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.

Periods and Commas

Period Comma

Change is a constant (or at least should be) for those in positions of leadership. It can be hard and exciting, draining and energizing, scary and exciting, all at the same time. Which of these emotions your staff focuses on will be determined, at least in part, by whether you as the leader approach change with a period or with a comma.

Periods are about ending . . . a thought, a program, something people have invested in and valued. A “period approach” to change often makes the process harder for people, and slows the entire process, because the focus is stopping — and who wants to stop something that was important to them? Even if it seems obvious to you that the ending is inevitable and you think “everyone” knows it needs to happen, trying to end it with a period on it will make the process harder.

Commas, on the other hand, connect what came before and what will come after. They provide a pause but also link two separate but related thoughts. Commas aren’t about ending, they are about continuing — perhaps in a different direction, but carrying on nonetheless. Continuing is easier. It keeps what came before the comma attached to the new direction, which signifies its value and worth.

How do you approach change with a comma rather than a period? Acknowledge the importance of the program/approach/product in bringing your organization to the place it is today. (No one wants to think that something they dedicated significant time and effort to was not effective or is no longer relevant.) Clearly articulate how what was done in the past sets the stage for the new opportunity. If your organization has a long history, perhaps point out that the organization could not have survived without the ability to adapt and change in the pursuit of its mission. Let your people know how their efforts have contributed to your organization’s success. Honor past contributions, and let them know the role they will play going forward.

Acknowledging what came before, and articulating how it connects to what comes after, does not automatically make the change process easy. It does, however, chart a path for your team to follow. It provides a balance point for the range of emotions related to the change effort. It sets a destination to keep moving towards rather than consuming unnecessary time and energy in the process of stopping one thing and then starting another.

It might seem like a little thing, but a well-placed comma can make a huge difference. You’re the leader. It’s up to you. How will you punctuate your next change effort?

Spring Rains

spring white flower in the rainHave you ever noticed that in the Springtime, entire landscapes can change in a day? One well-timed rain shower can make entire hillsides come to life, blooming with energy and possibilities. Of course, that only happens if the seeds for that growth were already there. Sure, they may have been dormant during the stark cold winter, but they were in the right place, just waiting for the Spring rains.

Nature is patient. We leaders . . . sometimes not so much. We want to plant seeds — in terms of our people, our plans, our vision — and then have them immediately germinate and bloom. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works. You have to plant bulbs in the fall, before the frost and gray skies of Winter, if you want them to flower in the Spring . . . or cultivate seeds in the Spring to reap the harvest in late summer or fall. But it is Springtime, after the brown and sometimes frigid Winter, that the transformation is most obvious.

What does a “Spring rain” look like in your organization? Perhaps a major opportunity comes your way that you are positioned to take advantage of because you have been preparing your people and organization for just such a situation. Some (i.e. those who didn’t plan ahead) will label such opportunities as a lucky break. Seneca described that kind of luck as a situation where “preparation meets opportunity”. The Spring rains bring the opportunity. You as the leader are responsible for the preparation part.

Preparing for the Spring rains means you can’t just focus on this week’s weather forecast. Yes, you have to be aware of it for other reasons, but this week’s weather has little to do with what the next season holds. As a leader, you have to adapt to the current storms, but ultimately you also have to plant the seeds for the subsequent season. And then you have to wait. That’s the catch, isn’t it? We are so accustomed to instant gratification, immediate return on investment, focusing the next quarter’s outcomes, that investing in the long term can seem like a quaint but unrealistic concept. Maybe the unrealistic part is not the concept, but our expectations as leaders.

The Spring rains will come. Perhaps not exactly when you want them to, and sometimes to a greater or lesser degree than you would ideally like, but they will come. The question is whether you have prepared your organizational landscape to blossom and burst with new life when the time comes. For those leaders who recognize their critical role as a patient cultivator . . . who have experienced Spring’s beauty . . . nothing is more satisfying than sitting back and watching it rain!

“Experts” Need Not Apply

ExpertHave you noticed how many “experts” there are out there today? No matter what the problem/challenge/opportunity before you, there is an expert who has an answer. That might seem like a great thing, and it can be in some cases. I’m just not at all sure that “experts” make the best leaders. Let me explain.

Experts know a lot about the thing they know about. In fact, I have run into many an expert who thinks they have THE answer about their area of focus. And that is exactly the problem. When you become an expert, when you have THE solution, you quit gathering new information, considering additional possibilities, or calculating the impact of changing variables. You have devoted years of effort to create an amazing hammer . . . and as a result, everything starts to look like a nail.

