Seeing the Curve Ball

Baseball Pitcher Throwing focus on BallLast night, I went to my nephew’s baseball game. From where I was sitting, in an elevated position on the third base side of the field, it looked like some of the batters were taking rather poor swings at the pitches. Of course, had I bothered to move to a position behind the plate and level with the batter, I would have noticed that the pitcher had a pretty impressive curve ball. I couldn’t see that from my vantage point however, all I could see were the swings. As a leader, are you aware of how many curve balls your team is being pitched on a daily basis, or do you only notice that they aren’t getting as many hits as you expected?

In all likelihood, your team is dealing with a fair number of curve balls, change-ups, and drop pitches. They know how to hit the fastball. They know how to adapt to fluxuations in the strike zone. But sometimes, that curve ball is going to get them. When that happens, do you as the leader/coach yell at them to keep their eye on the ball and try harder? Do you shout the standard words of encouragement from your perch on the hillside? Or, do you investigate what is really going on so you can help your team member respond more effectively in the next at bat.

It’s easy to say “of course” you would want to see first-hand what is going on, but do we really? After all, leaders have their own curve balls they are trying to deal with, they are working on the line-up for the next inning/big project, they are talking to players about how to adjust their position in the field, never mind all the chatter and advice from the crowd that is going on in the background. Can’t your players just figure it out and hit the stinking ball?

Sometimes, really seeing what your people are dealing with is hard. You have to put the four other things you are thinking about on hold to focus on helping your players identify the adjustments they can make to predict, and effectively respond to, the inevitable curve ball. That may mean you need to change your perspective so you can see the situation more clearly, or ask them about their experience rather than assume that you know what happened. There could be any number of variables affecting their performance that you could be totally unaware of unless you ask.

It is hard to see a curve ball from afar. So get in there, support your team, let them learn from your experience. Helping your players hit the tough pitches out of the park not only adds to the team’s score . . . it’s a leadership homerun as well.

Rooted Against the Wind

Old branchy evergreen beech forest.It’s Spring in the Midwest, which means the winds have been howling. As I look at the trees in my back yard, I am glad they have roots that run deep to withstand the gusts, which seem to come from every direction. A lot of organizations could learn a thing or two from those thriving old maples. I see far too many organizations that only root their programs . . . their focus . . . their energy, about an inch deep — planting a little bit here, a little bit there, based on the way the wind is blowing today. The problem with that philosophy? The wind changes direction on a fairly regular basis and so these organizations are always scrambling to adapt.

Perhaps a better plan is to scout out a location . . . a philosophy . . . an approach that you believe in enough to stick with for the long haul, regardless of which way the wind blows, and then take the time to develop a root system that can weather the inevitable storms. Unfortunately many leaders, with the best of intentions, jump on board an “industry trend,” provide introductory level training to a wide cross-section of staff, and then wonder why they are not seeing dramatic change within 60 days. Oh, and they are also “planting” three other best practice approaches, just to hedge their bets.

It may feel like that is the “safer” approach, like you are responding to the changing winds. What you are really doing, however, is confusing and wearing out your people. As a leader, you need to look past next weeks’ weather forecast . . . past the next quarter, the next year . . . and ask yourself, who are you as an organization? What are you really about, specifically? Focus your energy and resources there. How?

When you are building for the long term, start small. Identify a core group of individuals and immerse them in your area of focus. Allow them to explore, to ask questions, adjust and start again. All the while, they will be developing a root system that grows stronger each day because of their targeted focus. Why do this rather than take everyone down the path at the same time? A small group can experiment, adapt and respond with a nimbleness that an entire organization cannot. Also, when everyone has questions and there is no clear answer, people get nervous and start to pull back, reverting to what they know. There’s a reason most trees spend the first year setting out roots before there is visible growth — that’s what allows them to thrive for the long term.

Your organization can thrive, too. Find your spot, support a small group of people as they build a deep network of supportive anchors, and then grow from there . . . with the confidence that your organization will be rooted against the wind.

