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Blaire Palmer

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Success in a recession: The kitchen cabinet

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Successful people rely on a network of close allies who guide and challenge them. So how do they select those in their cabinet and how can HR professionals encourage the right kinds of teams to form around leaders? Blaire Palmer has the answers.

 
Successful people do not become successful alone. We know this is true, which is why we form our people in to teams. We anticipate that when individuals work with others they will produce results greater than working alone. But most of our attention goes on formal teams. We aim to create rounded teams with a mix of personality types and skills. We arrange training and offsites for teams, we encourage teams to meet outside of work and we judge people on how they contribute to the team.
 
However, we tend to neglect the informal networks that exist around our businesses which can be even more powerful in creating the climate, and the results, of the business.
 
One of the most important of these are the kitchen cabinets – the informal teams of experts, mentors, allies and confidantes successful people create to influence and advise them. Whether you like it or not, these groups can be very powerful. They can reinforce or undermine the creation of a positive corporate climate and you have very little influence over their opinions.  
 
Given that these informal structures exist, my interest is in how they can be a positive influence on your business and support leaders in becoming exceptional. The first step is to understand why these groups form and what value they provide.
 

Qualities of a cabinet

 
One quality of a great kitchen cabinet is that it balances out some of the flaws of the individual who created it. We all have work style preferences and limits to our expertise but successful people acknowledge their areas of weakness and disinterest. They turn to people who will challenge them, present alternative views and see aspects of the issue they would not have seen themselves. A respected former boss, a thoughtful relative, a childhood mentor or a college buddy might all be invited in to this inner circle.
 
It is no coincidence that the examples I have given here are generally employed outside of the individual’s business. Whilst this isn’t a necessary prerequisite, it is quite common. This is because people outside the business are in a position of high structural trust, meaning that they can advise the leader based purely on their opinion and their expertise without being influenced by politics or personal agendas.
 
We commonly seek advice from peers within our business but this advice is never objective. Their judgement about the right course of action for you is always influenced by the impact it will have on them. If you want advice on a promotion opportunity, your colleagues will always be influenced in their advice by whether they want that job, whether your promotion creates an opportunity (or a problem) for them, whether they are glad to see the back of you or will miss you around the place.
 
Kitchen cabinets rarely meet as a group. The individual who created the kitchen cabinet doesn’t need the group to function in one room together. I like to imagine members of the cabinet as jars on a spice rack, allowing the ‘chef’ to select the right combination for the right dish. Cabinets also provide an opportunity for poor team players to share their expertise. Because membership isn’t limited to those who form a healthy group, the wisdom of less team-friendly individuals can still be valuable.
 

Cashing in on cabinets

 
When they work well, these informal networks provide your people with insightful new ideas, emotional support, new tools and approaches for problem solving, expertise from other industries, access to competitor information and the opportunity to develop people skills.
 
It would be great to know exactly who had a cabinet like this and who was in it, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, by their nature they operate below the radar. People often want to keep their cabinet secret either because they fear seeking support and advice could be seen as weakness or because they want to protect their sources.
 
But you can start to acknowledge that they exist and even encourage a wiser selection of cabinet members amongst your most powerful people.
 
I often ask my senior coaching clients to map their external resources by identifying who currently provides them with support and advice and identify gaps in their cabinet. This is a valuable exercise when individuals step up to a more senior role and find that many of their former confidantes now occupy positions of low structural trust.
 
When leaders work on their personal development plan, they can be encouraged to seek expertise and support from unusual sources. In this way you encourage them to broaden their perspective and bring insights from another industry or seemingly unrelated aspect of life in to their work. This enriches the business and adds depth to a PDP. More formal arrangements can be made by intentionally connecting leaders up with mentors or potential cabinet members from friendly businesses in other fields. The relationship can be reciprocal. You may feel that leaders in your financial services business could learn a lot from leaders in an environmental charity and vice versa.
 
The business can support kitchen cabinets by making spaces available for meetings or recognising the benefits of an occasional long lunch or a company-funded dinner. The benefits of three or four hours with a trusted adviser can be far greater than the cost of a three-course meal and a bottle of wine. In these times it may seem wasteful to allow leaders to leave the office for anything other than a client meeting or to sleep. But in tough times leaders require greater support and an input of fresh ideas. And that’s what the kitchen cabinet provides.
 
 
 
 
Blaire Palmer is an executive coach and author. Her new book, The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too, is out now (publ A&C Black) and available from good bookshops and Amazon.co.uk. For more information on her work visit her website at www.blairepalmer.com or her blog at www.letsbesuccessfulagain.com
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