Appetite for uncertainty with Alan Robertson – The Potential for What? Podcast
Alan shares his definition of potential and discusses how he has used it in his career. He also speaks to the importance of compassionate leadership and the factors that organisations should be thinking about in order to realise someone’s potential.
Alan also explains the Voiceprint model and how it can be used to create successful teams.
In today’s episode we talk about:
📚 Definition of potential: “An apparent capability to do something that you’re not currently doing”
❓ In order to realise potential, two qualities are needed: tolerance for uncertainty, and active reflective learning
🔓 To unlock potential, leaders should manage expectations, use one-to-ones for reflective learning sessions, and be compassionate and empathetic
🗺 In teams, there is a tendency to underinvest in exploration and to instead focus on advocating and advising
Listen to the next episode (Ep 7. Nikki Gatenby) >
How to listen to this podcast:
Links shared in this episode:
- Connect with Alan on LinkedIn
- Check out Alan’s TalkWise Podcast
- Find out more about VoicePrint
- Read Alan’s book recommendation: Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Chris Cowan
- [Podcast] You don’t want a zoo full of zebras with Heather Goodman & Martin Percival – The Potential for What? Podcast
- [Podcast] Unlocking potential through job fulfilment with Ewa Priestley – The Potential for What? Podcast
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Transcript of Episode 6: The Potential for What? Podcast with Alan Robertson
Jo Taylor 00:04
Welcome to the Potential for What podcast. On this podcast we explore how a range of business leaders unlock the potential in people. We’ll hear how they’ve done it, find out what’s worked, what hasn’t and why this is so important in getting and keeping great people. Most businesses focus on the here and now, that is: all about performance.
But at Let’s Talk Talent we like to think differently, as we fundamentally believe everyone has potential. The question is: for what? So let’s explore that together. I’m your host, Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent, a talent management and organisational development consultancy based in London, UK. I have a request. If you value this show, if you enjoy these stories, or find this wisdom or inspiration useful, please subscribe to the Potential for What podcasts to listen to future episodes.
Jo Taylor 00:55
I’m excited today to be joined by Alan Robertson. He is a business psychologist and we met, gosh, I think it must be about seven years…. when I was just setting up Let’s Talk Talent. And he introduced me to the most amazing tool, Voiceprint, which I use a lot in my coaching.
And today I’m excited because we’re going to talk about potential, aren’t we Alan?
Alan Robertson 01:16
Yes, we are.
Jo Taylor 01:17
How are you doing?
Alan Robertson 01:18
I’m good, Jo, thank you – slightly cold around the fingers on this bright December morning. But yeah,
Jo Taylor 01:24
Wonderful. So I’m going to start off by asking you a question I ask all of our guests at the beginning, which is: what’s your definition of potential?
Alan Robertson 01:33
I guess it’s a very pragmatic definition, at least in the first instance. “An apparent capability to do something that you’re not currently doing.” It’s a quality – this is what makes it so elusive. It’s not a very tangible thing.
Jo Taylor 01:50
So how have you used it in your career? Because you’ve had a really interesting career. And now as the creator of Voiceprint, how do you see potential playing a part in the art of communication?
Alan Robertson 02:03
I remember being asked “can you help us set up our talent processes”. And we started to do this identification of people with potential and I can remember devising a set of questions, because the first question always was: right, well, who’s on your potential list? And everybody found that terribly easy to do.
So you’ve got this list of names. And at that point, the conversation got a bit sticky, because the next question, obviously was: why are they on the list? And everybody was kind of looking at their shoes and kind of not quite knowing how to explain their answers.
And we only started to get some traction when we turned to a third question, which is: well, what are these people doing at the moment that you think might be useful for what might be coming up? And that became more helpful, because you then got into the behaviours and specifics of it. And the theme that emerged really was something to do with personal qualities of composure, and something to do with a track record of having learned and developed in the past.
So it’s not just about performance, it’s about that they’ve shown that they can cope with something new and different. Now, if I then take the film forward a number of years, I got a phone call from a senior managing director in one of the banks, who said, look, Alan, I’ve got a problem. I’ve got a series of process improvement projects that I’m running. And I’ve put my best people on these, because they’re really important for the business. And my people are struggling, and I don’t know why. Can you do something to help? And I said, well I don’t know what the answer is but I can perhaps try and help you figure out what might be going on.
We did a combination of deep interviews with the individuals concerned. And used a battery of psychometric tools to try and see if there was any common pattern. And two things emerged.
