Get Out of the Way

No More ConceptSometimes as a leader, we create barriers to our own progress, and if we — and our organizations — are to maximize our potential, we first need to get out of our own way. Yes, I’m sure that you can easily think of a leader whose confidence appears to outpace his or her ability. Let’s just work with the assumption that those individuals are not likely to invest time in reading this leadership blog . . . and so for those who are reading, it seems quite plausible that you may at times underestimate your unique capabilities. Still unconvinced? Ask yourself . . .

  • Have you ever gone to a conference session and thought I (or my people) know all that and more/have more hands-on experience/could do that in my/our sleep?

 

  • Have you ever become aware of an organization that implemented a program you had considered but never acted on, that is being lauded as “ground-breaking”?

 

  • Have you ever believed a course of action could be really impactful, but after a few “no’s” you convinced yourself it would never happen?

 

  • Have you ever read a book or article that articulates something you have known for years but thought it sounded too simplistic so you never shared it?

 

  • Have you ever ignored what your gut was telling you because some “expert” recommended you move in another direction?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then chances are that you are selling yourself and your organization short, and you might want to consider getting out of your own way.

I am not suggesting you should adopt a self-congratulatory style or take on undue risk. I am suggesting you strive for what Jim Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership — personal humility coupled with professional will. Many leaders have one or the other. If you are heavy on the humility side (in many ways an admirable trait), that may at times keep you from shining a light on your organization’s unique capabilities and expertise. In other cases, there may be a tendency to think that others know what you know (not true) or assume that because something seems basic/logical/self-evident to you that others recognize it as well (also not true). If any of these things have a ring of truth to you, maybe it’s time to get out of your own way.

How? Start small. Share what you are thinking. It doesn’t have to be complex or perfect or groundbreaking (although it might be). Don’t try to be all things to all people. Get clear on your vision and then go all in — as only you can. Don’t let the fear of standing out, or being criticized hold you back. Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to our organization reaching its full potential is closer than we realize.

Get out of the way.

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Listen up!

bigstock--Listen upIt seems that listening is becoming a bit of a lost art, to everyone’s detriment. Without the ability to listen, we doom ourselves to never moving beyond the limits of our current thinking — and such thinking is limiting, regardless of how we might like to convince ourselves otherwise.

Listening is different than hearing. According to Merriam Webster, hearing is “the process, function, or power of perceiving sound.” This definition made me think of Charlie Brown’s teacher . . . waa wa waa wa wa. Yes, in today’s 24/7 environment, there is more sound out there to perceive than ever before. But are we listening, or do we simply see people’s mouths moving and filter what they are saying as good or bad . . . as supporting our position or challenging it?

Webster defines listening as “to pay attention to sound, to hear something with thoughtful attention, give consideration.” Giving consideration is a very different thing from perceiving sound. Which do you do most often?

Giving consideration isn’t about being “wishy washy,” or politically correct, or not having a strength of your convictions. To the contrary, the willingness to listen — really listen — requires a great deal of confidence. Are you confident enough to give thoughtful attention to a different perspective, and perhaps adjust your thinking a bit as a result? Are you confident enough to strive for the “best” in a situation rather than being “right”? (Best is about others, right is about you). Best comes from considering multiple perspectives . . . from listening . . . before you make a decision.

Leaders who don’t listen — who filter out input from anyone who doesn’t see the world as they do — often end up on an island of their own making, cut off from a large expanse of perspectives, insight, and potential. Islands can be cozy places, but they limit how far you can go. As a leader, if you find yourself on such an island (which happens more easily than you might think), what can you do? Listen.

Listening builds bridges. If all you are hearing is people who agree with you, then you need to ask for diverse perspectives. Seek to understand. Listening is not about waiting your turn to tell someone why he or she is wrong. It is about giving consideration, walking a mile in their shoes. Ultimately, you may not agree with the person or perspective, but by listening you start to build a bridge off that island. You expand your possibilities for future success. You lead.

Maybe it’s time to listen up.

Getting to the Other Side

Wooden footpath stairway in mystical deciduous forest disappeari

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The longer I have been on this leadership journey, the more profound this Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. quote becomes, largely because I have seen so many well-intentioned people just stop and hang out in the muck and confusion of the “complexity” rather than continue to push through to the simplicity on the other side. Maybe for some people, it is easier to remain mired down in the intricate details because that provides the cover for continued information gathering and considering of options rather than committing to a decision that might be the wrong one. For most leaders, however, I think they just don’t realize that simplicity is an option. It is.