Willing Followers

Business Team Discussion Team Customer Service ConceptAs a leader, do you want your people to follow you because they have to, or because they want to? For those of you who just rolled their eyes as you read that first sentence, let me point out that cultivating willing followers — those who consciously choose to help the organization carry out its strategic goals — is harder, at times exasperating, and definitely takes longer than ruling by fiat. So if that is the case, why go to all the effort? Quite simply, because willing followers produce better outcomes.

What, exactly do I mean by willing followers? I am not talking about yes-people (in my book, such people fall into the “have to category” — as in they “have to” agree with you). I am talking about people who follow because they believe in the goals of the organization and how you as a leader are carrying them out. You can have people who believe in the goals of the organization, but if they think you are doing a lousy job of carrying them out, they won’t be willing followers. I’m not suggesting that every follower has to agree with every decision you make (nice fantasy, but not terribly realistic). I am suggesting that, on the whole, they trust you enough of give you the benefit of the doubt, and will help accomplish the goals you set because they believe you are working toward the organization’s, and in turn their, best interests.

How do you build that kind of trust? In a word, relationships. Without some kind of connection — depending on the size of your staff it may be direct or indirect — your relationship with your people, and thus their willingness to follow, becomes much more tenuous. Yes, I know you are in your position to get things done, not to sing Kumbya, but the simple fact is that you can’t get things done without your people. Talk to them, ask their opinion, listen to their ideas. They might not have the big picture experience that you do, but you also don’t have the “boots on the ground” perspective that they do. Make it okay for them to raise concerns. Learn from them, and then loop back to connect the dots for them. Here’s where we are . . . here’s where we’re going . . . here’s how we plan to get there . . . and here’s why . . . any questions?

Sure, you can command-and-control your way out of situations in the short term, but if you want your team to have your back for the long term — to make you aware of opportunities and/or roadblocks that you didn’t anticipate — it is going to take more than obedient staff. If you are looking for the best possible outcome for your organization, the only way to get there is with a team of willing followers.

Stop Undermining Your Efforts

Tripped UpMy agency does a fair amount of training for other professionals. It is from that vantage point that I would like to offer a bit of advice for leaders who are investing in increasing their organizational capacity. First, congratulations for recognizing the critical importance of supporting both your staff members’ professional development and continuous improvement for your organization. That kind of commitment is critical for high-performing organizations. So please, stop undermining your efforts!

How exactly is it that leaders are undermining their efforts? Far too many leaders send their staff to training with the best intentions, and then the staff members — armed with new ideas and information — come back from the training excited and ready to hit the ground running . . . only to quickly hit a brick wall. No one is intentionally trying to thwart their efforts (or at least I hope not), however that is what often happens when no one has taken the time to consider an organization’s readiness to benefit from the new ideas/change effort/best practice information.

Organizational systems are designed to maintain the status quo . . . and that’s a good thing. In most cases consistency and predictability are what we want. However, when you are intentionally trying to infuse something new into a system, and do nothing to alter that system, if the system is working well the result is that the new idea/approach will likely be, if not shut down, certainly diluted in its impact. In effect, the effectiveness of your current systems is undermining your efforts toward change.

There is a way around this dilemma. One effective strategy can be to pilot the new approach — pulling it out from the current systems that are designed to support another way of doing things — to test its effectiveness. If you find that you want to incorporate the new learning on a larger scale, then you can make the appropriate changes to the systems. A similar but slightly larger scale strategy is to try the new way of doing things in a single department or program. Let a small group of staff members work out the bugs in the new system (yes, even the best plan will probably need tweaking to be most effective in your environment) before you try to roll it out agency wide. The most challenging path (but still better than doing nothing at all) is to try to change systems within the entire organization to accommodate a new approach. In most cases, starting small is the best strategy. Gaining little victories, adjusting as necessary, and then expanding the effort makes it easier to convince skeptics that the change is a good idea.

