Lockdown Learning – The Ukulele!

I’ve always loved the island vibe, and the chilled surfy culture that comes with it.  Probably has a lot to do with growing up in North Devon, and solidified in my couple of trips to Hawaii, which were both amazing.

I’ve also always been fairly musical. I grew up playing wind instruments, the piano (badly!) and singing in choirs.  As I’ve gotten older I don’t do much of it any more, but a good car karaoke session certainly makes my soul feel good.

I’ve vaguely thought about playing the ukulele for a while, and somewhere in the high-fever early days of coronavirus and lockdown in March I decided now was the time!  I felt like if ever there was a time to transport yourself to somewhere else through learning and music this was it!   Thankfully Amazon came through and I had my very first Uke and was raring to go.  Learning Uke over the last 3-4 months has honestly been a real joy and I’m so glad I did it. 

Watching how I learn

I’ve always been interested in learning and recently my job changed to leading our Leadership Development function, so now it’s my job too! There’s a few things that I’ve come across over the years that I could so clearly see playing out in myself as I learn which I found pretty fascinating! Do any of them sound familiar?!

  1. The Dunning Kruger effect is real. This is the phenomenon where people who are doing something new or who aren’t highly skilled at something will often vastly overestimate their ability – Illusory Superiority. The opposite is also true, those who are more skilled, but also know there’s a lot more to learn, will often underestimate the amount of skill they have.  The first day I played for hours and hours. I thought I was a Ukulele genius.  For sure, I can learn a new instrument more quickly drawing on my musical background, but I’ve never played a string instrument before, and really I was just playing one chord at a time and relying on decent vocal skills to be able to put a song together.  I thought I was so awesome I happily videoed myself and sent it to pretty much everyone I know!    A few days later I was so frustrated by my ability, I realised just how shit I was and I didn’t want to do it anymore! I then had to find a way out of that frustration so that I could start really progressing.  It really amused me to see something that I know happens play out so literally in myself.
The Dunning Kruger Curve

2. Sleeping on it really does help. Your brain needs daily repetition practice and sleep to be able to form new neural pathways.    I took a Coursera course last year called Learning how to Learn which I learnt about this in.  I found this particularly with learning new strumming rhythms that I can practice over and over and still not get it. Sleep on it, and the next day I could just do it!  I love how clever our brains are!

The importance of sleep in learning
  1. Don’t over-think it.  I literally have have a post-it thats permanently stuck to my monitor that says “What would happen if I just trusted my brain?”. Well, I guess I’m still learning that lesson.  I have found that if I try to over-analyse the strum or rhythm I’m trying to learn, by counting too much or worrying about getting it wrong, it really doesn’t help.  Turns out when I just trust my musical ability and my brain to “just play”, it comes out just fine.   It’s a good reminder on something that I’ve been working on for a lifetime.
What would happen if I just trusted my brain?

Learning to play the Ukulele in Lockdown has been a real joy and has provided structure, purpose and reminded me of my love of making music. It’s also great escapism, I can pretend I’m sitting on a beach in Hawaii in the sun and ignoring being in the middle of a pandemic. And I think that was just what I needed.

If you are interested in beginner Ukulele resources:

Leadership coaching – the best investment I have made in myself.

I have just wrapped up 6 months of coaching with Stacey Sargent from Connect Growth and Development, and it was such a great experience. I wanted to capture some of my feelings so that I could always remember how much of a difference it made.

Why do leadership coaching?

I was lucky enough to be given a yearly budget from my company ThoughtWorks to use for personal development. Some people spend theirs on a far flung conference or books or the odd workshop, and I’d been pretty rubbish at using mine at all in the last few years.

Right now I’m in that middle zone of transitioning to a “leader” on my teams, no longer content with not being able influence the direction of the project and the people on it and starting to feel brave enough to dip my toe in the responsibility that is official leadership roles. I needed a push!

I wanted to focus on my own growth and development. Spend time thinking “What it is that I want?”, and “How to get the best out of myself?” so that I could get the best out of the people and the situations around me.

I have quite a high EQ but sometimes it can be overwhelming, so I wanted help learning how to manage this. I wanted to know how to be a calm, confident leader that people can look to in times of stress and uncertainty. Most of the time I project a very positive, passionate and energetic persona, whilst sometimes I’m actually feeling panic, doubt and uncertainty on the inside. I wanted to feel on the inside what I seem like on the outside.

I wanted to be able to have the tough conversations that I need to have with people to build good relationships, I shied away from personal confrontation.

To work on these things I figured I needed dedicated effort and practice to do so!

How to find a great one?

Find someone who knows what they are doing, and that you have great rapport with. You need to be able to trust this person enough that you will be able to be honest with them, and not be afraid to say the things that maybe you haven’t said out loud before.

For me it was helpful that Stacey did not work for the same company I did. It really provided some unbiased outside perspective.

Work out if you feel like you would need to physically meet up with your coach or if you would be able to be build your coaching relationship remotely, over Skype or some other tool.

I actually had been lucky enough to attend two sessions that Stacey had run at a couple of the Grace Hopper Celebrations that I had been at, and knew that she now runs a coaching company. So called her up and asked.

How did it work?

We would meet twice a month, on Stacey’s suggestion. My first thought was “how am I going to find the time?!” But actually, that frequency provides you with enough focus and reminders to be constantly thinking about how you can be growing.

As I live in London and my coach was in Seattle, we managed to find a time that suited as both, I chose Monday evenings as it helped me start the week off right. We would Skype for an hour or so. I think neither of us were sure how coaching remotely would go, but actually it worked out better than either of us had expected. I’m not sure it would have worked so well over just the phone. With the camera on it was much easier for Stacey to see my physical reactions and to see me squirm when I wasn’t giving an honest answer to myself!

