Springtime Snows

Snow ice cream on beautiful plate, closeup

I live in the Midwest. It is April. It has snowed the last three Sundays. Seriously, we made snow ice cream on Easter! Sometimes, during the season when you expect the crocuses and dogwoods and daffodils to start blooming, you get a snowstorm instead. And when that happens, you can whine, and complain, and wring your hands . . . or you can make snow ice cream.

Sooner or later, your best-laid plans are going to get snowed on. You can (and should!) plan and coordinate and attend to every detail within your control. The problem is, there are just so many variables that are outside of your control. When an unexpected storm rears its head and derails your plan, it is a leader’s responsibility to forge a new path forward. How do you prepare for Springtime snows?

  • Acknowledge that it can happen. If you expect that all of your plans are going to play out exactly as you have imagined, you set yourself up for disappointment. In effect, it is a leader’s job to bring a sweater, grab an umbrella, pack a snack . . . have a Plan B so you don’t miss a beat when the weather changes.
  • Embrace the change in your plans. When the Springtime snows happen, your people are going to look to you to see if they should be stressed, or worried, or upset. The energy you bring to the challenge at hand is contagious. Fake it until you make it if you have to, but it is a leader’s responsibility to embrace the change in plans, not wallow in what could have been.
  • Recognize the opportunity in the snow. When you embrace and make the most of unexpected situations, you just might be surprised by how often the results exceed what you would have achieved with your original plans. Years from now, I’m guessing we’ll be talking about the fun we had the Easter we made snow ice cream.

When you sign on to be a leader, you also sign on to the inevitable Springtime snows. Expect it, prepare for it, embrace it, and recognize that there can be untold opportunities hidden amidst the unexpected turn in the weather . . . if only you step forward to find them.

Springtime snows, while unexpected, can be absolutely beautiful . . . especially when viewed over a bowl of freshly made ice cream!

Advertisements

Bite-Sized​ Pieces

Apple Pie.png

Walk into any bookstore (okay . . . or peruse Amazon) and you will undoubtedly find a large section of books on management and leadership. Helping people hone their leadership skills has become quite an industry. Too bad generations of moms and grandmas didn’t copyright their advice to their children, because while we have dressed it up and come up with some impressive sounding new terminology, much of today’s leadership wisdom has its roots in the guidance we were given as children.

While the comparisons could fill volumes (and just might . . . stay tuned!), one important reminder for leaders who are overscheduled, with to-do lists that seem to grow of their own accord, is to cut your food into bite-sized pieces. Yes. I’m serious.

Too many of us look at the overwhelming portions on our plate and stew and stress over how we will ever get around to everything before us. We spend mental energy developing strategies for how we’re going to eat it . . . pushing things around on our plate in an attempt to make it appear more manageable . . . in some cases probably even hiding a few peas under the potatoes . . . which of course only postpones the inevitable. The only solution? Cut it into bite-sized pieces and start eating.

Sure, the proposal is going to take a lot of effort. Don’t double the time it takes, and triple the stress, by spending days fretting about how you’re going to get it done. Cut it up and start eating. Yes, reviewing the monthly reports is one of your least favorite tasks. Slice it down to size, eat it fast and get it over with rather than having it continue to stare at you from the middle of your plate. (Warning…the longer you look at it, the bigger it appears!)

Going to the other extreme doesn’t work either. Trying to take on too much at once — the equivalent of shoving giant pieces of food into your mouth — only creates a choking hazard. As a result, what might seem like the most efficient way forward can actually take longer, and cause more pain and suffering in the long run. Bite. Sized. Pieces.

Yes, this task would be a lot easier if you were the only one filling your plate. Unfortunately, leaders don’t always get to choose what lands on their platter, however, they do get to determine how to tackle what is before them. And as usual, Mom knew what she was talking about.

Bite-sized pieces.

It’s not about the Roar

Lion roaring, sitting, Panthera Leo, 10 years old, isolated on white
Originally published December 3, 2014

I have a plaque hanging over my desk that reads, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’. “

 I have lost count of the number of times that sentiment has given me comfort at the end of a particularly challenging day. Sometimes, leadership is about two steps forward and one step back. It’s about continuing to push on the flywheel, even when you don’t see any progress, because you know it is cumulative efforts that get things rolling. It’s about persisting in putting one foot in front of the other, even when the path is covered in fog. Courageous is not usually the word we think of to describe ourselves in such situations, but maybe it should be…

How many opportunities are lost because we don’t have the perseverance, the courage, to push on through the difficulties, setbacks, and disappointments? Or the courage to step out into the unknown, even though such a move could advance your mission? How many times is it dogged (courageous) determination, rather than singular pronouncements, that make the difference in achieving the win?