Make no mistake, “getting to the other side” is not an easy task. You can’t just go there first. The simplicity on the other side is not the novice’s basic understanding, which is found on “this side” of complexity. It is recognizing the layers and complicated variables of the situation — most clearly understood by walking through the midst of it — and then distilling the multiple scenarios, contingencies, and possibilities down into a path to the other side. And there is a path, but it will only become obvious when you are intentional about looking for it.

Following are a few pointers for the journey:

  • It will feel like a “hot mess” when you are in the midst of it. This is where a bit of experience helps. Once you have made the journey a time or two, it is easier to trust the process (okay, maybe not easier, but I have learned to repeatedly remind myself . . . trust the process!). I have yet to get to the other side without first feeling like I would never get there. This is usually because I try to shortcut the journey and find the path forward without walking all the way through the complexity. Keep forging ahead.

 

  • Get all the layers and variables down — in writing — before you try to consolidate your thinking. There is something about getting everything in print, with input from multiple sources, that allows you to see patterns that elude you when simply talking or rolling things around in your mind. Don’t try to categorize as you go, just get it all down. Trying to fit everything into a box too soon can result in missing points of connection.

 

  • You can’t rush the process, and you need a deadline. Yes, I know this seems contradictory. In my experience, the deadline is necessary to push you through the process, but you also have to let things “percolate” for a while. Sleep on it. Leave it alone for a bit. Then come back to the information and trust that a path will emerge.

What needs simplifying in your organization? The journey may not be easy, but it is absolutely worth the effort. See you on the other side.

Explore!

Traveler Exploring Map With Compass In Sunny Forest In The MountPerhaps one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to think they have the answers . . . that they are experts . . . because then they quit trying to figure out what they don’t know. That is when leaders get blindsided by the “unknown unknowns”  — unexpected developments that never occurred to the leader, and that can totally change an organization’s reality. Basically, to quote a wise colleague, “Once you think you’re an expert, you’re sunk.”

If you are in a position of leadership, there will be plenty of people who will treat you as if you are an expert. They will ask your opinion, turn to you for solutions, and move forward based on what you tell them. In a situation like this, it is easy to start believing that your job is to provide the answers. It’s not. Your job is to ask the right questions . . . to be an explorer, not an expert.

Explorers seek out the unknown, forge new paths, find new connections, and ask “what if” and “why not.” Experts were convinced the world was flat and so quit looking for other possibilities.

Explorers can certainly have expertise — they just recognize that it is something they have, not someone they are. Explorers use what they know as stepping-stones. Their experience is a gateway to new discoveries, not a box to live in. When you are an expert, new information can challenge your credibility. When you are an explorer, new information is simply another piece of the puzzle.

If the expert chair suddenly feels a bit confining, how does one become an explorer? For starters, get out of the chair and try the following:

  • Identify your organization’s assumptions and reframe them as one possible reality — then look for others.
  • Ask staff throughout the organization what you should be thinking about.
  • Talk to a range of people outside your industry, listen to what they are thinking about, and consider how those ideas translate to your organization.
  • Think bigger than is reasonable. (i.e., ask someone to name something that is not possible, but would be really cool if it was — that kind of bigger).
  • Ask open-ended questions with no pre-conceived notions of the answer.
  • Don’t answer/respond/qualify. Just listen, reflect, inquire, and listen some more.
  • Repeat.

Finally, remember, exploration is a continuous journey. It is not a destination, which once attained provides a comfortable perch from which to dispense expert wisdom. It has ever-changing terrain and new vistas around each bend. It’s about discovery and insight, and yes sometimes stumbling or veering a bit off course. And it’s the only way to get from what we know today to what is possible tomorrow.

The world has plenty of experts. Be an explorer.

Back to School

Back to school background with books pencils and apple over chalkboard

We are officially in “back to school” season, where young people are returning to the classroom to, hopefully, expand their horizons. What about you as a leader? Is there a season to your learning? Do you actively seek out new information, or do you know all that you need to know to lead effectively? Even if you think learning is important, where does it fall on your priority list . . . really?

One of my takeaways from Andy Stanley when he spoke at the recent Global Leadership Summit 2017 was to be a student, not a critic. He spelled it out quite simply. “The moment you start criticizing, you stop learning. When you stop learning, you quit leading. When you quit leading, all the other leaders under you will go somewhere else.”

Pretty compelling case for being a student.

The question then becomes how best to do that. Stephen Covey highlighted how in #5 of the 7 Habits — Seek first to understand. Be curious. Ask questions . . . not to grill people who have a different perspective, or to prove them wrong. Ask with a sincere desire to understand. In fact, better than simply asking “Why?” (which at times can come off sounding like a dare or some kind of test), what if you instead stated, “Help me understand why you think that.” That change in phrasing shifts the onus from them proving that they are right, to you making the effort to grasp their perspective. It moves the conversation from one of defense to one of offense.

