Open Thinkering


Tag: Jo Owen

Surviving the matrix: 5 common leadership pitfalls and how to avoid them.

The Matrix

by Jamie Zawinski (Wikimedia Commons)

Jo Owen, in his excellent How to Lead: what you actually need to do to manage, lead and succeed has a wonderfully concise and vivid section on the ‘pitfalls of survival’ for leaders. This post outlines these and gives some advice as to how to avoid them. 🙂

Owen calls the middle management of an organization ‘the matrix’. It can be an uncomfortable and difficult place from which to emerge, he says. The five most common pitfalls of survival are:

  1. The expert in the matrix
  2. The cave dweller
  3. The politician
  4. The boy scout
  5. The autocrat


The expert in the matrix

The expert in the matrix has been promoted because of their technical competency. On becoming a leader they are out of their comfort zone and therefore lean on their exceptional technical skills. They are likely to demand almost impossibly high standards from their subordinates leading to friction and discontent.


The cave dweller

Cave dwellers try to avoid the matrix as much as possible by hiding in their ‘cave’ of pseudo-certainty. In an attempt to recreate the security they felt lower down the organization they become more territorial and less valuable to the organization. These, says Owen, are likely to be the first to go in any organizational ‘rationalisation’.


The politician

Coming across as rather too enthusiastic about ‘learning the dark arts of the matrix,’ the politician works hard to cultivate a power network. They are constantly on the lookout for new initiatives and seek a position in relation to them. Politicians seek to be close enough to projects to be able to claim a stake in them if successful whilst being able to distance themselves from projects that fail or are discredited. After a while politicians are seen for their true colours and are ignored.

Scout emblem

The boy scout

The opposite to the politician is the boy scout. They think that by working hard and delivering results they will automatically receive recognition and promotion. In practice, however, they got ‘lost in the matrix.’ Boy scouts need to stake their claim and show that they are leading and delivering.


The autocrat

Autocrats act as if they are already higher than they actually are in the organizational hierarchy. Whilst they talk about the importance of being a team player, in reality they are chiefly concerned with people being loyal to them. If they perform well, autocrats can succeed and are promoted. If not, they become irritating and a burden to their colleagues.


The path through the matrix

So how do middle managers be successful in and/or find their way out of the matrix? Owen believes this comes back to the ‘three and a half Ps’ that he outlines at the start of the book:

  1. People – focus not only on those you have direct formal control but those ou can motivate and coach. These widens your circle of influence.
  2. Professional – model the values needed as a senior leader. One of the best ways to do this, believes Owen, is to chair meetings well.
  3. Positive – being positive is especially important in the middle of the matrix. Treat ambiguity and change as opportunity instead of risk. Learn how to deal with conflict in your particular context and you will be successful.
  4. Performance (the half-P) – you need a ‘claim to fame’ to emerge from the matrix. Show that you can deliver exceptional results out of ambiguity and complexity. Actively take on challenge.


I really liked this section of Owen’s book In fact, the whole thing is becoming invaluable to me as I step up from being a an ‘expert in the matrix’ (and ‘boy scout’ at times) to, hopefully, becoming an effectively and successful senior leader! 😀

How to Lead: Being Professional

how_to_leadThis is the last in a short series of posts looking at the ‘foundations of leadership’ section of Jo Owen’s How to Lead: what you actually need to do to manage, lead and succeed. My previous two posts can be found here:

  1. How to Lead: Focusing on People
  2. How to Lead: Being Positive

The third chapter of Owen’s book, and the last in the ‘foundations of leadership’ section is entitled Being Professional. Owen explains what he means by professionalism as follows:

Professionalism encompasses the core skills and values that define the character and potential of the organisation and the individual. It is central to the success of leadership.

He adds that professionalism should never be taken for granted and that it comprises four main elements:

  1. Learning to learn leadership
  2. Learning the local rules of the game: understanding professionalism in the context of the organisation
  3. Learning some universal lessons of professionalism
  4. Learning business survival etiquette.

The rest of this post uses these elements as section headings.

Learning to learn leadership

Formal education systems, says Owen, teaches people exactly the wrong lessons about leadership. In fact, this is probably why Richard Branson and Bill Gates – both ‘drop-outs’ of formal education systems – have prospered. Formal education teaches people to work in highly structured environments in an individual way looking for logical answers. Instead, it is the ‘tacit’ knowledge that is important, embodied in Japanese education and culture, for example.

