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Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins has a B Sc degree in Psychology from Edinburgh University and over 20 years of management and consulting experience in the African corporate world. She started her career in the mining industry with Anglo American in Zambia before coming to South Africa in 1976 to join AECI. She then worked for Afrox and the Barlow’s Group before joining the FSA Contact consulting group in1985. From 1995 to 2006 she was an Associate of Gateways Business Consultants. She now consults independently as Straight Talk.

Maureen has consulted extensively in the chemical and manufacturing sectors and in other organisations such as Telkom, SARS, Harmony Gold Mining Company and TFMC. Her current clients include Wesbank, Safmarine, Rand Air, Aberdare Cables, Ovations, Johannesburg Securities Exchange, Nedbank, Development Bank of South Africa, Gauteng Department of Health, and Multichoice.

Maureen’s experience is in management and leadership training; team building, and handling change and transition. She has trained managers extensively in performance management. The challenge of improving the quality of performance feedback given by managers to their employees lead to her interest in the field of emotional intelligence as a means of improving communication in the corporate world.

In designing the Straight Talk material she has drawn on her own experience and a broad range of resources to help people improve their communication skills in the difficult conversations they encounter in their professional and personal lives.

Thursday, 05 November 2015 15:34

Don't say what you think

Freedom of speech has long been a most dearly held value that I’m starting to rethink.

I would not question one’s right to freedom of thought and opinion but whether that extends to the right to randomly communicate those opinions is another matter.

Talk radio only rarely contains anything that is thoughtful, informed or informative. Conversations which participants merely use to rearrange their prejudices is deadly entertainment.

The right to think and communicate freely should surely carry responsibility for making sure that one collects facts to support one’s opinion and assembles those facts into a coherent viewpoint. Accepting that your opinion is not the same as an empirical fact, no matter how strongly you hold it, should surely be part of that responsibility.

In a world that faces so many issues where right and wrong, good and bad, come in endless shades of grey, the least you can do is make the effort to assemble information, analyse situations, develop logical viewpoints and share them with others in a way that encourages open dialogue. Anything less merely adds to the disinformation and at worst increases confusion and polarization.

The old adage comes to mind. Think before you speak.

Thursday, 05 November 2015 15:32

What shall I do next?

The question, ‘What super power would you most like to possess’ can be answered quite easily by most of us with the words, ’The ability to do lots of things at once’.

Multi-tasking is now regarded as an essential survival skill, like reading or counting. Shopping on the internet while talking to an overseas friend as you stir supper and watch the progress of a movie download is a way to make inroads into the plethora of things that all need to be done. Yet some of the downsides of multi-tasking are becoming apparent.

Talking on a phone, whether it is hand held or hands free, is as dangerous as driving while drunk, in terms of one’s ability to notice and respond to outside events. Research shows that people can successfully juggle multiple tasks but are unable to remember much about them or learn from what they have experienced. The common practice of answering mail during meetings comes to mind.

A recent article in the Financial Times (ft.com/multitasking) offers various ways of thinking about multi-tasking.

You can multi-task by genuinely doing two things at once, where one of the activities requires no conscious thought. There are fewer examples than you might think. Singing to your own guitar playing would be one, but only if you are practiced at both. Rapid task switching, which has been shown to be both inefficient and unproductive, is a form of multi- tasking. You’re doing it when you switch between talking on the phone, writing a mail, and answering queries from passing staff.

A third definition of multi-tasking relates to the common condition of having more urgent and important things to do at any given time than are mentally or physically possible. It’s the reason people are stressed out, burnt out, and determined if they can, to get out. For those of us who can’t, there is one piece of advice that could be useful.

Think of each unfinished task as an ‘open loop’ that keeps spinning until you complete it and close the loop. The open loops create the nagging voices in your head. So for every task to which you are committed write down the next thing you can do. Stick to your plan and review it frequently so you keep track of your progress and gain a sense of achievement as you see steady progress. You’ll quieten the nagging voices and drop your stress level.

What can you lose? Try it.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015 08:43

Corporate Survival

Corporate survival used to rest on a set of clearly defined competencies. If you had a modicum of technical ability in your chosen field, you knew how to take instructions and you learned how to plan, organise, lead and control after a fashion, you could be fairly sure of lifetime employment.

The landscape has changed. It’s now the new world of work and demands a new set of survival skills. In it, education and technical competence do little more than gain you entry. There are many others who know what you know and in any case what any of you know will soon be out of date. Survival depends on your ability to adapt and learn.

