You’ve Got This!

Panorama Of Empty Baseball Field At Night From Behind Home PateI have been hearing “industry experts” report that we are facing “unprecedented levels of change” for more than a quarter-century. Such pronouncements can cause a great deal of stress, and likely more than a few sleepless nights, for conscientious leaders committed to helping their organizations succeed. But . . . what if the experts are looking at it all wrong?

I lead a 165-year-old organization, and as I look back over our history it appears that significant amounts of change have been going on ever since 1853. Unprecedented means, “never done or known before.” People, we have done change! Yes, the circumstances are different, the speed at which occurs may be faster, but change is not an unprecedented thing . . . and when we act like it is, all we accomplish is to increase our angst, foster uncertainty in our staff and undermine our ability to respond most effectively.

Change is a process and there are specific steps you can take to increase your likelihood of achieving your desired outcome (I recommend John Kotter’s work as a good starting point). Here is what the industry experts don’t tell you — effectively managing change is far more about you than it is about any external factors that may be “unprecedented.”

Consider it through the lens of baseball. When you step up to the plate to bat, you may face all kinds of pitchers. Some throw right-handed, some left. Some pitch at speeds you may have never seen before, others have a change-up that can catch you off guard. The strike zone may be a moving target depending on the umpire, the sun might be in your eyes or the wind blowing dust in your face. The catcher may crowd you and the spectators may be creating distracting levels of noise. And even with all of these variables — some of which you may not have encountered before — your batting average is largely a result of what you do and not the uncontrollable factors swirling around you. Don’t allow yourself to get psyched out by the spectator (who may even see himself as an expert) shouting, “swing batter swing,” or by the reputation of the pitcher, or a host of other variables. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.

Change becomes overwhelming when we focus more of our attention on what we can’t control instead of what we can. Yes, pay attention to what is going on around you, adapt if you need to, and then bring your focus back to what you can impact . . . the specific steps you can take. What you focus on grows. Focus on what you know and what you can control.

Unprecedented? Not so much. You’ve got this!

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Springtime Snows

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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!

Bite-Sized​ Pieces

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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.

Mere Mortals

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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.

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.

Making Room

Available Room Sign On Board

As Christmas approaches, regardless of your faith tradition, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from the birth of the Christ child. One that stands out to me at this particular moment in time is the concept of making room.

Jesus was an illegitimate child born to lowly foreigners who were seemingly ill-equipped to care for their child. To say they would be considered an “at risk” family was probably an understatement. And yet, from such humble beginnings came one of the greatest leaders of all time. Can you make room in your concept of who is “leadership material” to open the door to an unlikely candidate who brings something totally new to the table?

Much of the buzz about the Christ child was coming from people who really didn’t grasp the big picture, you know, uneducated shepherds. Granted, there were those wise men, but they were from another country and really didn’t understand King Herod’s strategic goals. Surely if he reasoned with them, they would understand the need to get things back on course . . . Easy to see the flaws in Herod’s approach in hindsight, but can you make room amid your well-laid plans to pivot when an unexpected distraction (um, opportunity) presents itself?

Logical, rational thinking would not have supported the conclusion that people throughout the world would still be talking about this seemingly random, inconsequential (well except for the star thing, but certainly that could be explained away) occurrence more than 2000 years later . . . and yet they are. Can you make room in your performance-based, metric-centric, fact-driven lens to pay attention to passion and potential, to look past probability to see possibility?

It is much easier to say no to making room. Truly, the Inn Keeper had no more space available — at least not what one would typically think of as space that could be used for lodging. Making room often requires a leader to look at things a bit differently than most people would see as typical or reasonable or necessary. Making room requires getting people to change their ways, at times having uncomfortable conversations, and not being certain of exactly how things will turn out.

At its core, making room is a decision of the heart . . . based on values, and mission, and an aspirational vision of the kind of place you want your organization to be. Making room takes courage, and faith in what could be, regardless of how unlikely something might appear at the outset. Making room is really what leadership is all about.

My hope for you this holiday season, and into the New Year, is that you take a moment to pause, look around, and consider where you should be challenging yourself and your organization . . . by making room.

Pieces of Perfection

Christmas Tree

I have a collection of porcelain Christmas ornaments that I have had for a number of years. They were all gifts that highlighted important moments in my life. Each year, I would carefully place them on our tree, making sure they were secure on the branch. And then one year, one of them fell, bouncing from branch to branch in a seemingly slow motion journey to the floor. After the initial pain of seeing something I held dear in pieces on the floor, I had a decision to make. Throw away the broken ornament and maybe look for a replacement, or try to glue the figurine back together as best I could, knowing it would never be the same?

As I pulled the scarred ornament out of its box this year, and positioned it on the tree so the unrepairable hole in the back was less obvious, I recognized that while it was less perfect than the other ornaments in the collection, it never fails to make me smile. As leaders, in our quest to have everything run perfectly, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes the most imperfect part of our work can actually have the most meaning. That is where our effort can have the biggest impact.

Maybe your challenge isn’t gluing together broken pieces. It could be deciding whether to replace a fading ornament with something new, or taking a big risk to totally turn the tree upside down without knowing for sure how it will turn out. Too often, we unnecessarily set ourselves up to fail by making perfection the goal . . . in all things . . . at all times. Perhaps the best way to find fulfillment as a leader is to instead look for pieces of perfection . . . which may, in fact, be quite different than what you originally envisioned. It could be

. . . Improvising with Plan B when Plan A fell apart, and having it surpass all expectations

. . .Thinking you could never replace a key player who walked away, only to have an even better fit step to the table.