According to Owen, leaders develop their capabilities in ‘two and a half ways’:

  1. Learning from role models
  2. Learning from experience
  3. Learning from structured observation and discussion (sometimes)

If you want to accelerate your path to leadership, the two best ways of doing so are:

  • Set up your own organization. You will have to learn very quickly and even if it fails you will learn a lot.
  • Structured observation and discovery – actively looking, listening and learning.

Owen suggests creating your own worksheets for reflection using headings such as ‘interpersonal skills’, ‘management skills’, ‘personal behaviours’ and ‘commuication skills.’

Learning the local rules of the game

Dress codes are a trivial but higly visible sign of the local rules of the game. They can fluctutate and be highly political. You need to learn the local rules fast, but no-one will tell you and will look at you as if you have asked a weird question if you ask. Instead, you need to pick up clues and hints. The most direct question you could ask to get a useful question would be How could I really mess up?

Learning some universal lessons of professionalism

When Owen interviewed 700 top leaders and asked them about their expectations of emerging leaders, the following came out top:

  1. Loyalty
  2. Honesty
  3. Reliability
  4. Solutions
  5. Energy (incorporating stamina, commitment, resilience, optimism, etc.)

These are all closely linked traits and tend to go together in people.

Turning to the most common complaints co-workers make about their colleagues in 360° feedback, Owen lists them as being:

  • not communicating
  • public, not private, arguments
  • game playing and politicking
  • bullying
  • bad habits (turning up late, poor dress, etc.)
  • personalising feedback and comments

Finally for this part, Owen makes the Prisoners’ Dilemma relevant to business. If you’re not familiar with this, read about it at Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or play the Open University’s game. It turns out that tit-for-tat teaches people a lesson. If they offer conflict, offer conflict back, but always then go back to an ‘offering cooperation’ model. This teaches them appropriate behaviours. :-p

Learning business survival etiquette

Owen begins the section by stressing the importance of etiquette and what it means in practice:

Etiquette is fundamentally about putting the other person at ease and making them feel valued, respected and important.

Basic etiquette therefore involves

  1. Promptness – respecting the other person’s time (you don’t lose friends or clients by arriving early!)
  2. Focus – good leaders have the habit of making you feel like you are the most important thing in their lives at that moment. How?
    • no interruptions from calls
    • mobile phone off
    • no playing with PDAs in meeting
  3. Courtesy – say ‘thank you’ a lot. And smile. :-
  4. Responsiveness – things like answering the phone within three rings, replying to email quickly and following up on commitments promptly shows you are in control and minimises effort.
  5. The Personal Touch – for example:
    • escorting people out yourself (perfect for that Columbo ‘one more question’ moment)
    • handwritten notes (valuable in an email culture)
    • learning names and using them.


I thought that the most valuable insights for this section were ‘learning the local rules of the game’ and the important of ‘the personal touch’. Of course, in a new Academy, the ‘local rules of the game’ will be in flux and it will be up to me, in part, to help set them! 😉

How to Lead: Being Positive

how_to_leadThis is the second of three posts outlining my notes and thoughts on Jo Owen’s excellent book How to Lead: what you actually need to do to manage, lead and succeed. I encourage you to buy and devour it if you’re in, or are likely to soon be in, a leadership position.

You can view my previous post on this book here: How to Lead: Focusing on People

The first section of Owen’s book is entitled The Foundations of Leadership and this second post outlines his thoughts on Being Positive.

Owen begins by re-iterating what the surveyed 700 top leaders look for in emergent leaders: adaptability, self-confidence, proactivity, reliability, and ambition.

He believes that these can be summed up by being positive. By this Owen means:

  • seeing opportunities instead of problems
  • learning to be luck consistently
  • moving from analysis to action
  • living better

Owen states that there are six aspects of being positive, which will form the section titles of the rest of this post.