Organizational resources are precious commodities and as leaders we want to make sure we are getting the biggest bang for our buck. The best way to make sure you aren’t undermining your efforts — take a moment to make sure your organization is ready!

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!

The Fourth Quarter

Basketball JumpI spent last evening cheering on my former high school, and my nephew’s current, basketball team in a post-season tournament. They led throughout the first half of the game, but unfortunately the momentum changed a bit in the third quarter, and they just couldn’t quite pull it out at the end of the game. As is often the case, it all came down to the fourth quarter. They played hard, they never gave up, and when the buzzer sounded they ended up just short of their goal.

Those are the hard loses for a coach, or a leader . . . when early in the contest it looks like the win is within your grasp . . . and then something happens. Maybe someone else caught a lucky break or used a strategy you weren’t expecting. Maybe your team struggled or was just a bit off their game. Maybe the officials/oversight bodies suddenly started calling things differently . . .

Regardless of the unexpected variables that may come your way, it all comes down to the fourth quarter . . . when you’re tired and probably a bit out of breath . . . when you are trying to make adjustments and communicate with your team while running at full tilt . . . when you feel the pressure bearing down on you, and the roar of advice/encouragement/criticism “they” are shouting at you. It can be exhausting and exhilarating, and how you handle the pressure can determine the results of the game.

So how do you prepare for the fourth quarter?

It starts with the fundamentals. Can your team move the ball down the court? Have they practiced enough to anticipate what needs to happen and where they need to be at any given moment? Does the team support each other when one of them is being double-teamed?

You have to know the game plan. It is the job of the leader/coach to set the strategy based on a whole host of variables. What “starting line-up” is the best match for the task at hand? What should the pacing look like? How will you re-group if things aren’t going as planned?

It takes endurance to finish strong. How many times have you witnessed an effort that just simply ran out of steam? Things started strong and appeared to be going well, but over time became sluggish? Unexpected distractions took extra energy or a turn of events just took the wind out of your sails? Does your team have the reserves to dig deep to bring it home?

Of course, you can do all these things and sometimes the fourth quarter still doesn’t go your way, but in the words of famed basketball coach John Wooden, “A man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.” Start with the fundamentals, know the game plan, finish strong. . . then learn from the risks, and enjoy the rewards, of the fourth quarter.

Avoiding the Vortex

vortexPerhaps one of the greatest risks for leaders is being sucked into the vortex of the overwhelmed. All of the details, ideas, requirements, expectations, and possibilities that spin around a leader on a daily basis can have a pretty strong gravitational pull. How do you keep this force from dragging you under, or at the very least pulling energy away from your supposed strategic priorities? In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the key is to keep your focus on “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

That has a nice ring to it, but how exactly do you do that? It’s a little like trying to stand on one leg. When you keep your focus locked on a fixed spot it is much easier to maintain your balance than if you are looking at everything going on around you. So what is the fixed spot? You guessed it . . . the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Make no mistake, simple is not the same as easy. It takes a lot of discipline to sort through all the stuff of leadership to identify the one, two or three overriding goals on which to remain focused. And identifying those goals doesn’t mean you won’t still have to deal with a myriad of questions, opportunities and challenges on a daily basis. It simply means making decisions about those things becomes much easier. You no longer feel the pull of every rabbit trail. You know your path forward and have identified which tasks belong to you alone and which you can delegate. And with each step toward “the other side”, the pull from the vortex of the overwhelmed lessens.

It is also important to recognize that passing through the vortex is a daily journey. Just because you were able to focus on your simple goals last week doesn’t mean some unexpected variable won’t pull you off course this week. The antidote? Start each week, each day, by casting your eyes on your point of focus — your simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Can’t narrow your priorities down to no more than three? Way too much on your plate to even consider that? If you can’t prioritize, then the vortex of the overwhelmed has already won. End of discussion.

But for those of you willing to focus on the simple path through the complexity of leadership . . . I’ll see you on the other side.

