Solution Focused leadership: Margaret Eaton Interview

A: Margaret, what do you do?

M: I’m Margaret Eaton and I’m a not–for-profit leader. I’ve been in the not-for-profit field all my life.  Right now, I’m in transition to a new leadership role.

A: What pleases you most about the work you have been doing?

M: The thing that I’m most pleased about is the strategic focus that we brought to ABC. I often think about ABC as being like a big jigsaw puzzle – you have to have the funding, the partnerships, the stakeholder relationships – they have to work together to fulfill your mission and vision for your organization.  You usually don’t have lots of resources in the not-for-profit world, so thinking strategically to maximize the impact is critical.

A: How did you see Solution Focus helping you in your leadership?

M: Solution Focus has helped with strategic planning.  We used Solution Focused techniques to create future-perfect visions for what our organization should be and what it could do. In the last few years we’ve really gone through a change management process.

A: How did you see Solution Focus help grow your people?

M: The human resources piece is a big one.  Actually, I feel most proud about growing my leadership skills with people, that is a place where Solution Focus has come in handy, it’s integral to how I now lead. One of the most powerful things is the notion of appreciation of people – that’s fundamental in Solution Focus – giving people real feedback that encourages them in their work and inspires them.

Alan, you said, “What if the whole staff were trained in Solution Focus?” For those people on staff, who really made it a part of how they conduct their day-to-day business, it’s been transformative.  When we got new staff in we said, “Well, let’s have the current staff train the new staff.”  I really feel proud of the team that we’ve created here and Solution Focus has created a positive atmosphere for everyone.

A: What was an obstacle to success?

M: Change is hard, indisputably.  There were some people that weren’t keen on change. Some decided that maybe they were no longer a match for the organization. Among our colleagues in the literacy field across the country, there had been a sense that ABC had mission drift. We had to prove ourselves to that field to be good partners.

A:  Engagement is a popular theme these days. What’s your particular model for engagement?

M: This was another place where Solution Focus has been so powerful.  So often, especially in our field, people focus on the problems.  One of the beauties of Solution Focus is focusing people on their ideal future, their vision for the future. We’ve used the future perfect tool, even in the case of having a meeting, i.e., what is the outcome that we would want from that meeting?  I had a meeting with a stakeholder today and we started off by saying, how would this meeting be useful … at the end of this meeting what would we like to say that we’ve accomplished?   That just focuses people on the end result that we would like.  It’s a very engaging way to begin a conversation. We also use it a lot is at the end of meetings, “How was this useful to you?”  It makes people think about the success that they had in that conversation with you.  It focuses them on the future and what is positive.  People feel more confident and more trusting in that partnership, that stakeholder relationship.

A:  What would the funders tell us that they’ve appreciated about your leadership?

M: I think that our largest funder would be pleased to say that we we’re able to meet their needs and be a useful organization to them in meeting their strategic goals.

A: What would the board say was the personal contribution that you made?

M: I think they can see we’ve become a leadership model for others in the literacy field.  We share our strategic plan, our mission and vision, our board documents, our operations plan.  People have said to me in the literacy field, “I hope you don’t mind, I’ve borrowed some of your strategic plan.”

A:  If you were repeating your Solution Focused effort, what would you do differently, or more of? 

M: If anything, I would have done more with Solution Focus and brought it in earlier. In hindsight, we could have made it more explicit to the Board.  We’ve certainly made it explicit with some of our partner relationships where we say, “Oh, we’re using a Solution Focus technique.” So that you get a whole culture of Solution Focus and you get a common vocabulary.

A:  Margaret, thank you

M:  Thank you. Solution Focus has been a phenomenally impactful program.

VIDEO INTERVIEW: Margaret Eaton & Anthony Alfred


(Condensed and edited from a longer interview)

Multi-stakeholders and robust strategic plans

In an uncertain world can we afford not to bring in stakeholders, even those who might want eat our lunch?

A while back, I facilitated some strategy development with a small but effective organization that promotes professional development and employment in the culture sector.

We needed the perspective of around 40 very varied stakeholders from business, arts, government, education, cultural associations, the artists, etc.

We followed this line of enquiry in the stakeholder planning input session:

So far, what are we most pleased about in our work as an organization?

What are the barriers to future success in the sector?

Overall, what is the culture sector doing well?

Suppose it’s (year 3 of the planning cycle) and the sector is making progress with organizational and people development, what will be happening? (from 4 different stakeholder perspectives)

Suppose it’s year 3 and the organization is helping make progress with organizational and people development, what will be happening? (from 4 different stakeholder perspectives)

Suppose the stakeholders were to state the (outcome) benefit to them, how would they describe it?

Given the risk of bringing stakeholders in to the room – they could use it as a platform to complain – how did this approach help?

– Was this the most rigorous exploration of the organization’s situation and desired future state? Not really, but it was backed up with evidence-based data, customer research, etc.

