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.

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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.

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.

Re-fueling

RefuelHow are you feeling . . . right now? Are you energized and ready to take on the world? If so, wouldn’t it be nice to know how to maintain that full tank of motivation over the long term? And if you are not feeling so great about your own energy level, or that of your team, perhaps a few tips on how to refuel and get your passion back on track are in order.

Tony Schwartz has written extensively on fueling an organization’s potential, and has identified four basic energy needs that, when met, lead to higher performance: renewal (physical); value (emotional); focus (mental); and purpose (spiritual). That seems pretty self-evident, right? When we are well rested, appreciated, and can focus on things that we are passionate about, both our energy level and our performance are likely to improve. You might be surprised, however, at how much of an impact these factors actually have on fueling performance.

Schwartz, together with Christine Porath, conducted a survey with the Harvard Business Review which demonstrated that when even one of an employee’s basic energy needs has been met (that is, their tank is ¼ full), there is a 30% increase in their ability to focus and a nearly 50% increase in their level of engagement. If all four needs are met — when their tank is full — the engagement levels increase to 125%! In addition, the study indicated that when all four energy needs are met, there is a 72% drop in employees’ stress levels.

Addressing your employees’ basic energy needs isn’t costly. It doesn’t require implementing a complex new program or require a huge allocation of time.

  • Encourage your staff (and model the behavior yourself!) to take 10 – 15-minute breaks at regular intervals where they physically step away from their desk or other work environments.
  • Express your appreciation to others — in detailed, specific ways. Get creative in letting others know you value their efforts.
  • Take steps to reduce interruptions when working on a project. Encourage your staff to put the phone down and ignore the ping of email to increase their focus.
  • Find ways for staff to spend time doing the things that they do best, or find enjoyable, or that make a positive difference.

Renew. Value. Focus. Purpose.

Physical. Emotional. Mental. Spiritual.

Where is your energy level running? How about that of your staff? If the tank is running a bit low, maybe it’s time to step away from the computer and take a few minutes to refuel.

Two Corners

Curves Sign CroppedI had a colleague who was known for saying, “Leaders have to be able to see around two corners.” He was right, of course. Leaders are expected to anticipate what is coming around the bend and, more importantly, to have prepared their organizations for whatever they might encounter. Easier said than done, especially given that there are so many obstacles in front of you right now that can distract attention away from some unseen future risk or opportunity. But hey, if this leadership gig was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?!?

A starting point in developing the vision to see around two corners is to honestly look at how future-focused you are as a leader — not how future-focused you aspire to be, but what your actions actually indicate. Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, in their book “Getting Off the Treadmill: Competing for the Future” offer a rating scale to gauge your organization’s future focus. Think of each of these questions as a five-point continuum, and consider where you would rate your organization.

  • When considering the future, is your organization conventional and reactive or distinctive and far sighted?
  • Where do your senior leaders focus more of their attention, on reengineering core processes or regenerating core strategies?
  • Is your organization seen as a “rule taker” or a “rule maker”?
  • Are you better at improving operational efficiency or at developing new businesses?
  • How much of your effort focused on catching up with others versus building new advantages/opportunities?
  • Is your “transformation agenda” set by others or is it set by your organization’s own unique vision of the future?
  • Are you more of a maintenance engineer working on the present or an architect designing the future?
  • Within your organization, what is there a greater sense of anxiety or hope?

I’m not suggesting that no one in your organization should be focusing on the first item on each bullet above. But as a leader, if that is where you are spending the majority of your time you, and your organization, are likely to be caught off guard by whatever is lurking around the next corner, much less the second one.

The urgency of the here and now is always going to scream louder than the importance of the future. Also, there is a concreteness to tackling today’s problems. Considering the future is less definitive and may feel less productive, especially if you are a list-checker. All true. Yet, none of these things help you prepare for the future, and preparing for the future is your job as the leader. If you skew toward the here and now, how do you become more future focused? Pick one or two of the bullets above and identify specific steps you can take to move the dial toward the future. That may get you around the first corner. Pick a couple more. Push yourself. You never know what opportunity might be waiting . . . around the second corner.