The first thing that came out was that if you looked at people’s appetite for uncertainty, that was a major differentiator in terms of how comfortable or uncomfortable the whole experience of transitioning into a new role was for the individual. The people who felt uncomfortable, anxious, about the role they were going into and its demands and its uncertainties: they found it harder, and it took them longer. People who had more tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, they just found it much easier. But that was only the first ingredient, but it was a necessary one.
The second ingredient came out of a very marked clue, which came out of the psychometrics, which was that those who had energy gave energy and attention to reflective learning – to learning in action – transitioned relatively easily. Those who didn’t put the energy into it, who simply put in a lot of either theoretical energy if you like, you know “there are principles that we should be applying here”, or who just took past experiences and tried to force them on the new situation they found themselves in, they all struggled. They appear to do well initially, but then the kind of complexity of the circumstances they found themselves in reasserted itself. And they found themselves struggling. And what really dropped out of this, for me was this recognition that there’s two things going on. If you’ve been identified as having potential, what’s going to happen to you is you’re going to be asked to do something you’ve not done before. And that, to some degree or another, will always represent a journey from the familiar into the unfamiliar.
And it will then precipitate the need for you to have two qualities really, if that transition is to be relatively smooth. And the first quality is this, if not appetite for uncertainty, at least the tolerance of it. And the second requirement is that you turn up your learning –your active learning – and I say active, but it is a reflective form of action, you have to start to entertain different perspectives and possibilities. And you have to kind of shake off some old habits about doing things, and those who kind of spot that they’re stuck, or they’ve got a puzzle that they haven’t solved, and who actively work on that puzzle, they don’t try and collapse the ambiguity prematurely, but they will say I actually don’t have the answer to this… rather than rush it, I’m going to think around it. I’m going to ask some other people for their views. I’m going to turn the problem on its head and look at it the other way around. I’m going to try and think the unthinkable, just to kind of get a grip on something that was so unfamiliar: they did well. So in a nutshell, what we did was we developed a series of tools to facilitate becoming more comfortable with uncertainty, and to cultivate this pattern of active learning. And what we found was we were able to reduce the transition period to about six months. And these were, just to give it a bit more context, these were people who’d been doing line roles, and they were very successful in their line roles, but they were relatively structured processes that they were involved in. And then they’d been asked to take on something that by its nature was much less well defined. So it was an acute example, I think, of potential being tested. And us finding out, ah! this is what you needed. You might have raw potential, but in order to realise it, you need to support it.
Jo Taylor 07:32
And that’s really interesting, isn’t it? Because I’ve worked in many environments where you sort of see that raw potential, and people get over-excited, and they go from hero to zero in six months. And you create a culture where people are really fearful about taking that opportunity, because they’re worried about… that they don’t have the guide rails. So whether that’s coaching or support, or even time to sort of grow into that role. So when you’re thinking about realising someone’s potential, what are the environmental factors that you advise people listening to this podcast – so HR leaders, business leaders – to start to think about in making sure that they are realising that raw potential and putting those guide rails around,
Alan Robertson 08:19
I come back to those two themes that we uncovered. So leaders, the sponsors, the people who’ve chosen the individual, put them in that situation, where their potential is being tested, can do lots of useful things, I think, to reduce the anxiety that people will inevitably experience and most acutely, at the point that the conventional honeymoon period is up, but they’re still finding it difficult. So one of the things I always urge leaders to do is to manage the expectations. Say: look, this will take time, right? Inevitably, I’m asking you to take on a big job, it’s got complexity. I don’t understand the full complexity of it, so there’s a learning journey that we need to go through. Part of that also is saying: so, you’re educating me as we go through this as much as anything else. So the leader and the individual are engaged in a sort of collaborative learning process and real understanding of what the role involves emerges out of that. So part of it is about that managing of the anxiety, and the other bit is in the one-to-ones actually turning those into reflective learning sessions. And making it okay not to have the answers at your fingertips.
Jo Taylor 09:38
So there’s one of the themes that’s coming out from 2022 into 2023, has been very much about compassionate leadership. And that’s, in a way, when I was listening to you talking was really buzzing through my head. What you’re actually talking about is leaders being compassionate and empathetic and caring.
Alan Robertson 09:56
Jo Taylor 09:57
Can you teach that?
