Trade-Ups, Not Trade-Offs

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As leaders, part of our responsibility is to maximize the resources before us. And yet, far too many leaders squander what could be one of their greatest assets — the diversity of experiences and perspectives among their staff — because they think their view of how the world works is THE right perspective. Peter Senge refers to such deeply held internal images or perspectives as “mental models,” and we are often unaware of how they may be influencing our actions until we bump into someone else’s view of the world that is different from our own. When that occurs, many people default to an assumption that “I am right, so you must be wrong.”

What if instead of taking an either/or approach, we considered both/and? Roger Martin refers to people who leverage diverse viewpoints as integrative thinkers. Leaders who are willing to walk through the tension of opposing ideas have the opportunity to draw on the wisdom of multiple perspectives to arrive at a solution that is stronger than any of the initial stances. In effect, the outcome can be a trade-up, not a trade-off.

Make no mistake, working for the trade-up can be messy. It takes a strong, confident leader to hold the reins of a diversity of perspectives while keeping the team focused on the collective end goal. And yet, that is a critical part of the equation if you want 1+1 to equal 3. Trade-offs are about winners and losers — 1+1-1=1. And while that approach may seem quicker and easier, when trade-offs are a leader’s standard response, you will eventually lose the engagement of a chunk of your people. They will start (actively or passively) working against you rather than with you. Trade-off indeed.

So how do you start in your effort to trade-up?

  • Decide. The first step is for a leader to decide — and clearly communicate — that you are going for the trade-up, not the trade-off. Otherwise, it is too easy to settle when the going gets tough.
  • Listen. Not to rebut someone’s position, but to hear what they are saying. How are their experiences or perspectives different from your own?
  • Inquire. Genuinely seek to understand someone’s feedback to your own perspective. Repeat back to them what you are hearing to ensure your defenses aren’t skewing the feedback.
  • Invite. Invite all involved to search for solutions that take various perspectives into account and result in a stronger option than any of those originally presented.

Trade-ups may seem less efficient… in the beginning. However, working toward a common goal rather than against “the other side” builds a momentum and a long-term framework for success that allows you to leapfrog ahead of those focused on either/or. I’ll take 3 over 1 any day.

Trade-up or trade-off. The choice is yours.

 

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The Right Answer

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Most of us have been “taught” that the path to success is to find the right answer. In our formal education, we typically received a good or not-so-good grade based on whether we could come up with the right answer. We landed the job, at least seemingly, because we gave the right answers. We were given the opportunity to take on a leadership role because…well…we were good at providing the right answers. It can be a rude awakening, then, to realize that as one’s leadership responsibilities grow, the number of “right” answers starts to shrink.

As Marshall Goldsmith noted, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Leadership isn’t about the black and white of right or wrong answers. There are lots of smart, talented people in your organization who can make those calls. Leadership is all about living in the gray of possibility and potential, assessing and adapting, and recognizing that even if you look at the exact same trends and listen to the same experts, the best answer for your organization might be totally different from what would work somewhere else.

Leadership is all about searching for, and taking the risk to implement, the best answer not the right one. Semantics? Not really. Because if you are waiting for the clear “right” answer, you won’t be leading, you’ll be following. The “best” answer in the moment takes into account the external environment and expert opinion — balanced against your strategic goals and the internal gifts and graces of your organization — mixed with a wildcard of variables including insight from sources unrelated to your work, individual passion, other priorities, and a healthy measure of gut instinct (otherwise known as a nudge from your innate wisdom regarding the best way forward).

If that seems like a lot of moving parts, you’re right, it is. But here’s the good news: the best answer is not carved in stone. “Best” is more flexible and adaptable to new knowledge, giving you a greater probability of success. Whereas “right” either is or isn’t, “best” is relative. Tomorrow’s best may be better than today’s.

 One final note — making the best decision requires a leader to commit to a direction without any guarantees — that’s the job. So if you’re looking for the right answer for how to lead, here it is: You have to decide.

Know Your Batting Order

Have you ever been stressed out by trying to keep too many balls in the air, and all at once you run across something so simple and so profound that it stops you in your tracks? Yep, me too. In fact, I was recently reading a blog post by Anne Lamott when three little words jumped off the page . . .

“Grace bats last.”

I love that! First and foremost because I count on receiving a measure of grace in my own life, but also because those three words provide so much guidance to us as leaders.

If you are in a position of leadership, sooner or later (or both) you will be called on to make a difficult decision — one that is not popular, and maybe even has a negative impact on someone else. That’s part of the job, but how you carry out such decisions can make a huge difference in how you are perceived as a leader.