– Was the diversity of about 40 different perspectives on what might be desirable and possible in the future useful input to the impending plan? Absolutely. The sector needed to hear what it had in common about the future.

– Was it useful for the stakeholders to hear each other’s voice (and network at the breaks in the various sessions)? Yes. Many sectors are full of silos and unnecessary competition and overlapping services.

– Does this stakeholder approach work in for-profit organizations? Totally. What organization doesn’t rely on stakeholders to be successful.

– Does this approach build buy-in to your plan? Absolutely!

New to Solution focus? Learn more about this approach

Mentoring is not telling. It’s listening!

Don’t tell. Instead, listen and sell.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.  Winston Churchill

Demand for mentoring is exploding for both professional and personal development. Interestingly, the demand for reverse mentoring (boomers mentored by younger, usually social media savvy managers), is also on the rise. Obviously, the value is going both ways.

The value I see in Mentoring is that it is a powerful two-way dialog as both mentor and mentee have life experiences/information to share and advice to give.  Looking at it this way makes the conversation more significant and rewarding. Grace Mistry, Senior Marketing Manager, BMO Bank of Montreal

How do we make the most of mentoring?

1. Be conscious of generational differences. What makes sense to a 55-year-old person may not automatically make sense to someone who is 25. The 25-year-olds are keen to hear from you but first, make sure you understand what they are looking for.

2. Be aware of the differences between telling, mentoring and coaching.

Telling makes it clear what needs to be done. Based on their own experience, mentors may have a sense of what has to be done, but beware, the ‘telling’ advice may not be relevant to the mentee. Offer advice with the understanding that its value may not be acknowledged automatically. So, “sell” your ideas, don’t just “tell.”

Mentoring is about sharing experiences and offering advice. Make sure you know what the mentee is looking for in order for the advice to resonate and be relevant with the mentee.

Coaching is about letting people figure what’s right for them and how they will get there based on whatever telling and mentoring they need / receive. Let the mentee sell themselves on the ideas and advice?

Good mentoring is a conscious blend of the three elements.

Here are powerful questions to ask your mentee:

The opening few minutes are critical – you want a good, but concise briefing from them. Begin by asking;

  • How can I be most useful to you in this mentoring session?
  • Tell me briefly what pleases you about the work you have done so far?
  • What’s the one thing you’d like to see improve?

When you see the need to give direct advice, try giving it by asking a question rather than an instruction:

  • Suppose you were to try X (in some detail), how would you see that working for you? Alternatively, I could see you doing X. How would that be useful to you?

Check in regularly to see if what you’ve said so far makes sense, ask:

  • How do you see this being useful to you so far?

When you want the mentee to think about how he or she might apply some of your ideas and insights, (and theirs) ask:

  • Thinking of the things we have talked about, pick the one idea that makes the most sense and tell me a couple of small steps you could take towards implementing that idea in the next short while.


  • The good mentor – like all good leaders – asks more that explains
  • The mentees are knowledgeable in their lives – get a good, but concise briefing from them on what’s already working
  • You do not need to have all the answers – your mentee knows what to do if you ask good questions
  • With a good briefing and by checking in regularly, everything you say will make sense

Mentors – download this article

Mentees – better questions for you

Solution focus – the secret sauce


Don’t let a good business crisis go to waste!

Hurricanes are a crisis. A murder charge is a crisis. So’s bankruptcy.


Most organizational crises are simply a construct – they are actually a learning opportunity.

Some organizations love a crisis to come bursting through the door.

It’s almost a competitive sport…you get extra points for making it sound like a deadly situation. “It’s a near catastrophe!” they tell their spouse arriving home late in the evening.

“The media are hounding us for answers…!’  “The team is ready to quit…”  ‘The union’s threatening action if we don’t….!”

Meetings are called to amplify the crisis, look for unexploded bombs and root causes and ‘get some answers on the table!’

‘When things go right it’s hard to figure out why, but when things go wrong it’s really easy.’ – Steven Soderbergh

Other organizations make a crisis an exercise in denial. They examine every issue in excruciating detail. Horrified, instead of responding, they delay decisions and live to survive another day.

The most blatant example of a manufactured crisis was the demise HP’s leadership by a board who know how to make a monkey of themselves.

If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame. – Unknown

What do you do when things appear to be going sideways? Slow down and try this solutions driven approach. 

1. Don’t underrate the possible severity of the current situation, but do clarify and contextualize it:

Despite the crisis, what’s working? Overall? Around the problem?

On a scale of 1 (really bad) to 10 (we’ll thrive), where are we?

If the number is low, say 2, ask, ‘How come it’s not a 1, or a -1?’

2. Get people to think of alternative scenarios – what will it be like when the problem no longer exists, or no longer dominates?:

Suppose things get better. What will that look like? (look at it from different stakeholder perspectives)

If there’s a hostile stakeholder, ask, ‘What will have happened to make them less hostile?’ (Without simply acquiescing to their demands)

What will we have learned to do differently in the future?