The art of being positive in everyday life

In order to come across as a positive person, emergent leaders need to:

  1. Focus on strengths rather than weaknesses
  2. Manage your feelings
  3. Visualize (focus on your goals)
  4. Do something worthwhile (work or elsewhere)
  5. Move to action (look to the future, not the past)
  6. Wear the mask of leadership (look professional, don’t be negative)
  7. Take control (focus on the things you can do)

The art of being positive in business life

To be seen as someone valuable to the organization and your boss, Owen recommends the following:

  1. Bring solutions to the table, not problems.
  2. Respond to new ideas by looking for positives, not negatives.
  3. Volunteer for special projects.
  4. Take measured risks.
  5. Don’t whine when given menial work (it’s a ‘right of passage’ and you get to see how the organization really works)
  6. Don’t gossip about the boss or colleagues.
  7. Don’t duck responsibility.

The art of being consistently lucky

Owen attributes the quotation, “I find the harder I work, the luckier I get” to golfers, but I’m pretty sure it was originally from Thomas Jefferson. In any case, it’s a sound guiding principle and adorned the wall of my previous classroom! :-p

Making your own luck, says Owen, is down to the 3P’s:

  • Practice (‘experience is to the leader what practice is to the sportsperson’)
  • Persistence (‘if you have never failed, you have probably never tried hard enough’)
  • Perspective (it’s one thing to see an opportunity but quite another thing to act upon it)

Being smart vs. being positive

Emerging leaders respond to challenges with one of the 4A’s:

  1. Apathy (never going to become a leader)
  2. Analysis (needs to be fused with experience)
  3. Answers (brings solution to the table)
  4. Action (‘easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to seek permission’)

I don’t think this is Owen’s strongest section, to be honest. I can see why apathy isn’t a good reponse (obviously!) and I don’t think the other A’s are insightful. 🙁

Problem-solving positively

Problem-solving is not – or should not be – a purely intellectual exercise; it should drive action. ‘The perfect solution,’ says Owen, ‘is the enemy of the practical solution.’ A structured and mechnical approach to problem-solving will only get you, at best, a ‘B+’ answer, he says. Intsead, the insightful approach would be:

  1. Find both the problem the owner of the problem – is it a cause or a symptom?
  2. Find an alternative perspective – go and talk to people!
  3. Challenge the data and definitions – find alternatives.
  4. Don’t ‘boil the ocean’ – look for ‘killer facts’.
  5. Build a story based on a hypothesis – don’t be neutral.
  6. Pre-sell the solution to interested parties – address concerns before going public.

When analysing data, put into practice two principles:

1. 80/20 rule: 80% of the results can be achieved with 20% of the effort, so focus your efforts on the areas most likely to yield results. Ways to decide which is the 20% worth focusing on:

  • impact on organization
  • importance to owner of problem
  • feasibility of potential solution
  • ease of analysis
  • cost of analysis of potential solution

2.  The issue tree: break down complex problems into bite-size chunks – then apply the 80/20 rule. Create a simplified flow diagram (or tree) to assist with this.

Owen makes a great point about people being confused when presented with lots of choice. They want advice and a story to tell – give it to them! Take people out of the office or make videos to help tell your story (social engagement).

Reputation is an important factor when dealing with people within organizations. Each person, says Owen, is like a brand with different levels of trust and quality. Get the support of people who are trusted; either get them to present or get them to vouch for you.

Making the most of your time

It is fairly obvious that time management techniques are of no use to you if you are doing the wrong things. There are therefore three important questions you should ask of yourself:

  1. What are the 3 most important things I need to achieve over the next 3 months? (apply the 80/20 rule)
  2. What are the most important things my boss needs to achieve, and am I helping achieve those goals? (i.e. am I doing something worthwhile?)
  3. What is it I can do that no-one else can do among my team and colleagues? (delegate!)

Ultimately, Owen believes, using time well involves using the rules from the radio programme Just a Minute – no hesitation, deviation or repetition:

  • Hesitation – delaying work creates more work and reduces its quality.
  • Deviation – at a simple level this involves being distracted, but at another involves making sure you are working on the correct issue.
  • Repetition – Owen invokes the 3D’s:
    • Ditch it – if it’s not necessary, delete or abandon it.
    • Delegate it – if someone else can do it, let them!
    • Do it – if you are going to do it, do it now.


Whilst not quite as strong as the first chapter, this second chapter does involve some useful insights. Not least the 80/20 rule, the importance of not whining or gossiping, and time management involving working on the correct thing! 🙂

The final post in this series can be found here: How to Lead: Being Professional

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