In some respects, roaring courage is “easier”. That courage we call on at a moment of crisis, or when we draw a line in the sand. Those moments when we have to act — when people look to us to roar — do take courage, but in many cases, the situation is forcing our hand. Not so with quiet courage. Quiet courage is about making the hard decisions even when it is likely that no one will notice. Quiet courage is about continuing through the challenges in your pursuit of a goal because it is too important to stop short. Quiet courage comes from that small, still, voice inside that won’t settle for less.

Most leaders will have to display roaring courage from time to time, but it is episodic. You make a roaringly courageous decision, and then do your best to get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Quiet courage is more of a characteristic, it’s how you approach your leadership responsibilities — or at least try to — day in and day out.

Quiet courage may be overlooked or mislabeled, but make no mistake, it is courage …

… After all, it’s not about the roar.

Mere Mortals

Measuretape

As a general rule, leaders tend to be high achievers. We like to set stretch goals for ourselves and strive for what we, or the all-knowing “experts in the field”, have identified as the ideal target, the emerging trend and/or the path to success in the future. That is not a bad thing per se . . . however in addition to measuring your performance against someone’s version of “the ideal”, it is also important to occasionally compare yourself to mere mortals. What exactly do I mean by that?

  • Have you ever listened to a webinar or gone to a training session that promised to highlight “cutting edge strategies,” only to realize that you have been doing those things for some time?
  • Perhaps you were concerned by the push for performance metrics, anxious that your outcomes would fall short, but discovered that you had more than enough data to meet expectations.
  • Maybe you were a bit intimidated by your perception of what a colleague had achieved and then learned that your accomplishments, while different, were certainly comparable.

You likely have your own examples. The point here is not that you should set your sights on a less lofty goal. Keep striving for the ideal, just don’t assume that everyone else is all that far in front of you. It is easy for some expert in a cozy office somewhere to tell you what you should be doing . . . sharing the advice with such confidence that it seems like everyone else must have it figured out. They don’t. So give yourself permission to quit measuring your performance against some imaginary perfect leader or organization. Of course, you shouldn’t overstate your place in the world either. That is why an occasional assessment of the progress of mere mortals is helpful.

A “mere mortal review” might light a fire under you if you are lagging behind. It might result in cutting yourself some slack if you are ahead of the game. At the very least, it will provide you with a more concrete and comparable sense of your performance in the real world. Once you have completed this check-up, please feel free to go back to striving for the ideal, setting the bar high and pushing to achieve more . . . because when you achieve more, you pave the way for all of us mere mortals to do the same.

Days Like This

CalenderThere will be days like this.

Your schedule was booked to the brim with meetings . . . on top of the project that had to be completed by the end of the day . . . and that was before three other things popped up that required your attention. It feels like distractions are undermining your ability to do your job. Except, if you’re a leader, the distractions are your job. What is being undermined is your well- laid plan that tied all of your leadership goals into a nice neat package.

More often than not, leadership doesn’t happen in a predictable, orderly fashion. It happens in the mess of drive-by comments, unexpected challenges and surprising opportunities. Sure, the planned things still have to happen, but if your goal is to eliminate distractions from your schedule you are going to be one frustrated leader. Embrace the unpredictability. Allow yourself to find the joy and potential in the unexpected. If you are too busy stressing over the fact that your plans have been derailed, you might totally miss the chance to have a significant impact on an individual or situation.

On days like this, your attitude can make all the difference. Will you focus on what didn’t get done or the people you were able to help? Will you let the interruptions ruin your day or find a way for them to add to it? You have the choice. You’re the leader. What kind of example will you set for those who look to you for how to handle life’s unexpected twists and turns?

What if, on days like this, you made a conscious decision to look on each distraction as an opportunity . . . to view the unexpected occurrence through the lens of possibility? At the very least, it will make the day less frustrating, and at best it can lead to a path far beyond what you might have achieved had you stuck with your original plan.

You may not always get to choose how your day unfolds, but do you do get to choose your perspective. Sometimes the greatest leadership opportunities start out as days like this.

Seeing It First

Businessman with binoculars spying on competitors.As leaders, we have the rare privilege and responsibility of peering through the fog to view the destination ahead. We have to see it first, and then help our teams embrace the path if we are to have maximum impact for our organizations. Of course, the way forward is rarely clearly marked or smoothly paved — if it were, there would be no need for a leader! How, then, does one go about clearly seeing the destination so you can bring it into focus for your team?