Potholes and Roses

PotholeAt the risk to totally dating myself, Lynn Anderson once had a hit song with the lyric, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.” That could be the anthem for many a leader. We come into organizations thinking that, once we get everything “in place”, there will be far more roses and sunshine that anything else. And then, reality sets in. Leaders are less important when the roses are in bloom. It’s when your organization hits the potholes that a leader’s skills really shine. Really!

Potholes — those unexpected jolts that are at times impossible to avoid — are a shock to the system. Your staff members look to the person whose hand is on the wheel (that would be you, the leader) to keep them on course and moving forward. How you deal with the potholes determines whether you and your staff will have the time and energy to plant roses, or if you will merely bounce from one jolting experience to another. The potholes are where leadership happens.

Max DePree says that a place of realized potential (that would be the roses) offers the gift of challenging work (Yep, potholes). It is the process — the at times painful, messy and uncertain tasks — of working through the tough stuff that makes you a better leader. I think we often have it backwards . . . assuming that one first has to be a great leader to get out of tough spots. Instead, it is the act of finding your way out of the potholes that allows you, in Max DePree’s words, to realize your potential. And that is where the roses are.

So what does that mean for you? Well, for starters, if you find yourself in the midst of a pothole, take heart. As long as you keep striving toward your mission, you are on the way to realizing your potential. (I know it doesn’t feel like it in the midst of the guck, but trust me on this one.) Also, quit expecting leadership to be easy, or to think you should “have all the answers.” Yes, over time, some things will become easier, but then the questions just get harder.

It is when you celebrate the leadership journey, working hard for a mission in which you truly believe, that the roses start to appear. And those roses are all the more beautiful because of the struggle you went through to find them. Down the road, there will be more potholes . . . which simply means you are continuing to move forward.

Lynn Anderson had it right. Leaders are not promised a rose garden. But the roses they do find, just on the other side of the potholes, are the sweetest roses of all.

Unpluggable Leadership

Hand Unplug Or PluggedCan you unplug as a leader? I’m not talking about being away from the office, but still tethered to your phone and computer. I’m talking about unplugging . . . not thinking about work for an extended period of time. It seems somewhere along the way, it became a status symbol for work to be like another appendage — always connected to your ear, your fingers, or at the very least your brain. And yet, you’ll be a healthier, more productive leader if you unplug on a regular basis.

Granted, being able to truly unplug does take some advance work. For example, does your organization have a culture of autonomy or dependency? Are your people allowed to make decisions and implement solutions, or do you expect them to come to you for every decision? News flash, if you’ve hired well and have a clearly communicated vision, in most instances your people will find solutions to the challenges before them. No, they won’t always handle things exactly the way you would, and you can process through their thinking and yours either before or after the decision is made. The point is . . . what are you doing to build your confidence, and that of your staff, that they are fully capable of making important decisions? A few suggestions:

  1. Have a clear expectation that for every challenge brought to you, one or more possible solutions are also suggested. This builds solution-focused thinking within your team. In most cases, they are closer to and have more information regarding the situation than you do, and thus are able to consider, or rule out, a wider range of possible responses. Solution- focused thinking is like a muscle . . . it expands through regular use.
  2. Listen and ask questions rather then provide answers. This is a tough one for some leaders. When a member of your team is discussing what they see as a possible solution, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. If you feel they may be missing an important factor, ask them if they considered it rather than telling them what you think they overlooked. Help them to tap into their own wisdom and problem-solving skills.
  3.  Let them run with it. Once you and your people gain confidence in their ability to handle complex decisions, you need to let them make them! Some leaders can feel a bit “left out” when their team starts making more decisions. Resist the urge to re-insert yourself where your people don’t need you. Stay informed as opposed to involved. The whole purpose of building a top-notch team is so you can focus your energies on more strategic, big-picture endeavors.

Which brings me back to my original point . . . one of the best ways to expand strategic, big picture thinking is to unplug on a regular basis. And ultimately, that’s the job of a leader, right — strategic, big-picture thinking? So what’s stopping you? Build the culture, grow your team, take a deep breath . . . and unplug.

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?