I think far too often, we get the batting order mixed up. We start out by being overly flexible, willing to negotiate expectations, trying to be patient and accommodating at all costs . . . until we reach the end of our rope, we’re done, we draw the line, and we’re the bad guy. What if, instead, we set clear guidelines/boundaries/expectations at the beginning, and consistently held people accountable to those. When that happens, you separate out those situations that are never going to work from those that really could. And if a situation that looks promising needs a bit of a concession, a measure of grace, you will still have the energy and ability to accommodate a special circumstance.

Even when you have to make a decision that will be hard to some to accept, I believe the best leaders find a way to offer a measure of grace in the process. Make the difficult decision, yes, and then carry it out with great kindness. Be more generous than you have to be in the process. Sure, some will think you’re soft, but most will see you as fair, and someone they want to work with . . . You know, the whole Golden rule thing . . .

Lastly, we may occasionally need to remind ourselves that grace bats last for us as leaders, too. Our impact is more than the sum of a single decision or action. Too often, I’ve seen leaders afraid to swing at an opportunity because they fear they may strike out based on a single action. While I suppose there are circumstances where that could happen, in most cases, we will be judged by the long view, by the total sum of our actions.

So take that swing, do what you know you need to do, and then let grace bat last.

Note: Originally posted on July 15, 2015

If the Shoe Fits

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Have you heard the story of about the owner of a shoe store back in the 1890s? He had been hearing about the many people in Africa and thought perhaps that would be a good place to expand his business. He sent two sales people on a ship to explore the potential. One went to the East coast of Africa, one to the West. Shortly after they landed, the owner received a telegraph from the first sales person. “All hope is lost. No one here wears shoes.” Shortly after that, the owner received a telegraph from the second sales person. “Huge opportunity. No one here has shoes yet.”

Which salesperson are you?

 It is easy to get stuck in a single perspective, especially when you have been successful as a result of that point of view. There is a reason why innovative ideas tend to come from upstart companies (or people inside the organization who dance to the beat of their own drum). When something is working, it may seem foolhardy to disrupt the status quo… except the status quo will eventually get disrupted. The only question is if it will be by you or someone else.

For those who saw a bit of themselves in the first sales person, who aren’t naturally wired to step outside of what seems self-evident or to turn logic on its ear, how do you start to look at things differently? Sometimes changing your perspective  – even slightly – can make a huge difference in seeing new possibilities. So how do you go about changing your perspective?

• Read something from authors who offer a counter-intuitive perspective. I would suggest Daniel Pink’s Flip Manifesto or A Brief Guide to World Domination by Chris Guillebeau. Both are quick reads, and even if you don’t act on any of the ideas, they will stretch your thinking in new directions.

•  Find those “disrupters” in your company (every organization has at least one) and rather than trying to get them to conform, listen to their ideas and perspective. Again, you have the choice of whether to act on any of the suggestions, but at the very least, let their point of view stretch your own.

•  Look at the skills and competencies of your staff, as opposed to the roles they currently fill, and consider if those skills could be used differently, or to address a different challenge. Another option is to look at trends in other industries and ask what would happen if you applied those same ideas to your industry.

These are but a fraction of the things you can do to change your perspective about the opportunities before you. The first step is to recognize that you need to. Maybe you need to stop and ask yourself…if the shoe fits.

Refueling the Tank

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On my way home from work last night, the fuel light came on in my car. At first I was a bit surprised at how quickly the gas gauge had dropped over the last few days — it didn’t seem like it should be running that low. When I stopped to consciously think about the numerous “short trips” I had made in recent days, however, it wasn’t surprising that my tank was almost dry.

How nice it would be for us as leaders to have a “fuel light” that would automatically come on when we were getting close to an empty tank. Sometimes we lose track of all the things pulling on our time and energy and which deplete the gas we have for the trip ahead. Unless we consciously keep track of our fuel levels, leaders may find themselves running out of gas sooner than they expected, and often at the most inopportune times.

Most of us actually can monitor the fuel we have available for the journey before us if only we take the time to pay attention.

•  Look at your map— your schedule — for the week ahead. Most vehicles (that’s you) can only travel so many miles before they run out of gas. How many “miles” are on this week’s schedule? Where along the way do you plan to fill up your tank? The more miles you have to travel, the more fill-ups you need. Yes, I know you may feel like you don’t have the time. That is exactly when you need to be most conscious about refueling… or you may just find yourself stranded and out of gas halfway to your destination.

 •  Fill up when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes, the best time to fill up is when you still have a half a tank of gas left. Maybe you are in the vicinity, it is a “brand” that you especially like, or you know there is a long stretch of road ahead and refueling now will reduce the stress later in the trip. Give yourself permission to fill up now. No one ever said you have to wait until your tank is on empty to refuel.