Alan Robertson 09:59
That’s a great question. I think you can teach the principles of it. My experience is, some people will rise to that challenge, and others won’t. As we’re talking I can recall one individual who was… he was a tough-minded individual… this was a weak spot for him. He was very scientific. He was not particularly empathic. And he got that feedback at an important juncture. And he rose to the occasion in as much as he really tried. And it never came easily to him. And he did pretty well in as much as what his people subsequently said was – I won’t use his real name, but let me call him oh I don’t know, John – we can see John’s really trying, and we appreciate that.
Jo Taylor 10:45
I love that. I love that.
Alan Robertson 10:47
So that’s a nice example. I can think of other people who’ve been on the courses that they’ve been given the coaching support, that they still don’t get it and they don’t actually have the appetite to get it.
Jo Taylor 10:57
Isn’t that the million dollar question? When we’re kind of promoting people, we’re promoting them on performance, and what they’ve done. So, subject matter expertise. So your example is brilliant, because we see it a lot when we’re working with education institutions, where you’ve got a brilliant person who brings in the money and in terms of research, but doesn’t want to lead, but the only way for that person to progress is to move into that. So they’re taking all their natural tendencies… that old age book, which I hate, which is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. You can read it through in this example, right? So why are we not as organisations, valuing that subject matter expertise and allowing that to flourish, rather than, in a way, pushing people down a route and not allowing them to realise their potential, ultimately.
Alan Robertson 11:51
It’s very odd to me that this problem still persists. Because, you know, 30 years ago, when I was in the aerospace industry, we had exactly that problem. Where in order to get on, you had to take on managerial responsibilities. And I can remember a colleague of mind muttering darkly as somebody was promoted to engineering director: well, there’s another bloody good engineer turned into a wretched man-manager. And because we simply were wasting their expertise, asking them to do things that they didn’t enjoy doing and weren’t particularly good at. And the solution we arrived at was to pursue a Y-shaped promotional line of development, and started by giving the engineering director, what these days I suppose you’d call a chief operating officer, who took on – you know, wasn’t an engineer by background, was a consultant by background – very skilful on the people front, and split the responsibilities. So the engineer remained the titular head of the thing, but all the people stuff was managed on his behalf. And that worked really well.
Jo Taylor 12:54
Yeah, I love that. And I think that there’s lots of businesses that could really benefit from that, rather than just trying to put a square peg into a round hole. What’s interesting is that obviously, you’ve had a really great background in business psychology, consultancy and in lots of different industries. And you’ve taken that, and you’ve taken all the knowledge that you’ve got, and you’ve sort of bucked the trend in terms of psychometrics with Voiceprint. And I really want to kind of explore a little bit about Voiceprint because I think communication plays a really strong role in unlocking someone’s potential. Because if you can’t engage, if, when you look at the Voiceprint model, and you look at the exploring voices, so Inquiry, Probe and Diagnose, for me they separate the great leaders from the okay.
Alan Robertson 13:46
You’re entirely right about that. Can I tell you how it sort of fits into the story, really, because one of my realisations from working on transitions was that I’d never found them easy myself. I started to ruminate on, okay, so what actually helps people beyond being comfortable with the uncertainty and actively learning in a reflective way? What helps? And the realisation was that effectively when your potential is being tested, you’re being thrown back on your personal resourcefulness. Can you rise to this occasion or not? And that got me to reflecting on well, okay, what does resourcefulness consist of? And clearly, there’s various sources. We’ve all seen these lists of things that give you power and influence, and so on. And it struck me that the ability to use talk well, was a source of resourcefulness that isn’t dependent on money or power or prestige or patronage or whatever. You could cultivate that for yourself. As a form of resourcefulness, it’s immensely valuable because the way we talk has clearly a very direct effect on the impact we have on others, therefore, on our ability to perform effectively in interactions with others, and also on our ability to think about things, think things through. And once you start to reflect on that, you realise that it’s not just how we’re thinking about problems. It’s also how we’re thinking about ourselves. So the self-talk, the self-monitoring, the self-management, that kind of realisation suddenly made a lot of sense of the fact that talk has been central to everything I’ve done through my career, I could suddenly realise I see why it’s also important, why my early days in industrial relations, you know, the proverbial smoke-filled rooms and sandwiches and so on at midnight, the quality of talk makes a massive difference. There in the boardroom, and suddenly the realisation’s everywhere: every human interaction is strongly influenced by how well or how poorly the individuals taking part in it are making use of their resourcefulness with talk. So that’s where Voiceprint came from.