There were days when I was grumpy and upset, and there were days that I was super energised and positive. Sometimes we would work on helping out my immediate situation and other times a more long term high level look at my goals and growth.

What did I learn?

I got an enormous amount out of these 6 months. I think the headline is that I know so much more about myself now.

Having a better understanding of what my strengths and values are gives me something to always check my trajectory with.  This helps me know when and how to push myself. If I’m in a situation I’m uncertain about or wondering if I’ve pushed too far, I can do a sanity check to see if I’m still holding true to my values, and if I am then to be brave and keep going!

We spent quite a lot of time coming up with the goals for my growth. It took many iterations, but what we came out with in, really hit all the key areas and may not have been what I was originally thinking they might be. Having these goals will help me be more intentional about the choice that I make.

One of my goals was to have an answer to “What do you want to do? What to you enjoy doing?”. So I looked back at my previous experiences with a very open mind and thought about what the things were that motivated me, or that I really enjoyed, what did I not enjoy so much, and I came out with 4 things that create an environment that I can really thrive in. This has really helped me to have conversations about how my company and I can put me into situations where they will get the best out of me. A benefit for both them and me! Having these concrete ideas and showing the process that I did to come up with them, has helped me start very rational objective discussions.

Training your brain to be more introspective. It takes a while to get used to analysing why you do what you do. Getting into the habit of it takes practice. During the start of my 6 months coaching, Stacey would have to ask a lot of questions before I would finally realise what the underlying motivations were to a certain situation. By the end, I could almost complete the whole loop before the problem statement had even come out of my mouth.

Along these similar lines, I have always had a bit of a self deprecating tendency. I often slip back into it when going into new situations. Again though, by the end of our sessions I could normally catch myself and consciously turn it more positive. The next step is to not even think it!

We also would work on more tactical aspects when needed. If I was experiencing a particularly tough situation or relationship at work, we would talk through in depth. Thinking about why it was happening, what could I do about, how best to approach it.

I have gotten better at being brave enough to have conversations that I might be afraid of. Approaching them with more structure, thinking about them, and practicing them before I have them.

I am a fairly emotional person, but can also be quite rational. These two sides of my brain were at war with each other. I thought that I needed to be more rational and try and squash my emotional side. I realised though, these sides combined are who I am. It is what makes me me. It is also, often, what makes me very effective. So I am trying not to react but to be intentional with my conversations and actions.

What helped?

  • I love learning
  • I am happy to throw myself into uncomfortable situations and to doing things in a different way to help myself grow.
  • My coach and I had a great rapport and high levels of trust
  • Stacey was not afraid to call me out if I was slipping back  into old habits
  • Regular contact kept me focused

In conclusion…

I feel like I know myself much better than I did before.  I have much more confidence in who I am. I understand and have come to terms with what I bring to the table on a team.

I’ve realised that to be the best leader that I can be I have to be my own unique self and work hard to work out what that is. I can lead with my own style while staying true to what I value in both myself and others.

As I am in the early stages of my leadership journey, my learning is currently more focused on myself. I’m hoping that soon, after I have more practice, I can have another go and change my growth focus to how to get the best out of the people that I am leading.

It was a truly great experience and I am thankful for having the opportunity.  I am very grateful to Stacey and all her hard work, understanding, passion and patience.

I would very much recommend making this investment in yourself if you want to grow into a great leader.

Notes from Strengths Based Leadership

Now that I am commuting for two hours a day on the train, I have a lot more time to catch up on some reading. The followup of Strengths Finder from Gallup is this book, Strengths Based Leadership.

I am a big fan of the Strengths Finder book and it’s accompanying online test, so I was looking forward to this follow up. See Blogpost: Finding Strengths in Your Team for my post on  Strengths Finder.  I have also been working on a proposal for a conference with a co-worker entitled How You Can Develop Your Team By Harnessing the Strengths of Your Team Members so this topic was right up my alley.

Like the first book you also get a code to take an online test to help figure out your strengths but with a specific slant on leadership skills. Interestingly my top 5 strengths from before were all the same apart from Restorative has been replaced by Relator.

The researchers have identified how these strengths group into 4 overarching leadership styles.

The theory being that lots of the leaders that they have research do not have strengths in all of these areas. Their strengths are normally dominating one or two areas. The key though is that they surround themselves with people whose strengths dominate different areas.

These are some of the biggest things that I took away from this book:

  • If you spend your life trying to be good everything, you will never be great at anything. The greatest misconceptions is that of the well rounded leader.
  • The path to great leadership starts with a deep understanding of the strengths you bring to the table.
  • Be aware of just trying to imitate great leaders that you know. You will spend all your energy trying to be like them rather than figuring out what kind of leader you are.
  • If you are able to to help the people that you lead focus on their strengths, it will dramatically boost engagement levels throughout your organization.
  • Effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and build on each persons strengths. In most cases though leadership teams are formed out of circumstance. The most competent and skilled people making it to the top. Rarely are people recruited for strengths that will complement others on the team. For example seeking someone who could build stronger relationships between the group, or someone who could influence theirs on behalf of the group. Often people will pick people similar to their own personalities and strengths. How are you supposed to grow and adapt to change this way?

The book has three sections

  1. Investing in your strengths
  2. Maximizing your team
  3. Understanding why people follow

With lots of case studies and examples. A good read for anyone trying to find their leadership legs like me!