to time and everyone takes a turn. This is another mechanism by which responsible leadership gets modeled and passed on.

In the finance industry, the same principles apply. Another of my clients, a senior director in an accounting organization, spoke of how he developed his staff.

I typically hired them for their technical skills and of course they had an implicit mandate to keep current. In fact they were far more likely than I to be on the leading edge of technical knowledge. However, the more important and less obvious development path for them was to grow their maturity, their seasoning and their leadership skills. I sent them on courses where they would be stretched and challenged and where their world view would be broadened.”

He went on to say that when it was his time to move to a different city, there were three high-performing potential candidates for his role. And the one who got his role has continued to grow and impress while the other two went on to different and exciting roles elsewhere in the profession.

What are you doing to create leaders in the people who report to you? Have you been filling the ranks with real bench strength? And are their leadership skills as well developed as their technical ones? If so you are well on your way to being a great leader yourself.


Permalink to Leaders – Think and Act Positively

Leaders – Think and Act Positively

Here are three examples and philosophies about how a leader approaches life and work that can have a tremendous impact on the success of their team.

The Power of Gratitude

There was once a woman who made a courageous choice. She chose to react positively in the world. There were three steps to what she did:

Step one:

She made a list before going out in the morning of what she was grateful for. For example, she had a good job that she enjoyed. So on a workday, that was at the top of her list.

Step two:

She looked in the mirror and chose one aspect of herself to praise.  One day she praised her smile. Another day she praised her energy. And so on.

Step three:

On her way to work, she consciously greeted people she saw with a smile and a “Good morning”.

The first few days, some people looked at her a little puzzled, others responded positively and one person just growled. At work, there was one person who had always seemed grumpy but she went out of her way to say “good morning” and to not be put off by his manner.

Over the weeks, she felt more and more able to maintain her positive attitude and to be grateful for things in her life. This gratitude carried over into her work and because she was now more conscious of the good things about her team, she made a point of telling them how much she appreciated them.

The more she felt good about herself, the more she acted with kindness to others around her, the more others responded in a like manner.  Soon her whole team displayed a feeling of lightness, where before it had been a bit gloomy. And while her team still had some tough challenges to overcome, a dour manner in their leader wasn’t one of them. This is the power of gratitude.

The Power of Positive Psychology:

The second example is about how the power of gratitude is connected to the power of positive psychology. Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., is on the vanguard of the Positive Psychology movement. Fredrickson, a research psychologist at the University of Michigan, specializes in the study of positive emotions and developed the “broaden-and-build” theory.

Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions seem to broaden people’s repertoires of things they like to pursue. They broaden ways of thinking beyond our regular baseline, and they accumulate. Broadening, she says, allows people to discover and learn new things. Telling people they do good work is a way to unlock their bold dreams about what they could strive for next. And it is the key to helping people believe that they can be more successful which becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

As a leader, then, it is important to find ways to broaden people’s thinking about what is possible and what they can accomplish. They will work harder toward these dreams than if all they hear is criticism. So this is the power of positive psychology.

The Power of Teams Acknowledging the Positive

Finally, there is third connection that I would like to make. Some leaders begin their meetings with a “check-in” that asks people to go around the room and share what they are most proud of since the last meeting. This builds positive energy that allows the participants to be more confident in their decision-making, which leads to more and more success.

This doesn’t mean that leaders should ignore their team’s challenges but it does mean that the team has more energy to tackle those challenges. And it starts with the leader. This is not something you can do with your team while not embracing it yourself. This is where you definitely need to lead by example.  Questions that leaders can use to tap into these positive results include:

  • What are you most proud of in any area of your life since the last time we were together?
  • What are you most grateful for?
  • If you were to look in the mirror and say what you liked the most about you, what would it be today?
  • Thinking of each of your team members, what do you appreciate about them?


Permalink to Four Powerful Questions for Successful Leaders

Four Powerful Questions for Successful Leaders

Poor communication costs organizations productivity and returns to shareholders. It’s calculated that $26,041 US is the cumulative cost per worker per year due to productivity losses resulting from communication barriers.  Towers Watson calculate that companies with highly effective internal communication have 47% higher total returns to shareholders.