You will need strong analytical skills to process the mass of available information, to form and test assumptions, evaluate alternatives and plan a way forward. You must be able to add imagination to your analyses and find creative solutions to unfamiliar, challenging, urgent problems.

Good communication skills; oral, written and electronic are vital. You will need the skill to step outside your own beliefs, prejudices and preconceived ideas and listen to what others have to say even when their beliefs, prejudices and preconceived ideas are poles apart from your own.

If you become a leader you will work in multi-disciplinary teams, diverse in terms of knowledge and skill, gender, age and culture. Your survival will depend on your influencing skills, which have little if anything to do with your authority and a lot to do with your authenticity and the care and respect you show for others.
If the order seems too tall, remember what happened to the dinosaurs…

Friday, 24 July 2015 11:57

It takes emotional intelligence

A recent survey in the USA points to the striking lack of emotional intelligence amongst business leaders. The four most commonly cited problems are those of leaders who do not recognise employee achievements, do not give clear directions and don’t make time to meet and interact with their people, or simply refuse to meet with them at all.

Business is essentially about people, as it always has been and always will be. In order to help them achieve the productivity of which they are capable, leaders must connect with their people by giving recognition, providing clear direction, using constructive feedback, and holding sincere interactions that generate trust.

The ‘how to’ takes some practice.

Make recognition of good performance more meaningful by describing specifically what you are pleased about. Instead of saying ‘Your team is doing well; keep it up’, say ‘I admire the way you have got everyone in your team working together on your goals’.

Make use of one of the simplest and most effective forms of recognition by learning and using employees’ names. Saying ‘I’m not good with names’ is not an excuse. Work at it.

Ask people what they think and listen carefully to what they say. If you always have the ‘right’ answer, if you insist in having things done your way, or if you take credit for the ideas of others, you can be sure you’ll not get the best from your people.

Tell people how they are doing…constantly. In particular, millennials need more coaching and feedback than previous generations.

Keep people in the loop. Offer real explanations in good time, trusting that employees will accept ambiguities and uncertainties if they are communicated honestly. You will be accorded more respect when you share as much as you know as soon as you can. Real explanations are always better than no explanations.

In the words of Lou Solomon, CEO of Interact who carried out the survey; In a business environment that is woefully lacking in employee commitment, leaders who aren’t actively connecting with people are themselves a liability.

Thursday, 25 June 2015 11:43

Crises and drama queens

There’s nothing like a good crisis to spike the adrenaline and get the blood pumping. Leaders bark orders and followers – Oh joy! – follow unquestioningly. In times past there would be a period of calm before the next one but the new normal is more often a continuous sequence of crises. As soon as, or even before, one has ended, the next has started. The adrenalin keeps pumping and the drama continues unabated. Some people thrive on it; some burn out; others suffer in silence with intermittent bouts of short temper, headaches, stomach upsets and depression. 

There’s maybe not a lot you can do to control the incidence of crises around you but you can manage how you behave in dealing with them to minimize the damage. 

In analyzing or explaining what is going on you can stick to the facts without exaggerating or generalizing. It’s the difference between saying ‘The delivery was two hours late today’, or saying ‘These guys always deliver late!’ with accompanying eye rolling and hand wringing. The first statement is factual, but the second with its dramatic tone encourages an emotional response which will not help you find a constructive solution to the problem. Watch out for words such as always, never and everyone which raise the level of drama and stress. 

Secondly, distinguish between facts and opinions. By themselves facts carry no emotional tone. Opinions are a personal view of a situation and are often held strongly. Arguments are more often based on differences of opinion than they are on difference in facts. Clarify the facts before you offer an opinion and avoid the tension that accompanies misunderstanding and disagreement.

Thursday, 25 June 2015 11:42

The power to influence

The most successful people have the ability to create change in their own behaviour and to influence others to change theirs. 

We exert influence constantly, sometimes knowingly, willingly and deliberately. At other times people may follow your lead without your even being aware that they have noticed you. 

Your behaviour can reflect a model of personal values such as respectfulness, consideration and generosity: or it can convey aggression and self- centeredness. In every meeting you attend and speak up with an opinion, or withhold one, you model behaviour. Every leadership decision and every time you step back to consider the viewpoints of others or confront poor performance, sends a message about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. So does every toxic outburst of emotional drama. 

The amount of personal influence you exert depends on your role, position, and personal power. It’s one of the most valuable assets you can possess and it’s an awesome responsibility. Use it wisely.

Thursday, 25 June 2015 11:42

Triumph of evil

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

 

This well-known quote which is attributed, (probably incorrectly) to the British philosopher Edmund Burke, has as much relevance now as it did in the 18th century. 