Easy as Cake

bigstock--cake 159887675Many leaders talk about the need for innovation in their organizations, however, in far too many cases, true innovation seems elusive. In most instances, it is not a lack of desire or effort that that impedes results, but rather a lack of the right blend of organizational ingredients.

Think of it like baking a cake. You can get all the best ingredients, measured out in the right amounts and set them side-by-side (you have top quality HR, and quality assurance, and product development), but if that’s all you do, you will never have a cake. It is the mixing of ingredients, in specific amounts, . . . it’s the dicing, the blending, the baking . . . that yields a prize-winning cake.

In their book Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way your Company Innovates, Skarzynski and Gibson talk about innovation as “combinational chemistry.” In effect, innovation isn’t about a “new” idea so much as it is taking a group of existing ideas/concepts — maybe from totally different fields or experiences — and putting them together in unique ways to create an entirely new solution.

So, when an organization challenges its “creatives” with innovation but does not include task or systems-oriented colleagues, it’s a bit like leaving the baking powder out of a cake — the flavor may be there, but it will never rise to its potential. Or maybe you always expect your senior, most experienced, staff to have all the good ideas. You know, there are only so many ways to combine the same ingredients, and after a while, everything you make with them starts to taste the same.

It takes a range of ingredients to make the best cakes, but how often do we have a diverse enough set of perspectives, ways of thinking and experience bases (or lack thereof!) as part of the ingredient list? Do we let it bake long enough? (How many “half-baked” concepts have you thrown out, lacking the patience for the idea to fully develop?) It may seem risky to add a spice you have never used before, leave out a “key” ingredient, or to use a new technique that feels a bit awkward at first (flourless cake . . . how can that be?!?). If there is a challenge to be solved, however, someone will come up with an innovative response. The question is, will it be you?

Sure, you will have some flops along the way. And some of the attempts will yield unexpected and delicious results. The simple fact is, the more cakes you bake, the more comfortable you become experimenting and trying unique combinations. First-time innovators will probably be most comfortable following a recipe. That’s fine, there are plenty out there. With practice, however, you will learn how to combine things in such a way to yield an entirely new creation. And that, my friend, is when you get to have your cake . . . and eat it too!

Check the Expiration Date

Bottle Of Milk

People have grown accustomed to checking the expiration date on things like meat or milk, to make sure they haven’t gone bad or soured. Far fewer people check the expiration date on their projects or new initiatives, however, these, too, can lose their freshness and impact if you wait too long to use them. What may have been a great idea at one point in time may become bland, or even leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth, if you wait too long to use it.

How does one check the expiration date on an idea or project?

  • How long have you talked about it? This isn’t an automatic rule-out. Sometimes you can be incubating an idea for a long time. One factor to consider is whether the idea has evolved and changed over time, or if you are still talking about it in general, nonspecific terms, retreading the same ground time and again. Which leads me to the second test of an expiration date . . .

 

  • Do you use the word “should” when describing the idea — as in “we really should be doing this.” Fresh ideas aren’t something you should do. Fresh ideas light up the room, they feel like something you have to do, not because someone is telling you to, but because you feel in your gut that the idea can in some way be a game changer that will help extend your mission reach.

 

  • Is everyone else already doing it? That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do it, but it’s a little bit like buying something that has been reduced for quick sale. The impact is likely to be far less that if you had implemented the idea when it was first available.

 

  • Has it “gone bad in the frig?” These are the ideas that you have said you want to pursue — you “bought” it — however, your process of getting to implementation takes so long that the expiration date may have passed, but people feel they have no choice but to continue on because so much work went into the preparation.

As the leader, it is your job to check the expiration date on ideas or projects. That can be harder than it sounds because perhaps you pushed for an idea at one point in time — you could clearly see the potential — but you now realize the window of opportunity has closed. The expiration date has passed. When that happens (and it will), you can watch wistfully as someone else enjoys the benefits of the once fresh idea, or you can focus your energy on looking forward and preparing to tackle the next new opportunity . . . before it expires.