Jo Taylor 16:10
It’s really interesting, because I’m actually doing for an exec team at the moment, I’m looking at their team profile. It’s super interesting, because you’ve got a group of people that as an SLT are all around – for those of you that don’t know the model, you’ve got nine voices, and you’ve got three categories, haven’t you? You’ve got the exploration, the positioning, and the controlling. And controlling isn’t a negative, it’s actually a really positive because it’s about evaluating and challenging. And interesting about this group, when you think about potential, was that they’re not tapping into each other’s innate talents, because what they’re doing is they’re pure positioning. So it’s all around the articulate, the advice, the advocation, whereas you’d expect a leadership team to being doing much more exploration, and the evaluation and challenge. When you think about the people, you know… and Voiceprint’s, great, because no Voiceprint is the same – I always say that at the beginning, whenever I’m kind of coaching it through. When you look at the people and you know, you’ve looked at hundreds, if not thousands of people since its evolution, what are the kind of characteristics do you think that sort of separate those good from the great in terms of, you know, talk-wise?
Alan Robertson 17:31
Let’s kick that around at a team level. Because I think that’s where you see problems most acutely. With individual profiles, you know, there’s always an upside, there’s always a reason why the profile has the shape it is. And it’s always serving that individual well, in certain regards. And that’s where I always start with it. For every upside, there’s always a potential downside, which may or may not matter. And it’s often to do with either the overuse of certain voices, or the absence of certain voices when needed. But let’s focus specifically on teams because the pattern you describe is very common. And I think there’s a number of things going on there. One is where you get a sort of accumulation of individuals, notionally working in a team context, but basically trying to bring their own contribution to the proceedings, rather than to think about what the proceedings need, then, with senior groups, particularly, you will find a lot of advocacy and advising taking place, because that’s what they do in a lot of their other work. They take up positions, they offer advice, to their own teams. But when you bring that together in the senior group, it can turn that into a sticking point. There’s simply too much energy going into the doing of that, and then literally the conversation as a whole become stuck. Whereas the purpose of any conversation, in my view, is to move things forward. Now, if you’re trying to introduce movement, then at the very least you have to understand other perspectives. So there’s got to be a degree of exploration. The more complex the issues, the more dynamic the situation. You know, the more uncertainties that are in it, the more the need for exploration. So we see this, you know, this tendency for teams to underinvest their energy and exploration, over and over again.
Jo Taylor 19:28
So if people are interested in learning more about you, and Voiceprint, where can they find you?
Alan Robertson 19:34
I think the best way to find out about us is to have a look at the TalkWise website, and particularly the TalkWise podcast because we’ve done a series of pieces on there where I talk to people who are tackling all sorts of classic communications issues and problems and there’s some wonderful episodes there with some great people. So yes, www.talk-wise.com is where I would urge people to go and find out a bit about what we do.
Jo Taylor 20:04
Brilliant, Alan. And the last question I wanted to ask you, and for those listeners, you can’t see what I’m seeing… Alan’s got a room full of books, so the next question may be pretty obvious. But in terms of what you’re kind of reading or listening to, that gives you inspiration and fuels your energy in terms of learning, what are the things that you would impart on our listeners?
Alan Robertson 20:31
I’m going to show you one book in particular, because this is a book called Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Chris Cowan, who developed work originally done by the American psychologist Clare Graves. I read this book over and over. The first time I read it, I thought that is fascinating, I don’t understand hardly any of it. The second time I read it, I thought, ah, yes, okay. light was starting to dawn. Reading it now for I think about the fourth time, it’s making an enormous amount of sense. In a nutshell, it’s a view of how we develop. Not just ‘we’ as individuals, but ‘we’ as whole societies. So as somebody who originally studied history, I find it a fascinating take on how socially and collectively and individually, we can develop, and develop our own complexity and inconsistencies over time. It’s profoundly fascinating, thoroughly recommend it.
Jo Taylor 21:31
Awesome. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. We’ve kind of moved from your past, your present, and your future in a really nice sort of 20-25 minutes and I hope that our listeners have enjoyed it as much as I have in talking to you and thank you again.
Alan Robertson 21:47
Great to talk to you Jo, thanks for the invitation.
Jo Taylor 21:54
Thanks for listening to the Potential for What podcast. If you’re hearing this message, you’ve listened to our new episode all the way to the end. And for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you did, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please share this episode with others who may be interested in this topic. As always, you can head over to letstalktalent.co.uk/podcasts to check out all the links and resources in the show notes, and to sign up to our email list.