•  Know your fuel gauge. Sometimes, the second half of your tank drops a lot faster than the first half. Lots of starts and stops or rapid acceleration uses more gas than the same number of miles traveled on an open road. Different types of fuel may result in a different level of performance. And of course, it is always helpful to know how many miles you can actually travel once your fuel light comes before your tank is totally empty.

You may not have the advantage of a fuel light to let you know when your gas is running low, but with a bit of attention you have the tools to gauge when it is time to refuel your tank.

Hindsight Visionary

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Have you ever noticed that “visionary leaders” are only identified as such after the fact…once their crazy, improbable, unrealistic idea that few thought was actually feasible has proven its worth?

What are the lessons for leaders in this observation?

 Sometimes our most “visionary” ideas seem crazy, improbable and unrealistic to others when we first propose them. Smart, experienced people whose opinion you value will point out the barriers to your idea, maybe even question the logic of what you are considering. They will probably be right…and sometimes leaders have to put logic in a box…not forever, but at least long enough to establish the potential upside should you succeed with said crazy idea.

It is also important to note that most visionary leaders don’t start out trying to be visionary. They start out trying to address an issue that has not been solved by applying logic. As Albert Einstein once noted, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere else.” Logic feels safer, but often times the answer lies “somewhere else”.

New ideas can be challenging, risky, even painful, and yet a visionary leader’s commitment to finding a solution has to be stronger than the comfort of what they know. It is a leader’s job to envision a way forward, and then to paint a picture for others so they too can see the potential for success.

Finally, visionary leaders decide. Once they have shared the vision, listened to the logical arguments and considered both the potential risks and rewards, leaders have to make the call. The world is full of dreamers who did everything but this final step in the process. There are no guarantees. Sometimes, you just have to leap: not blindly — it can and should be a calculated risk — but you still have to make a choice to step away from what you know based on the belief of what could be. True, you might come up short…and then again you might not. You won’t know until you try.

You will only be considered visionary in hindsight. First, you have to be willing to take the leap.

Charge or Hang Back?

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If you spend much time at softball or baseball games, you are likely to hear a coach or enthusiastic spectator encourage the players to “charge the ball” so they can (in theory) make the play/get the out as quickly as possible. It’s a great strategy . . . sometimes. Other times, because of an odd bounce or the angle or speed of the ball, the player who hangs back can make the adjustments necessary to make the best play. How does a player know when to charge the ball and when to hang back? Instincts, confidence, and practice . . . lots of practice.

The same holds true for a leader. Sometimes we have to “charge the play”, to make a quick instinctual assessment and move to where we thinkthe opportunity will be. This can result in a clear competitive advantage. It can also result in an error if the situation bounces in an unanticipated direction. Hanging back to see how things play out can besmart in some situations. In others, this strategy will allow competitors to get on base and score ahead of you. So what is a leader to do?

  • Consider the conditions of the field.

Is it your “home field” that you know well or somewhere you have never played before? Can you gauge how things are likely to “bounce” on the infield (what trends can you identify)? Are there distractions like the sun in your eyes or wind blowing the dirt on the infield (other program challenges or low morale)?

  • Consider the opportunity.

What is the score, the inning and the number of outs? Can you afford to hang back and make the safe decision, take the easy out?  There is nothing wrong with that if the conditions allow it. In fact, this can be a good strategy to keep from wearing your staff out. In other situations, you need to speed up the game or make some critical plays if you are to win the game.

  • Consider your capacity and that of your team.

Are you and your team energized and ready to go? Is everyone on their toes, prepared to make the quick play and back each other up? Or have you been going at full tilt for a long time and starting to wear out? Is it the bottom of the ninth with two outs and you have to dig deep to make it happen?

Once you have considered these variables, you have to commit to charging or hanging back. Not sort-of-make a decision (waffling doesn’t win games) . . . commit. And sometimes you will make the wrong decision. That is where the practice part comes in. Stay in the game. Try again. You only get better by working at it. That is where leadership instincts and confidence come from — practice, lots and lots of practice.

The opportunities are there. The decision is yours. Charge  . . . or hang back?

Fitting Into Your Britches

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At the risk of dating myself, when I was growing up it was fairly common for one to be cautioned not to “get too big for your britches.” Consider it a Midwestern reframe of the admonition from Proverbs 16:18 that “Pride goeth . . . before the fall.” It seems that a growing number of people in positions of leadership today could use a reminder of that basic principle. It is not about you . . . really.

I understand that there can be a whole lot of gray in the world of leadership. You chart a course for your organization . . . things go well, you’re hearing positive feedback that you are on the right path . . . you feel emboldened to move farther down that path, downplaying the voices of caution because, well, just look at all of your (umm . . . your organization’s) accomplishments.  It is about this time that one of those voices of caution might be coming from inside, pointing out that your britches are getting a bit tight.