Many of us work, and live, in environments which operate to norms that we disagree with, that make us uncomfortable, or that we consider dishonest or unethical. Changing them is difficult. But until someone speaks up, nothing will change. 

The fate of most whistle blowers however is not one to wish upon yourself, so if you decide to speak up, do so with some caution. 

  • Start by gathering the facts that illustrate the extent and frequency of the problem and its effects. Consider the best way to present them so you come across analytically and calmly. It won’t help your case if you come across as a self-righteous zealot.
  • Get a feel for the amount of support that exists for current norms. If it extends right to the top of the organisation you need to plan your strategy, (maybe even an exit strategy), accordingly.
  • Norms are only ever changed when they go public, so start talking. In conversations with your peers and senior colleagues, be respectful. Concentrate on the implications and impact of current behaviours. With your own staff, avoid threatening behaviour that will alienate them. Instead help them see good reasons why they should change their behaviour.
  • Once you are all agreed on what should change, encourage everyone to confront people who violate the agreement and agree on the sanctions that will be applied to those who choose not to change.
  • Follow up. Ensure there are positive consequences for those who try their best to make the change and negative consequences for those who don’t. Focus also on people who see violations but say nothing. They need to hear that you expect their support. 

It’s a delicate process that takes time and demands patience as much as skill.

And reflect on Burke’s quote..

Thursday, 25 June 2015 11:40

Choose your worries wisely

I’ve always thought it sensible to focus one’s efforts where there was most likelihood of getting the results one wanted. 

Steven Covey wrote about it elegantly when he described a Circle of Concern which encompasses all our concerns, whatever they may be; for our health, our children’s education, the poaching of rhino or the increase in terrorism. Within it, there is a Circle of Influence, in which lie the things over which we have some control, either directly or indirectly. Proactive people operate in their Circle of Influence, working on things they can do something about. In Covey’s words their energy is ‘positive, enlarging and magnifying’. 

At a time when we need as much of it as possible, positive energy is often in rather short supply, overtaken by too much focus on possible problems and feelings of victimization. 

At work, whether leader or follower, your behaviour is one thing, and maybe the only thing, you can guarantee will be in your personal Circle of Influence. As an employee, you can choose to spend your energy worrying about being retrenched, or on developing and applying your skill set so you are recognised as irreplaceable. 

As a leader, you can worry about results over which you usually have limited control, or you can focus on your own leadership behaviour, helping your people grow, develop and become more productive. As business pressure increases, the focus on results grows more intense. We set goals and targets, design tracking mechanisms and measurements, and when people don’t measure up, we use the disciplinary process to punish them.  This creates punitive and destructive cultures with a negative energy and even less likelihood of achieving their desired goals. 

The words of the Serenity Prayer are pertinent, and poetic. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Monday, 02 February 2015 09:00

How to change behaviour

Most problems don’t need new technology, tools, data or processes as much as they need people to change what they DO. Leaders need to be skillful in influencing others to change their behaviour in order to achieve goals.

Simple, quick fix, ‘single source influence strategies’ don’t work with complex problems. Anything from losing weight to changing the culture of an organisation is a complex behaviour change problem and requires an appropriate strategy.

Monday, 02 February 2015 08:54

It’s not about willpower

Who doesn’t wish they had more willpower, more resolve, more self-discipline. If there was more of it around, obesity wouldn’t be such a problem, work and life would be in better balance, we’d all have retirement nest eggs in place and corporate change initiatives would achieve their objectives.

We tend to think of willpower as a mysterious personal trait or characteristic. Some of us, who obviously chose our parents wisely, have it: the rest of us, don’t. The problem is that when you treat an inability as an inherent characteristic, you disempower yourself from fixing it. There’s not much you can do about your DNA.

But when you think of it as a lack of skill, and identify the specific behaviours you need to learn, you put the power to change in your own hands. You can forget about the mysteries of willpower and instead go to the tried and tested methods for developing and sustaining a skill.

Be clear on your goal and identify the specific behaviour that will give you most leverage toward it. Find a way to learn the behaviour or develop a level of skill, apply and practise it, and get constructive feedback. It will be easier if you’re not alone, so your plan must include how you will gather support from fans and coaches. Milestones, incentives and rewards keep you going. Your environment can help or hinder you.

All of these factors influence behaviour to change. When you put them together in a tight strategy, you make it almost impossible for behaviour not to change.

It’s definitely a better bet than depending on willpower.

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