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.

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It’s Not About the Plan

Business Corporate Management Planning Team ConceptAt the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)

Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?

It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.

Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.

Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.

Gold Medal Leadership

bigstock--Gold MedalLike so many throughout the world, I have been watching the Winter Olympics and having discussions with my family about the kind of dedication it takes to spend your life working toward a goal that is dependent on a single performance. If you come up short, you have to wait four years for another shot at the prize. Upset stomach, headache, annoyance over some situation, nerves out of control … doesn’t matter … one shot … one chance to bring your very best (well okay, maybe you get three runs in some sports, but still only one day to make your mark.) If your leadership was judged based on your performance on a single day, would you approach the effort differently?

If the leadership gold medal was on the line, would you …

  • Bring your full focus to the task at hand, ignoring the ping of emails, thoughts of looming deadlines, conversations going on around you, or other random distractions?
  • Take extra care in monitoring the external conditions and making adjustments as necessary?
  • Replay the ultimate goal in your head so specifically that you know exactly what success looks and feels like?
  • Step forward boldly, confident in your abilities and your preparation for this moment?

Of course, the only way to make sure that you could do all of those things under pressure — at the moment of truth — is to practice them . . . day in and day out . . . until they become second nature. Sure, there will be days when you fall flat on your face, when you misjudge the environment around you, and when you get distracted from your goal. So you practice some more, improve your skills, and stretch for the next goal. Even gold medalists who continue to compete practice on a daily basis. They don’t get to sit on their laurels just because they had great success on a particular day — the gold medal performance from the last Olympics may not be enough to come out on top today because the bar is continually being raised.

Leadership is not a static skill that you either have or don’t have. It is a continual, competitive journey, and you never know which day is the day that you will be called to go for the gold on behalf of your organization. Of course practice, commitment, and hard work are no guarantee that you will achieve every goal, but without them, it is a pretty safe bet that you and your organization will come up short when you have the opportunity to go for the gold.

Embrace The Cold

Woman with big mug of hot drink during cold day.

I was recently talking to a friend about the fact that one of my sons will be working in Rochester, MN for a second summer and how much he likes the community, and then I added, “of course he hasn’t been there in the winter.” My friend replied that the difference is, in Rochester, they embrace the cold. It’s true . . . in looking at promotional materials for the city, it is almost as if they eagerly anticipate winter for all activities that are unique to that time of year. Huh . . . interesting concept . . . instead of bemoaning their circumstances, which they really can’t change anyway, they embrace the opportunities available to them as a result.

A lot of us could learn a lesson to two from our friends in Rochester, and I’m sure many other northern cities. If you can’t change it, sometimes your best option is to embrace the cold. Think about it, does all the bemoaning of your unfortunate circumstances, the fanaticizing about a preferred situation, really make you feel any better? In my experience, if anything, this type of wallowing only makes you feel worse. And if you’re a leader, aren’t you charged with finding a path out of difficult situations? You may have a lot of company if you choose to burrow in and bellyache, but your job isn’t to rally the troops with another chorus of “ain’t it awful,” your job is to lead.

When you make a choice to embrace the cold, to look for the opportunities in the current circumstances, it’s a bit like putting on sunglasses to cut the blinding glare of the snow. Suddenly, you are able to see things you otherwise would have missed. Maybe you have the opportunity to collaborate in ways that would not happen in different circumstances. Or perhaps there is now an openness to totally reimagine a program or service, which wouldn’t have been pursued in warmer times. You know, the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters, one means danger and the other means opportunity. Pull in, or reach out — the “crisis” of a winter chill offers both options.

Cold weather is when we need leaders the most. Our followers are more easily motivated on warm sunny days, but when the temperature drops, it is our job to help them see the possibilities in skiing and sledding, the beauty in snow-covered vistas . . . and of course hot chocolate! Would anyone even have invented hot chocolate without a bit of a chill in the air? Your team is looking to you to see if they should hunker down or put on their parka and venture out.

My advice? Bundle up, grab a thermos of hot chocolate, and embrace the cold!

–This post was originally published in February of 2016.

The Squeaks and Squawks of Success

Boy playing trumpet with classmates covering earsThe world is constantly changing. Logically, as leaders, we know we need to ensure our organizations are always changing too. Practically, however, once we find a successful path, there are also a host of reasons to stay on course. Efficiency, effectiveness, solid results . . . it’s working . . . right up until it isn’t. The irony is, the more successful an organization is on one path, the harder it can be to change to another . . . unless squeaks and squawks have been built into the system.