  • You won’t find your path by looking behind you. It is good to understand where you have been, and how that experience has shaped your team’s skills and potential. However, once you have identified these things, looking harder at the past does nothing to illuminate the way forward.
  • Use your mission as a compass. There is so much noise out there today, telling you that you “have to” go one way or another . . . here is the easy path . . . this route has the surest funding . . . “everyone” is going this way . . . Listen to what others are saying, but check your compass before you choose a trail.
  • Robert Frost had it right. Sometimes taking the road less traveled can make all the difference in extending your mission reach. There is some degree of risk in virtually every decision. If you understand your team’s unique gifts and graces, and you are clear on your mission, what may look like a risky option to others may actually be the most calculated and reasonable path forward.
  • Look up! You can’t see the mountaintop by looking at your feet. There is a time for checking your footing, but that time is not when you want to bring the destination into focus. You can be standing in one spot and see two totally different things depending on which direction you are looking. Look up.
  • Describe it, in detail. A leader can often see things from his or her vantage point that are not obvious to those on the front lines. It is our job, once we see the destination, to describe it in such a clear and compelling way that our staff members can see it too and are excited to make the trip with us.

Regardless of how foggy it may seem, an opportunity is out there. Before an organization can rally its efforts toward reaching the destination, however, a leader has to see it first.

Loosen the Reins

Riding a horse on a rural road. View from the horseIn the many years, I have watched my son work with horses, I have often heard him advise young riders to “loosen up on the reins,” to “give the horse his head.” For some young riders, there is the sense that the best way to maintain control of the horse is to hold the reins tight. While that may be appropriate in some situations, most of the time you will get a better result if you allow a bit of slack in the line — still hanging on, still guiding progress, but also allowing enough freedom for the horse to perform at its peak.

Too often, leaders seem to approach their task like that young rider. Keep the lines tight. No looking around, no veering off the straight line of some pre-determined course. Unfortunately, in the same way, a horse will toss its head and fight against reins that are held too tightly, a team or organization will push back against being unnecessarily constrained and thus unable to move forward most effectively.

The authors of Collective Genius put it this way: “The lesson for those hoping to lead innovation is clear. If you want to produce something truly new and useful, you cannot know — by definition — exactly where to go. That’s why leading innovation is not — cannot be — about being visionary.” Now I recognize that for some leaders, not knowing exactly where to go feels a bit like allowing slack in the reins while sitting on top of a 1,000-pound animal — scary, and not very safe. And it is your job to be visionary . . . right?!?

It is a leader’s job to achieve maximum long-term impact. Yes, that means providing direction and keeping our hands on the reins, but heaven help us if we as leaders are expected to have all the good ideas! If we hold the lines too tightly, we don’t allow the unique wisdom of individuals on our team to benefit the organization. Just as a horse will adjust course to avoid a hazard the person holding the reins might not see, we need our teams to have the latitude to bring their instincts, insight, and best thinking to the task at hand.

A leader should provide a clear destination and basic ground rules, and yet keep a light grip on the specific path forward. Yes, there will occasionally be missteps and things will need to be pulled back in a bit. That task is much easier if you haven’t made a habit of tugging on your people unnecessarily. Counter-intuitive as it may be, sometimes the best way to accomplish your goals is to take a deep breath and loosen the reins.

It’s Not About the Plan

Business Corporate Management Planning Team ConceptAt the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)

Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?

It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.

Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.

Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.

Gold Medal Leadership

bigstock--Gold MedalLike so many throughout the world, I have been watching the Winter Olympics and having discussions with my family about the kind of dedication it takes to spend your life working toward a goal that is dependent on a single performance. If you come up short, you have to wait four years for another shot at the prize. Upset stomach, headache, annoyance over some situation, nerves out of control … doesn’t matter … one shot … one chance to bring your very best (well okay, maybe you get three runs in some sports, but still only one day to make your mark.) If your leadership was judged based on your performance on a single day, would you approach the effort differently?

If the leadership gold medal was on the line, would you …

  • Bring your full focus to the task at hand, ignoring the ping of emails, thoughts of looming deadlines, conversations going on around you, or other random distractions?
  • Take extra care in monitoring the external conditions and making adjustments as necessary?
  • Replay the ultimate goal in your head so specifically that you know exactly what success looks and feels like?
  • Step forward boldly, confident in your abilities and your preparation for this moment?

Of course, the only way to make sure that you could do all of those things under pressure — at the moment of truth — is to practice them . . . day in and day out . . . until they become second nature. Sure, there will be days when you fall flat on your face, when you misjudge the environment around you, and when you get distracted from your goal. So you practice some more, improve your skills, and stretch for the next goal. Even gold medalists who continue to compete practice on a daily basis. They don’t get to sit on their laurels just because they had great success on a particular day — the gold medal performance from the last Olympics may not be enough to come out on top today because the bar is continually being raised.

Leadership is not a static skill that you either have or don’t have. It is a continual, competitive journey, and you never know which day is the day that you will be called to go for the gold on behalf of your organization. Of course practice, commitment, and hard work are no guarantee that you will achieve every goal, but without them, it is a pretty safe bet that you and your organization will come up short when you have the opportunity to go for the gold.