. . . Falling short on the original goals of a project, but making a connection that led to even bigger opportunities.

Pieces of perfection come into view when we let go of some preordained picture of what success is supposed to look like. Not to lower the bar on the impact you are trying to have, simply to recognize that there may be any number of ways to get there.

My Christmas tree is filled with mismatched ornaments, tarnished ones, and aging grade school creations that make my sons cringe . . . all hanging along side shiny new additions, and of course my porcelain figurines. I’m certain a designer would not call it a perfect tree. I’m equally sure that it is filled with meaning . . . and pieces of perfection.

 

Big Yellow Hats

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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.

Lessons from the Blarney Stone

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I have kissed the Blarney Stone. Perhaps this will come as no surprise to those who know me. What may be a surprise, however, is that far more than simply endowing one with the gift of gab, this experience can also grant a glimpse into fundamental, but often unspoken, reality of leadership.

It is a journey to get there. Many people assume that the Blarney Stone is on the ground — that they simply have to arrive at Blarney Castle, take a leisurely stroll, maybe wait in line a bit, and then kiss the stone. Umm . . . not so much. The Blarney stone is on top of the castle ruins, and you have to climb up four stories on narrow winding stairs to get there. Likewise, there is a tendency to think that simply because someone has been placed in a position of leadership they have arrived at the destination. Little do they know that it’s a trek filled with twists and turns and uneven steps before one reaches the ultimate destination. Being placed in a position of leadership is akin to making it to the grounds of Blarney Castle. You’re moving in the right direction, but you’re not there yet.

Lots of people think they want to do it. Many people just assume if you’re going to Ireland, kissing the stone will be part of your itinerary. Even when you get to the castle grounds, you hear people buzzing about it. Then comes the realization of what it takes to get to the Stone. The crowds start to thin. Some people start the climb, but then opt out after a story or two. Others get all the way to the top, see what is really required, and then keep walking. Only a portion of those who started willingly take the plunge. I often hear concerns of how few are stepping up to take on leadership roles. As much as people may talk about wanting to lead, they ultimately may decide it’s not for them. That’s okay. That doesn’t make them less valuable to the organization. It simply means this is not the path for everyone.

Even when you get there, there will be moments of questioning your sanity. Look at the picture above. See the glimpse of blue through a hole at the top of the ruin. Yep, that’s where it is . . . on the outer ledge of that opening. To reach the stone, you have to sit on the edge, lean over backwards and out to actually reach the thing. But not to worry, there is a tiny little Irishman (who is 80 if he is a day) sitting there to hold your legs. And there are a couple bars and a bit of chicken wire to help break your fall should you lose your balance. Why would anyone want to do this? Good question. The best answer I have (at least when it comes to leadership) comes from Parker Palmer who said, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’” Leadership is a vocation that not everyone is called to, and even if you are, that does not mean it’s an easy path.

A family member snapped a picture of me as I was kissing the stone. The look on my face is one of determination tinged with a bit of terror. The fact that those emotions were quickly followed by a huge grin doesn’t mean they were any less a part of the experience. Leadership is a tough, scary, at times lonely, and ultimately amazing journey that is worth every step . . . and that’s no blarney!

Unintended Messages

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As a leader, you are sending messages all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes the message you think you’re sending is not the message that people are receiving. How does that happen? It all comes down to intent and context – your intent and their context.

You know what you are trying to accomplish — your intent. But unless those you hope to lead are mind readers, they may see your “what” but not your “why.” For example, you may have some team members you have not been spending as much face time with as others (the what). Your intent (the why) may be that you know they are doing a great job, and frankly they just don’t need that much guidance from you (in other words, you think you are sending a positive message) or maybe there is another “hot spot” that requires more of your attention (a neutral message), or it just doesn’t occur to you that your actions are sending a message at all (hint, you are always sending a message).

Depending on their context — their past experiences, perception of the current environment, personality, what they have going on outside of work — your people may interpret the “what” (in this example, not spending as much face time) as a negative rather than the positive or neutral message you intended. They might interpret your “what” as meaning that you see their role as less important, you are not as excited about what they are contributing to the mix, or something else entirely.

How can you make sure that the message you think you’re sending is, in fact, the one your people are receiving? Tell them your intent. Such an easy way to avoid an unintended message, but one we leaders often overlook. We tell ourselves that, “they know you . . . (trust them . . . need to focus your energies on a unique opportunity . . . fill in the blank that applies to you). I’m here to tell you, that whole expectation of mind-reading staff really doesn’t work out so well. Tell them your intent.

And how are you supposed to know the myriad of factors (the context) that may impact how someone interprets your actions? Well for starters, once people understand your why, many of what you would consider to be “misinterpretations” are easily cleared up. When you tell people your intent, one of three things can happen 1) something that made no sense to them now does; 2) they have the opportunity to ask questions, share their perspective or offer an alternate suggestion; or 3) they still have a different interpretation of your message, but at least you are aware of it and have a chance to respond. Simple step . . . big impact.

What unintended messages are you sending to those you hope to lead?