So it’s clear that clean, effective communication is critical. And what specifically are the benefits?

  • When leaders communicates well during a process, they have more control over the results of the process – they are able to lay out for staff how things are going to play out and what their role in the process will be
  • Employees that feel they are “in-the-know” are more motivated to do good work
  • When you share information on the right things at the right time, others make better decisions
  • When people feel well-informed, they feel respected and more positive
  • When a leader shares ideas and information, it helps to “socialize” the issue or initiative. The more people hear about an issue or a proposed course of action, the more likely they are to give the leader feedback and buy in to the solutions.

William H. Whyte said that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. We often think we have communicated but then we discover that others have differing assumptions or have made up a story in their head about what’s really going on.

Leaders need questions in their toolkit to ask themselves when tackling a project or a new initiative. Here are five powerful questions:

  1. Who needs to know?
  2. How will this change in process (or different solution) impact others? Peers? Team members? Your boss? No surprises!
  3. What does my team need to know? Inexperienced leaders often assume that they know what their team would need to know but they are just as often wrong!
  4. Which partners or colleagues do I need to collaborate with?
  5. Who else should be involved and at what stage?

Asking yourself these questions on an ongoing basis will make a huge difference to your effectiveness and to that of your team. And if this kind of questioning becomes part of your company’s culture, it will make a significant difference to your bottom line.




Permalink to Intentional Change: Responding to the Downturn

Intentional Change: Responding to the Downturn

A CEO said his purpose was not to prevent bad things from happening, but to help his people learn from what took place. This is especially true if your people know only times of increased revenues, loose spending restrictions, and underlying assumptions about the business based only on growth. They had never experienced a downturn.


They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going. But it’s better to say when the going gets tough, smart people become engaged in creating positive change. Here are three examples of intentional positive change, followed by questions to ask.


Example one: Innovation

A mining organization wanted more control and accountability by looking for ways to create an integrated team model. It wanted to modify its EPCM relationships (Engineering, Procurement and Construction Management). The company had taken almost all procurement in-house with a centralized function and established procedures. In one project it started to contract the E (Engineering) separately from CM (Construction Management). It also started to contract for ECM on another project, and decided to stay with the EPCM on yet another.


Innovation came from how the company contracted by identifying the value that was needed and the accountabilities required from its partners. It also started experimenting with a blended, integrated project team. It contracted with external partners to give people key roles that were normally within the company. It also explored how technology could facilitate better real-time communication and accountability. An upside of the downturn is that experienced, contracted people from the engineering companies were available.  Questions:


  • Are you looking at old, established ways of managing projects?
  • Can you use technology to leapfrog barriers you experienced in the past?


Example two: Increased transparency and trust

Hang on to your best people when times are tough. They will be the core of your experience and base of your intelligence. Companies that share information with their employees, and are open and transparent, are likely to be trusted by those employees. A trusting culture breeds loyalty and engagement. But companies that hold back information will not fare as well. Employees want transparency and truth from senior leadership, and in a downturn this becomes more acute. Especially during a downturn leaders should communicate more in person and less by email. You should also sit down with employees and share career options with them. Questions:


  • Have you identified key people you wish to hang onto and told them your career plans for their future?
  • Is there information you could share to build trust and help them plan their career?
  • How could you build a more trusting culture?

Example three:  Future-proofing the work force

An organization had intensified training and development programs for its employees, including financial literacy training. The finance department gave workshops that included EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes), so employees better understood how to manage the balance between revenues and expenses. This created better financial managers and increased knowledge, and gave people more tools. The gift of the downturn is that a young generation of employees who had never known this could learn what managing in a downturn looks like. Questions:


  • Are your employees as financially literate as they could be?
  • Do you understand the development needs of your key people and do you have plans to meet them?
  • Have you communicated with key people about your development plans for them?


[Esther Ewing and Bill Sedgwick are co-founders and partners of Big Tree Strategies Inc. Big Tree Strategies works with teams that are doing critical work, and helps them become more effective and engaged.]