 3. Make some decisions about your goals and what action to take:

Suppose we learn and we make progress, what goals and strategies will we have set that get us there?

Thinking of the 1-10 number we gave ourselves, what small first steps would we see ourselves taking to move up one point? What will we do more of? What will we do differently?

Will this get you through most organizational crises? Yes, if you take them seriously, not literally. Some may actually be an organizational mistake. Regardless, turn them into organizational learning / development opportunities and speed up recovery.

And, don’t forget a good place to avoid creating a crisis is in meetings.


How to Let Small Changes Infect Big Organizational Change

Planned or not, change happens all the time. Have you considered that it’s the humans that have to change, not just the system that needs to change?

Organizational change is difficult and there’s been lots written on how it often fails. I’m not sure about ‘failure,’ but let’s save that for another time…

The systemic change plan:

Yes, a change plan, (or direction) is important. The organization needs clarity on how the goals, strategies, and broad actions necessary for change will actually happen. And a great communication plan helps. So, descending from the mountain with a change process helps support systemic change. Better still; engage your stakeholders in developing the change plan.

That said…

The small changes people plan (vs the planners). Things to consider:

A rigorous change plan can be an abstract and intimidating concept to most people. Perhaps they see what’s wanted, but can they see how to achieve the change? An old rule is that people have to see what’s in it for them (WIFM) – including the fear that they may not be with the organization for long. It’s helpful if they know their role in the process. And because change relies on new levels of collaboration, remember that everyone is trying to collaborate – just not each other’s way.

With lots of hard work the people in the organization may buy into the change, but at what level of consciousness?

All organizational change happens at the personal level. How do we get people to personally embrace and act on change?

In order to consciously adapt to new behaviours, people have to experience change in ways that resonate for them. So, training is useful, but it’s not the only answer to human change.

Organizational culture is often a fuzzy or abstract concept, or a statement of values that’s taken lightly. Can your organizational culture be more consciously understood and its role expressed in the plan?

Many new decisions – thousands of them – will have to take place. Will people see those decisions as a risk to themselves personally? Can we help them see that all decisions will be supported? And that some decisions will not ‘work,’ but are instead critical parts of the learning process?

Finally, when people worry about big changes they are often also concerned about small changes. Yet it’s the small changes that lead to the big shift. Help people make many small decisions to move forward.

Some Solution Focused questions to ask about that change plan you are working on:

# 1. What do we want to keep? What works (that we don’t want to disrupt by mistake)?   Do not skip lightly through this section. Break it down to the individual level.

# 2. Suppose the change happens, what will we be doing?   Illustrate the desired outcomes in terms of what people and relevant stakeholders will actually be doing. Sell them on that future, not the  goals. See it happening in stages.

Download file
Download file

# 3. How will we enable people to make small changes leading to the big changes?   Take the pressure of having to make it happen all at once. Start someplace small where everyone can both participate and witness the change

What have I missed?


Forget the decision making. Think solution outcomes.

I know an organization that consciously avoids decision making. It’s their default position and it seems as though they’re always losing ground. Compare that to Apple’s Steve Jobs legacy of arrogant decisiveness!

Organizations make a vast aray of individual and collective decisions. Yet, save for a few like Richard Branson many give little thought to the issue!

Authors Gary Williams and Robert Miller note that executives have a default style of decision making developed early in their careers and fall into one of five categories of decision making styles:

  • Charismatics are easily intrigued and enthralled by new ideas, but make decisions based on balanced information
  • Thinkers are risk-averse and need as much data as possible before coming to decisions
  • Skeptics are suspicious of data that don’t fit their worldview and, thus, make decisions based on their gut feelings
  • Followers make decisions based on how other trusted executives, or they themselves, have made similar decisions in the past
  • Controllers focus on the facts and analytics of decisions because of their own fears and uncertainties

Jeff Goins gives us some insights from the writer’s perspective: When You Don’t Know What to Do

  • Just pick something. Be honest. Very few choices in life are make-or-break decisions. Hard to believe, but sometimes there is no wrong choice. You just need to do something.
  • Move forward. Don’t get stuck in self-doubt or feeling sorry for yourself. The best way to beat indecision is to build momentum. No hesitation, just motion. Move.
  • Accept the consequences. If you fail, own it and move on. There’s nothing productive about wallowing in self-pity. Don’t be burdened by regret. Fail forward. Learn from your mistakes. And move on to the next choice.

What’s your decision making approach?

Here is a simple solution focused approach to help with outcomes-based decision making:

Ask youself (and your colleagues) the following questions:

  • Suppose a year from now (or your time frame) this decision was a good one, what would be happening? How would it be helping me? How would it help others? What would be my first steps towards implementing the decision?
  • Suppose I chose not to make this decision what would be happening (time frame) from now? How would that choice be helping me and others?
  • Thinking of the two answers rank each on a scale of 1-10, 1 being least appealing and 10 being ideal. Compare and decide.

In other words…

think first about solution outcomes…

not just the decision!