Stop Chasing Rabbits

HareAs a leader, sometimes your “stop doing” list is just as important, if not more so than your “to do” list. And one of the things that should be on your stop doing list is chasing rabbits.

If you have ever seen a rabbit being chased, they dart to and fro, first heading one way and then pivoting and moving in a totally different direction. The likelihood that one will catch the rabbit is pretty slim, however, the likelihood that the chase will take you totally off course from where you were headed is almost guaranteed. Stop chasing rabbits.

I get it. Rabbits grab your attention. There will often be well-intended individuals encouraging you to chase after them. And once you’ve started down the rabbit trail, turning around is hard . . . after all, you’ve gone this far, maybe what you’re seeking lies just around the next bend, right?!? Stop chasing rabbits.

For nonprofit leaders, rabbits may come disguised as “funding opportunities” that pull you first one way and then another. When the rabbit first caught your eye, you didn’t think it would lead you too far from your intended path — your stated mission. But, once you start chasing the money, each step may take you farther and farther from the trail you set out to follow.

Other times, “experts” may urge you to veer from your course to follow a “trend” rabbit. According to these unnamed experts, everyone is going to have to be doing it. (At which point I hear echoes of my mother asking something about “if everyone jumped off a bridge . . .”) This rabbit is especially adept at changing directions depending on which way the wind is blowing.

And then there are the “quick and easy” rabbits that seem to promise an easier path than the one that you are currently treading. Maybe quick and easy if you’re built like a rabbit, but few organizations are as agile or designed to adapt to the terrain the way a rabbit is (ever take the “quickest” route recommended by GPS only to end up stranded on a dirt road in the middle on no where?).

I am not saying you should not pursue funding opportunities, listen to experts’ predictions or look for an easier path. I am simply saying you should do all those things within the context of your path . . . your mission. Rabbits aren’t thinking about where you want to go. They are following their own trail. If your paths intersect, great! Just don’t forget to look at each new trail based on the likelihood that it will ultimately lead to where you want to go.

It takes discipline and focus to resist the temptation, but sometimes the best way to reach your destination is to stop chasing rabbits.

Losing Weight

Bathroom Scale, Display ErrorHave you ever noticed how procedures or “rules” seem to accumulate in an organization much the way pounds do around one’s middle? You hardly notice the impact when you’re adding them one at the time, but one day you wake up and realize that the organization feels rather sluggish and just isn’t moving as efficiently as it once did. Maybe it’s time for the organization to lose a little weight.

You might wonder how the “weight gain” happened in the first place . . . after all, no one really likes more rules, right? In most cases, it’s not the rules that people like, it is a) consistent, predictable outcomes; b) risk avoidance; c) the need for control; and/or, d) an assumption of incompetence.

I am not suggesting that we get rid of all the rules. Clearly, “a” and “b” rules can serve a very important function. “C” and “d” rules, on the other hand, simply bog your organization down. How can you tell which rules serve an important function and which should be part of your weight loss plan? Here are a few good places to start:

  • “Because we have always done it that way” rules are the low hanging fruit of organizational weight loss. If no one can tell you what purpose a rule serves other than “because we have always done it that way,” stop it. If it serves an important purpose you’ll know soon enough.
  • Rules that don’t make sense should be second on your list. Not sure which rules don’t make sense? Ask your people. I guarantee you they know. Again, it is possible that this rule serves an important purpose, but if it doesn’t make sense there is probably a better way to accomplish it.
  • Rules for “highly unlikely but still in the 1-in-a-million realm of possibility” situations should be on the diet plan too. Lots of things “could” happen. But just because there is a remote possibility of something does not automatically mean that you should add 12 new rules on top of the 14 you already have in place.
  • Rules that assume your people are stupid annoy most of your staff and probably won’t make a difference for those who may truly be incompetent. Address the individual situation rather than penalize everyone else with five extra steps.

I am absolutely not saying that you should never add new rules or procedures to your organization. Weight gain happens not so much because we add rules, but because we never, ever take any away. My challenge for you today is to ask your staff what rules/procedures make their day more sluggish without bringing any value to the organization and start there.

You just might be amazed how much better your people feel if your organization loses a little weight.