Permalink to The Top 5 Ways to Improve Your Team’s Performance Mindset

The Top 5 Ways to Improve Your Team’s Performance Mindset

Power of the Pause

The pause is an often overlooked feature of team success. Here are the top five ways where pausing to reflect can improve the performance mindset of your project team:

  1. 90-Day Team Check-In
    Good team hygiene includes taking time every 90 days to reflect on progress and identify critical steps the team must take over the next 90 days to improve performance. Project teams often focus on doing the work at hand and not how they might continually improve how to do the work. These 90-day check-ins are a chance to reflect and improve how the members work as a team.
  2. Widening your margin of safety
    When project teams finish one activity, they must clean up after themselves. In a mining accident, a man tore his rotator cuff after slipping on snow covering a large sheet of metal that hadn’t been put away. The margin of safety had narrowed.
  3. Heightening Your Personal Awareness
    Buying time for a sensible second thought is an important element of a performance mindset. Knowing yourself and taking time to make a decision is a useful component for your toolkit.
  4. Pausing to Evaluate Options
    A reflective pause allows you to evaluate options. Ask yourself if an option meets both short-term and long-term requirements and what the consequences are of taking action or not taking it.
  5. The Gift of Time to Your Teammates
    The better the team members manage handoffs through jointly owned processes, the better the team manages time. Pausing to think about who needs to know your information, whom you should inform, and who has information that would help you, can all create time efficiencies for the team.

Time is common to all these stories. Take time to reflect and your project team will have a higher chance of success. Take time to be aware of your surroundings and your project team will be safer. Take time to prepare for things going wrong and your project team will be better able to respond to emergencies. Take time to reflect and share your reflections with the project team, and your project team will be more likely to continually improve.

We have several services to help teams and leaders significantly improve their performance. Contact Bill or Esther today for a no-obligation conversation to find out how their work could help your team.


Permalink to How to Know When to Take a Risk Assessment

How to Know When to Take a Risk Assessment

Mental courage is important for a leader. It lets you examine all the options, including those that don’t initially attract you. But for a team leader or project leader to show mental courage, you must take a risk assessment. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What happens to you if you speak up?
  • What happens to you if you don’t?
  • What happens to others if you speak up?
  • What happens to others if you don’t?

Mental courage

Here is an example of a project leader showing mental courage. The new director of a mining project was told that completion estimates of the schedules and budget were set, but once he got his feet wet he found out those schedules were unlikely to be met. He knew from prior experience that there are always layers and nuances to learn, and discover. It’s important for a leader to show the courage and mental toughness not to make a decision when it may be premature.

So the project leader asked questions of his team members. He would say: “Help me understand” or “There’s something that concerns me a little” or “What’s your perspective on this?”

As this was going on his boss asked him about his views, and he said he hadn’t made up his mind yet. He wanted more time, but made sure to book a meeting with his boss at the three-month mark – three months after he took over the project as leader. When that time arrived, the project director was ready; he asked his boss for additional resources and wanted to bring in an outside person who could analyze the situation and test his own assumptions. Through this exercise, he and his boss were able to amend the schedule.

What are the benefits of demonstrating courage?

  • In resisting the pressure to commit to a certain point of view too soon, he avoided looking like he was quick to judge, and avoided alienating his people. In short, he won their trust.
  • He used this time to explore the issue with the team, and get their insights.
  • He slowed things down to make sure he was right. This was important since it would involve taking some bad news up the organization (i.e., extending the deadline).
  • He convinced his boss that the integrities of himself and the boss were on the line.

It’s all a matter of having the courage of your convictions to take appropriate action. Team cultures are built on the accumulation of little actions. A good team leader will always communicate the importance of the team’s culture and the importance of respect.

To receive tips like these each month which are designed for senior executives leading teams doing work critical to the success of their organization, sign up for the Big Tree Strategies newsletter.

Permalink to Getting Everyone to Speak Up is Important

Getting Everyone to Speak Up is Important

Just because someone on your team is silent doesn’t mean they are weak. The person may not be speaking up for a variety of reasons. The key for a manager is to know how to stop the more outgoing team members from overwhelming the others. Why do this? To make sure the team taps into the wisdom of all, and everyone listens to each other. As a result, decisions are stronger and more sustainable.