If you have ever had a child learn to play an instrument, you know that squeaks and squawks are part of the process. Young musicians are enthusiastic, they know where they want to get to . . . but their technique needs a bit of practice, trial and error, and refinement. They have to start with “Hot Crossed Buns” before they can master the concerto. You can’t hold them to the same precise standards of performance you have for someone who has been playing for years or you will squash their spirit and undermine their potential.

As a leader, you have to continually refine the concerto of your current success, while also encouraging the squeaks and squawks of the next big thing. Squeaks and squawks aren’t efficient. They don’t follow a well-laid path. At times they sound a bit hopeless. They take patience and practice . . . and they are the path to your future. The challenge is, in our lean, metric-driven, instant results world, we expect a level of performance — right now — that would judge our budding musician as a failure.

We cannot apply the same expectations we have for the professional musician — our fully developed, successful product or service line — to the work in progress that may be our next big thing. And we can’t be so afraid of hitting a wrong note, that we that we discourage even trying. Developing something new is all about hitting a few wrong notes on the way to learning the right tune.

Successful leaders have to work from two different scores — apply two different strategies — at the same time. Refine, improve, align and expect a high level of achievement from your skilled performers — your current core programs and services — and play that song as long as you can. Just don’t neglect to nurture the notes of your future success . . . squawks and all.

The Path Forward

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Have you ever noticed that you can’t move forward by digging your heels in?

It seems that conflict, gamesmanship, and demonizing those who see the world differently is on the rise in a host of environments. Maybe, instead of shouting louder or throwing more “facts” at our most challenging situations, those of us who would call ourselves leaders need to instead take the time to listen — with the intention of hearing, not just as a way to look for cracks in the armor where we can reinforce our point.

There is a host of research indicating that diverse teams strengthen an organization’s performance. Both inherent diversity (something you are born with) and acquired diversity (which comes from experience) can impact how one views a particular situation and issue. Do you as a leader not want as much information — as many different perspectives — as possible before making a decision? For example . . . imagine you are in charge of a building project. Do you not want to hear the opinion of the electrician, the plumber, the roofer, the person who will be coordinating the process, and perhaps even someone who has built a similar type of building? They may all give you a different perspective, with lots of legitimate rationale about why their opinion should take precedence. Those perspectives are all valuable as you work toward the best possible end goal.

There is no doubt that incorporating a diversity of perspectives in decision-making takes longer, can be uncomfortable and emotion-laden, and at times it may feel like there is no mutually agreeable path forward. That’s why the role of leaders is more important today than ever before. It takes a strong leader to push for the “and” rather than settling for the “or.” Roger Martin refers to such people as integrative thinkers — people who can hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in a constructive tension while working toward a new solution. It’s not settling for trade-offs, it’s leveraging our different perspectives to achieve a better outcome.

None of this is to say that you as a leader can’t have some non-negotiables. It simply means that no one person or perspective has a corner on all the good ideas, and it is a leader’s job to push through the hard stuff to find new insight/solutions/models on the other side of the complexity . . . to seek common ground, fill in gaps of understanding and commit to finding a new, better response.

There will always be plenty of people who will dig their heels in and tell you why they are right. It is a leader’s job to recognize that a diversity of perspectives offers rich opportunities for learning, insight, and the best chance at finding a path forward.

New Eyes for a New Year — Part Three

2683_5078_largeIn the past two weeks, we have looked at the “what” and “where” of your leadership vision. In this final installment of “New Eyes for a New Year” it’s time to do a quick screening of the “how” of your vision. Consider it your depth-perception test . . . you know, that part of your eye exam where you look through 3-D glasses and identify which part of the picture stands out the most . . .

 

Your “depth perception” as a leader determines how you see what lies before you. Our biases, experiences and predispositions can make some aspects of the landscape stand out more than others. That is why two people can look at the same situation/challenge/opportunity and see very different things. Do you focus on definitive black and white observations, or shades of gray? Are you looking for similarities to build on or differences to distinguish? Do you expect to see a specific outcome, or are you open to being surprised?

Perhaps most importantly, do you believe/consider valid/judge as reasonable only what you “see” through your own unique perspective, or are you open to considering someone else’s point of view . . . to see the landscape before you with new eyes? Yes, as the leader, it is ultimately your responsibility to cast the vision and set the direction. The question is, do you want to make that decision based only on your own depth perception, or would your organization be better served by you viewing the situation based on the input from a range of people who might see things a bit differently? People who see the big picture and those who focus on the small details. People who strive to make good things happen and those committed to keeping bad things from happening. And yes, even that “disrupter” who can always be counted on see the world a bit differently than everyone else on your staff. In effect . . . would you rather make a decision based on a single piece of information (your own personal depth perception), or on a full range of data that a variety of perspectives can provide?