It makes you a student, not a critic.

And ultimately, students win. They win the best ideas, the best people, and the best long-term results. As Andy Stanley pointed out, “closed minds close minds.” If you as the leader are not open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, your people won’t be either. And even if you have the perfect solution for today’s challenges, guess what? The challenges of tomorrow are going to be different and will require different solutions.

Interestingly, the more successful we are, the harder it becomes to remain a student. Everyone is patting you on the back for all you have accomplished, you see the good that has resulted from your efforts, and it becomes pretty easy to feel like you have graduated. You’ve got the “straight A’s” to prove that you know what you’re talking about. Yep, sure enough, you aced yesterday’s test. Just don’t forget . . . there will be another, different, test tomorrow.

Maybe it’s time to head back to school.

Drink Up!

Water splash poured into a glass, blue background, refreshing, fLast week, I had the opportunity to spend two days absorbing nuggets of leadership wisdom from top experts at the Global Leadership Summit. Simulcast to hundreds of sites throughout the world, this annual showcase of leadership thought leaders provided a fire hose of insight and encouragement for the leaders in attendance. One fellow attendee, who follows this blog, commented that she couldn’t wait to see what I wrote about this week. Clearly, there was much rich content to chose from, but my biggest take away was not what any one speaker said, but what I felt during the event.

I felt thirsty. Well, actually, I didn’t realize I was thirsty until I started to drink in the suggestions, support and insight offered by those who took the stage. It’s not that I, and probably many of you, don’t have a full awareness of the need to drink in new knowledge and refresh one’s thinking. It’s just that we are so busy with the day-to-day tasks of leadership — of supporting others, striving toward important goals, and positioning our organizations to respond to the challenges before us — that it is easy for leaders to unwittingly go extended periods without replenishing themselves, and building up their reserves.

So how do leaders make sure that they stay “well hydrated” in terms of their own growth and development?

First and foremost, they need to give themselves permission. This sounds simple, but many leaders are wired to meet the needs of others first — taking a “leaders eat last” perspective — and it feels less urgent and/or selfish to prioritize time for growth and reflection for themselves. It’s not. There’s a reason that airlines advise parents to put on their oxygen masks first

Secondly, it needs to be a regularly scheduled — and guarded — time on your calendar. It is one thing to pencil it in, but if you approach your own development as an optional appointment that can be bumped at the first sign of a conflicting demand, it simply won’t happen. You will always be too busy.

Also, it is important to shake things up from time to time. I do a lot of reading and reflection on leadership topics. It is less common for me to listen to podcasts or attend seminars. Perhaps that is why the summit was so impactful for me last week — it was like using a different muscle, and so the information stuck with me in a different way.

Finally, I think the answers we are searching for as leaders shift along with our circumstances. As Heraclitus noted, you never step in the same river twice. The opportunities and challenges before us change from day to day, and so we become thirsty in new and different ways. Thankfully, there are lots of ways that we as leaders can stay hydrated. We just have to recognize the importance of staying hydrated . . . and then drink up.

Cruise Control

bigstock-Cruise Control.jpgFor those of you who spend a lot of time on the road, you know that cruise control is a great asset . . . sometimes. When you are driving long distances on a relatively flat stretch of road, you want to stay within clearly identified boundaries (i.e. speed limits), and you are willing to give up the control of having your foot on the gas pedal at all times, then the cruise control is an absolutely wonderful device. If, however, you are on very hilly terrain, making lots of starts and stops, or have widely fluctuating parameters, then using the cruise control is not such a good idea.

You also have to know when to use the cruise control on your leadership journey. For routine tasks — those long trips on flat ground with predictable conditions — by all means, put it on cruise. That may mean giving up a bit of control by delegating the job to someone (or something) else, or at the very least minimizing the time and energy you devote to the task. This can be hard for new leaders and perfectionists, and it’s certainly not required, but cruise control is one way a leader can lighten the load a bit.

At the other end of the spectrum is the leader who uses cruise control too much, and as an excuse for not paying attention. Have you ever been driving with the cruise on and suddenly realized you weren’t exactly sure where you were on the way to your destination or were caught off guard by something in front of you because you weren’t really focused on the road ahead? Your mind wandered a bit because, well, you had the cruise on . . .