The wisdom of all team members

When everyone speaks up, you are more likely to hear the basis for potential disagreements, bad news or something you haven’t heard before. The team will have more information on which to base decisions.

All team members should understand the value of hearing everyone’s point of view, and why it matters. Tell them you are going to try several different techniques to make sure that happens.

How to get everyone’s point of view

  1. Ask the stronger team members to allow time in meetings for the others to speak up. One of our favourite rules is that everyone gets to speak once on their point of view. You can’t speak again until everyone has had his/her say.
  2. Speak to the quieter team members, encourage them to speak up, and tell them their contribution matters. And then compliment them after they do so. Thank them and let them know the value of their contribution. Tell them you value their honesty.
  3. For a really critical discussion, do a ‘post-it’ exercise. What’s this? Ask everyone to spend five minutes writing assumptions about the issue on a post-it pad. One assumption per post-it note. Have them write as many as they can in the five minutes, put the post-it notes on the wall clustered in themes, then discuss the themes. Now the more silent team members are not fighting for air time. This technique also works well to get around the ‘ranking’ problem when more junior people won’t speak up in front of senior people.

There are always going to be differences in how people contribute on a team. Some naturally speak up; others tend to be quiet. The key is to make sure that everyone is heard, and the team benefits from the knowledge and wisdom of all.

With our Intentional Teams Framework, one of the values we emphasize is listening. This creates a culture of trust and acceptance. Learn more about Intentional teams, our methodology and see if it is a fit for you.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter which contains actionable tips you can use immediately to get your team on the road to success – however your firm defines success.


Permalink to You Can’t Compromise Safety in an Intentional Team

You Can’t Compromise Safety in an Intentional Team

Safety in an industry with tangible dangers

I know of an instance where some very heavy equipment fell all the way to the bottom of a mineshaft. It could easily have been fatal. Fortunately, no one was injured, but closing down the mine until things got rectified was a costly endeavour in terms of time and money. But this particular story had a happy ending. The restoration team that was assembled became a shining example of how a team of individuals that is both engaged and intentional can achieve great success. In fact, this team won an International Safety Award with that organization.

Space travel is another risky business, and NASA learned the hard way after having some horrible accidents that cost the lives of astronauts. Back in the 1980s, the culture at NASA was to do things faster, better and cheaper. This led to an environment where engineers who raised issues about safety were overridden by business managers who had a schedule to keep. The Challenger disaster in 1986, which took the lives of seven astronauts, among them a schoolteacher, was a sign to the whole world that something was terribly remiss. And it was. A commission determined that safety at NASA had been compromised; it had become toxic for engineers to raise safety issue at meetings.

Safety to Speak Up

In any team, whatever the industry, it’s not good if some members are reluctant or fearful to speak their minds.

Going back to mining, companies with international operations often have the problem of trying to do business with different cultures. For example, while the Canadian subsidiary of a company based in eastern Europe made safety a top issue, that wasn’t the case at headquarters where the attitude was that if you got hurt on the job, you weren’t following the rules. So here were two very contrary approaches to a major issue, and within the same company yet.

When it comes to safety, the answer is intentional teams. In an intentional team, everyone is comfortable about raising an issue like the potential dangers to the health and well-being of employees. To paraphrase the words of Al Gore, a culture where “an inconvenient truth” is freely discussed is a much better work environment than one where it isn’t permitted. Then there are no elephants in the room, things tend to get done, and the result is an effective organization that doesn’t compromise safety.

Here are the four characteristics of a highly-functioning Intentional Team:

  1. A shared compelling direction of the work they must do together
  2. Flexible leadership
  3. A performance mindset
  4. An inclusive culture that supports performance.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to learn more about leading your team to become a highly-functioning Intentional Team.

For more on our Developing Intentional Teams service, click here.

Permalink to Three Mistakes Newly-Promoted Managers All Make – Part Three

Three Mistakes Newly-Promoted Managers All Make – Part Three

We finish the three-part series on mistakes newly promoted managers make. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here. In order for your team members to better assess themselves, we can help – take a look at our Team & Individual Assessment service.