What you see as “real” in any particular situation may be based, at least in part, on your own depth perception. If you want to see the opportunities before you with new eyes in the New Year, how you go about doing that can make all the difference. Maybe it’s time to take out the 3-D glasses and check your focus.

 

Photo credit: Bernell Corporation

New Eyes for a New Year — Part Two

Snellen Eye Chart Test Box in front of brick wall. 3d RenderingLast week, we started the “New Eyes for a New Year” leadership vision test by assessing what business you are in — which impacts how you and your team see the world. Once you have clarity on the “what,” the next logical question is “where.” Where are you and your team headed in the coming year? This is an area where I think, for many leaders and their teams, the vision remains a bit fuzzy. Oh, we all think we can clearly see where we are going . . . that is until it is time to really read the letters on the wall.

For example . . . imagine you and your team are sitting on a mountaintop in Colorado discussing your vision. For a host of thoroughly researched reasons, after listening to the industry “experts” and looking closely at the landscape throughout the country, you determine that Illinois is the destination you are working toward. Ummm . . . okay . . . would that be Chicago (third largest city in the US), Loraine (a town of 300 on the Western border of the state) or Marion (the southern-most town with a chain hotel)? Because while “Illinois” might seem like a specific enough target to keep your organization moving in the same direction, without a clearer vision your team might ultimately be moving in different directions. Your people are all in Illinois, yes, but that “clear vision” is a state that is 390 miles long and 210 miles wide so the ultimate destination could take many forms.

Translate that example to your organization. Is your vision for the future specific enough that your organization will remain aligned in its efforts throughout the journey? Is your focus clear enough that everyone sees the same fine print at the bottom of the chart? Yes, you want to maintain enough flexibility to respond to emerging information. That is different from part of your team working their hardest to move in one direction, which is slightly different than other team members understood the direction to be and so, in fact, your team ends up pulling the organization in multiple directions.

How do you fix that type of “fuzzy vision?” Quit using the biggest letter at the top of the chart — the broadest possible vision — to guide your action. To check your sight, the Optometrist starts by asking you to identify the smallest letters you can see clearly at the bottom of the chart. Thinking your organization has a clear vision if everyone can identify the big E at the top of the chart is the same as telling your people to go to Illinois and thinking they will all end up at the same spot.

Want new eyes for a new year? Sometimes it takes a stronger, clearer lens to see the fine print.

New Eyes for a New Year

phoropterAs I write this, I am just returning from the optometrist. Each year I get my eyes checked during the first week of January — you know, start the New Year by making sure I am seeing clearly. And I have found that you often don’t realize how much your eyes have changed until you have the chance to look through a new lens. If you are a leader, the start of a new year is also a great time to check your vision . . . related to your organization. Are you seeing things clearly, or would a different lens give you an entirely different view? Consider the next few weeks of this blog your leadership “vision test” to help determine how clearly you are seeing the potential for your organization to increase its impact.

The first assessment in your vision test is for you to answer the question of “What business are we in?” That might seem like a silly question, but how you answer it can create a filter that either lets new ideas pass through, or screens them out like UV rays bouncing off a pair of sunglasses. For example, if you are in the train business, there is a tendency to screen out (often without consciously recognizing it) information that does not relate to trains. You will see opportunities and threats to the way you do business coming from other train companies, and those variables that impact rail transit. If, on the other hand, you see yourself as being in the transportation business . . . well, let’s just say the view is a little different.

According to Constantinos Markides, there are three different approaches to answering the question of “What business are we in.” You can define your business according to 1) the product or service you are selling; 2) the customer function you are trying to fulfill, or 3) your portfolio of core competencies. No one approach is right or wrong, but each is likely to impact what you see as opportunities going forward.

A “movie company” is going to work to perfect the craft of making movies. An entertainment and information company (as Disney defines itself) is going to consider a wider range of business opportunities . . . for example theme parks. One may go deep, the other wide. Think of it as near-sighted or far-sighted — you need a different lens depending on which is the best fit for your organization.

What business are you in? Would all the members of your leadership team come up with the same answer? If you are not sure, perhaps you need to test out several lenses — or as my optometrist would say, “Which is clearer . . . 1 or 2 . . . 3 or 4? The answer to that question is the first step in viewing the New Year with new eyes.