It is true that when you are in a position of leadership, you have to make hard decisions that some might not agree with. The fact that the call is yours to make, however, in no way means it is okay to stop listening to others. You are able to make the best decisions, in part, because you consider views that may differ from your own. Your primary goal is to make the best choice for your organization. Why would you not want to hear a range of opinions?

It takes a confident leader, whose britches fit well, to seek the insight of those who have a different perspective. Being respectful of someone who sees things differently than you do is a reflection of your leadership not a validation of their argument. Jim Collins talks about Level 5 Leadership, which is the balance of personal humility and fierce resolve on behalf of your organization. That’s the trick to make sure you don’t get too big for your britches. The focus should be on getting it right for your organization, not you being right.

 Oh, and one more thing . . . just like staying in good physical shape, deciding not to get too big for your britches can’t be a one-time decision. You have to make an awareness of the slippery slope of over-confidence an on-going part of your leadership journey. Sure, we all go there once in a while — consider it your periodic hot fudge sundae — but on a day-in, day-out basis, keep the focus where it belongs – on your organization – and you won’t have to worry about fitting into your britches!

Gutsy Leadership

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There are days that my inbox seems to be overrun with emails from people who have discovered the perfect system for time management, employee motivation, dealing with problem staff . . . you name the challenge, and someone has a 7-step plan to address it. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in continuous learning and finding strategies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of my work. I also believe there is no one strategy or approach that works for everyone, and it concerns me when I see leaders second-guess their innate wisdom because an “expert” suggests a different approach. (Apparently, after a certain age, some of us no longer hear parental whispers in our ear asking, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge . . .”)

 Trust your gut. That is where your innate wisdom lies. People of faith may experience God’s guidance through such twinges. Think about it. When individuals challenge each other with the phrase “have you got the guts” or comment that something “took guts”, they are usually talking about something more than “nerve”. They are talking about courage . . . conviction . . . resolve . . . the willingness to make decisions others would be hesitant to make because you were compelled by an internal nudge. The wisdom of your gut.

A few items to note related to gutsy leadership:

•   Your gut is not going to scream over all the external noise going on in your life. You have to get quiet enough, for long enough, to let the message unfold. That can be hard with deadlines and distractions and a to-do list that is a mile long.

•  Listening to your gut can be hard because may not tell you what you want to hear. Go ahead . . . try to argue with it. I have found that inner pull to be pretty persistent and to possess an enviable track record for being right.

•  You can usually back up that nudge with facts and a plausible plan for the path you are choosing to pursue, which helps you — and everyone else impacted by the decision — feel more comfortable moving forward.

•  When you try to rationalize your way out of what you know in your gut to be true (which we all try to do from time to time), just realize that you will probably get another chance to make the right decision, even if that means digging your way of the hole you created by making convincing yourself to make the wrong one.

 Leadership is not a black and white endeavor. It requires a sharp mind and a heart that is open to following one’s innate wisdom. Do you have the guts?

The Choice is Yours

Concept of choice with crossroads spliting in two waysI have a tendency to get frustrated with people in positions of leadership who, when faced with a difficult situation, default to telling their team that, “We don’t have a choice.” You always have a choice. You may not like the choices before you. There may be a high cost for a choice, financial or otherwise. You may wish you weren’t the one who had to make the choice. But, you always have one.

You are the leader. People are looking to you to see how they should respond. Even when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, make the choice. Don’t default and let “them” make the decision for you. (You know, them . . . those people who are telling you that you “have to” do whatever it is you would rather not do.) There is a confidence, a sense of control, that comes when you consider all the options, good or bad, and pick one. No one is doing it “to you”. You are not a helpless bystander in someone else’s plan. The choice is yours.

Even when you find yourself in the midst of a situation, not of your making, you can still choose how you respond. You can wallow in the midst of it all, proclaiming that it is not your fault (which it very well may not be), or you can put one foot in front of the other and walk your way out of the situation. You’ll likely have a lot of company in “ain’t it awful land”, but people want their leaders to chart a course to a better place. And the best way forward is usually to decide to take a step . . . and then another. You can always course correct along the way if you need to, but momentum favors the person who is moving. Sometimes, the best solution comes three steps in, and you never would have seen it if you didn’t choose to move forward.

I am a big believer in plans, and yet sometimes perfecting the plan can become a way to avoid making a choice. “Oh, we will (fill in the blank) as soon as soon as we work out all the details.” So work them out. Make a decision, even a small one, that moves your effort forward. Leaders need to lead. That means choosing a destination, making the hard decisions if you need to, and then helping your people find a way forward. You are a leader. That’s what leaders do.

The choice is yours.