Pushing to be promoted before you’re ready

In their zeal to grow their careers, some managers apply to senior jobs too quickly in order to get ahead. All they prove is that they don’t yet have the judgement to know the growth they still need to make.

Jo was clearly a manager on the move. After receiving her engineering degree, she joined an engineering consulting firm. She had done a great job in her first two roles, taking on roles supporting mining projects seemingly effortlessly, earning some very senior attention in their firm. She was very pleased with her career so far and she had now been in her third role for about a year working as an analyst. She was eager to get ahead and had had a conversation with her boss that morning to let him know she would be ready very soon if an opportunity came along.

To her surprise, he looked at her and shook his head. “I’m on my way to a meeting this morning but let’s chat about this tomorrow morning.” They set a time and she went back to work feeling a little uneasy. He hadn’t looked pleased with her. She had thought she was doing the right thing, showing initiative, speaking up for herself and letting him know her commitment to growing her career. What would he have to say tomorrow?

The next morning, they met in his office, sitting at his visitor table. He asked her why she thought she was ready for that next role. She talked about her accomplishments and her ambitions and her commitment to her career.

He nodded and commented that everything she had said was very true. “You have been very committed to doing well and to making a good career. And we appreciate that about you,” he said. “And you take on every task we throw at you with enthusiasm and energy.” Then he asked her what she thought she needed to learn next.

What do you need to learn next?

This question threw her a bit but she rallied and talked about the technical challenges she saw in the next role that she hoped for.

He nodded but asked her if there was any other preparation she needed to do to be ready for it? She looked at him questioningly. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she asked.

He nodded again and then he told her that in all of her comments, she had missed speaking about seasoning and growing the mature judgment that she would need in the new role. “The last thing I want for you, Jo, is to be put into a role where this kind of judgment is needed and to see you fail. And if you take on the role too soon before you are ready, you could torpedo your career and make advancement much more difficult. You are at a critical spot in your career and it’s a spot where many fail. I want to see you succeed.”

He went on, “You have not been working on the most complicated projects yet and so you will need some experience with these. Promotion is always a judgement call and often there is a difference in perception between a candidate and those who would make the choice on promotion. While you might feel you are ready, I feel you would benefit from another year in your current role. And there are three things you can do to increase your chances.”

 Three things to know before a promotion

  1. You need to become more of a team player. In the next role, there will be more staff management time and less technical time. To prove your ability to manage in a positive way, you need to be respected by your peers for us to have evidence that they will take your direction well. We need people to be intentional about how they are in their teams and take as much pleasure and excitement in the team being successful as they are about their own success.
  2.   In your current role, you haven’t had some of the more complex and challenging assignments. You need to be involved in these to stretch you and allow you to develop your maturity and judgment. I will look for a project that you could become involved in, not as a replacement for your current role but in addition to it. This will help you prove that you are capable of complex reasoning as well as balancing competing work pressures.
  3.   You need to work hard to help others succeed. For example, in all the conversation we’ve had today about your career, I haven’t heard anything about the team you are on and how you have helped them. If you were to move up, whom would you suggest replace you? Are they ready yet to move up? I believe that a person shouldn’t get promoted until they have grown a couple of possible candidates to take their place. Look for ways to help some more junior staff grow and demonstrate that management can have confidence in your ability to manage others’ careers, not just your own.


Her boss asked her to go away and to think about the conversation, then return the following week with a plan for how she could stretch and grow in the work she was doing. It turned out to be a pivotal conversation in her career. Years later, she would look back and see that it was at that point, that her real career growth had begun. She had embraced his advice and had bloomed where she had been planted. And she’d never forgotten the advice about being an intentional  team player. Every new level of peers had welcomed her when they experienced her willingness to enable their success as well as her own.


Big Tree Strategies is a consulting firm for senior executives in charge of teams managing large projects that are critical to their organization’s success. Sign up for our monthly newsletter. Take our 2 minute assessment to understand where your team is winning and where improvements are needed. Contact us for help with your teams running large capital projects.


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