For leaders, over-reliance on the cruise control may mean there is less attention to trends coming down the pike or the conditions of the road ahead. It can mean missing the landmarks that serve as guideposts to ensure you are still on the right path or feeling a bit invincible because the ride appears to be going so smoothly. Using the cruise control simply makes it easier to miss “the little things” that really aren’t so little in the long run.

The key is to know when to use the cruise, and when to manually manage the gas pedal. As with most of leadership, there are no hard and fast rules. It takes experience, individual judgment, and an awareness of the conditions around you to know if it is okay to cruise, or if you need to keep your foot on the gas. Cruise or control, manage or delegate . . . you’re in the driver’s seat. Lead on.

Big Yellow Hats

bigstock-Yellow-Rain-Hat-815670.jpg

When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

Growing Appreciation

IMG_0031Remember when your mom said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”? As usual, she knew what she was talking about.

As leaders, we often see it as our responsibility to fix what is “wrong” with our organization. We focus on problem-solving, thinking the fastest way to reach our goals is to eliminate our organizational shortcomings. Here’s the down side of that line of thinking: what we focus on becomes our reality. So if we focus on problems, on what is wrong, then that is what we see — often overlooking or giving less weight to those positive things that aren’t consistent with our problem-solving lens.

What if, instead, we focus our attention on appreciating what our organization does exceptionally well, and encourage our staff to do more of those things? That is the focus of Appreciative Inquiry, and the research on this change management strategy is compelling. According to Sue Annis Hammond high performing teams had a 6:1 “positivity” ratio. They focused on the positive, and doing more of what they did well, six times as often as they focused on deficits or doing less of what they did wrong. What you focus on grows. Take a day and truly listen to the conversations occurring in your organization. Make note of the positive or negative tone of the interactions.

• Are meetings and conversations dominated by commiserating and problem-solving, or is there a positive focus to the dialog?

• Is there fear and uncertainty or a sense of anticipation when staff talk about the future?

• When considering organizational change, is attention focused on the possibilities or the pitfalls?

• Is there a receptivity to learning and growing or a sense of helplessness to impact a situation?

• Is there an effort to reframe situations in positive terms or is the focus primarily on obstacles?

Based on your observations, consider if your organization is more appreciative or deficit-oriented. Negativity can easily creep in and suck the energy and forward momentum out of your organization. If that’s a situation you find yourself in as a leader, then maybe it’s time to get back to your mother’s wisdom and say something positive.

Even in the most challenging of situations, you can focus on the proven skills of your team to help move you to a more positive place. I remember an extremely challenging time in our organization where we repeatedly said, “Our organization is going to be stronger for walking through this.” We believed it. We walked through it. And we are stronger as a result. We used a positive lens and what we focused on — our ability to not just survive, but to thrive — grew. You already have the skills to do the same thing in your own organization. And the next time you see her, be sure to tell your mom thanks!

Your County Fair

The Clark County Fair And RodeoThis coming week is fair week in my county. That may not mean anything to you, but for me, the fair has helped shape who I am as a person and a leader. My experiences with 4-H (my own, with my children and from serving as a 4-H leader), volunteering for various fair activities and events, cheering on and building memories with family and friends . . . The fair helps remind me “where I came from” in the best of ways. Many of the people I interact with at the fair couldn’t care less what my title is, or even what I do for a living . . . it’s enough for them to know that I am “one of the Duncan girls,” and they would have no problem calling me out if they thought I was “getting too big for my britches.” Every leader needs a county fair.

Your “county fair” may be a special family tradition, an annual outing or event, or a regularly scheduled gathering of long-time friends. It’s a place where people know your story, where your ideas or input don’t carry any more weight than anyone else’s, and where people have no problem calling you a dork if you are being a dork (usually with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye). Other people may not understand the appeal, but “county fairs” tend to bring a sense of peace and renewal in the midst of a leader’s overflowing schedule. Ironically, it is those tightly booked schedules and ever-growing to-do lists that may prompt a leader to consider skipping their county fair. Don’t do it.

All of us as leaders need to find ways to stay grounded, authentic and humble. Far too many leaders spend so much time trying to be who they think they are supposed to be, or who someone says they should be, that they forget who they really are. “Who you are” brought you to this point. Don’t lose that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t grow, expand your skills, and at times change your perspective — you should do all those things. I’m talking about who you are at your core . . . your values, your experiences, your innate wisdom. Those are the things that bring depth to your leadership, and those are the things that get nourished at your county fair.

As rewarding as your leadership role may be, it is still hard work. If we are to bring our best efforts to those we serve, we also have to carve out time to make sure we stay grounded. One way to do that is by connecting regularly with those who know us outside the titles or positions we currently hold.

See you at the fair.