If an expert doesn’t make the best leader, who does? A life-long learner. It is fine to be a life-long learner with a lot of experience — in fact, that is highly desirable. So what is the difference between an expert and a life-long learner with a lot of experience? The former thinks they have found the answer, the latter is continually looking a better solution. The best leaders are seekers — not in terms of the “what” of their mission, but certainly in terms of the “how”.

Even when it appears they are at the top of their game, a leader committed to learning is always looking for ways to improve, to extend their reach, to have a greater impact. How?

  • They listen. To those who receive their services, those who provide their services, the “experts” who are happy to offer solutions, and others in the field . . . all of whom can contribute to a greater understanding of the issue at hand.

 

  • They challenge. Even when their organization enjoys great success, and it would be easy to sit on their laurels or pat themselves on the back, they are looking for a better way — either through small tweaks or bringing an entirely new approach to their efforts.

 

  • They don’t put limits on their thinking. It doesn’t matter if a concept comes from a different industry, from someone with no experience, or if it seems “impossible” given the current environment. “Why not?” and “What if” are regular parts of their conversations.

The best leaders continually expand their understanding. They can have a great deal of expertise, but always consider their efforts a work in progress. “Making it,” being an “expert” is a stopping point. Learners don’t stop. Who do you think is most likely to move your organization forward?

Strong Backs

a determined strong businessman carrying an elephant on his back“Don’t ask for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”

I’ve seen this quote, and variations thereof, credited to Phillips Brooks, a Jewish Proverb, and St. Augustine. The fact that so many want to lay claim to these words should be some indication of their truth. Leadership is at times a very heavy load. The weight of the responsibility . . . the impact of decisions . . . the lack of a clear path forward . . . can be overwhelming.

Oh what we would give for a lighter load. Sorry, not happening. Not if you are a leader. Far better, instead, to go for a stronger back. How does one build a stronger back? A few suggestions:

  • Rest. Everything is harder when you are tired — physically, mentally or emotionally. And the times you think you can least afford rest are when you need it the most. Have you ever stressed yourself into a knot, only to wake up the next morning with an entirely different perspective? That, my friend, is the curative, back-strengthening power of rest.

 

  • Talk it out. No one ever said leadership had to happen in isolation. Somehow, challenges seem to grow when they are confined to your head. Have you ever taken a bite of something you didn’t like, and it seemed to get bigger and bigger the more you chewed and you didn’t know how you were ever going to swallow it? Yeah, heavy loads can be like that when you roll them over and over in your mind and don’t share them with anyone. Don’t worry, the ultimate responsibility still lies with you, but sometimes talking it out can bring dilemmas down to size making their weight easier to bear.

 

  • Minimize distractions. Some people do this by getting outside and enjoying the beauty of the day. For others, prayer or meditation is key. Get away from your email, phone, and to-do list . . . if nothing else close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. The answer to the challenges before you will not out-shout all the other demands of your day. When you get quiet enough to hear that still small voice inside (your smartest and truest voice), you just might be surprised how often you find the peace to stand tall and move forward.

 

  • Keep at it. One doesn’t build a strong back overnight any more than you can lose weight by eating one healthy meal. It’s a start, yes, but the more you do it, the better the results. This leadership gig is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you want to be in it for the long haul you have to keep doing the things that lead to a stronger back.

The leadership load isn’t going to get any lighter. You can either continually stumble under its weight, or consciously decide to build a stronger back. The choice is yours.

No Ceilings

Inside the castle of Cesky KrumlovAs leaders, our perspective has a significant influence not only on our approach, but also the efforts of those around us. When we run into a daunting challenge, do we look for ways to minimize our risk or maximize our gain? A power point I ran across this week put it this way: “There’s a floor to cost reduction but no ceiling to value creation.”

No ceiling to value creation . . . what a great lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities before us! How often do we respond to the roadblocks we encounter by immediately slamming on the brakes? Cut, reduce, minimize our losses and avoid future risk. Yes, as leaders we have to be good stewards and fiscally responsible, but do we stop to consider that there may be multiple ways to manage the bottom line while also expanding the top line?

What if our first question when we collide with a roadblock was to ask how to raise the ceiling on our value proposition? Isn’t that what Lean Principles are all about? Creating more value and, yes, eliminating waste . . . but maximizing value for your efforts is at the heart of Lean. How many leaders never even consider a path to value creation because they have a scarcity mentality? They instinctively reduce and withdraw, and in so doing eliminate the very path that could have led to greater value and financial sustainability.

How does a leader eliminate the ceiling on value creation? Certainly it is important to explore opportunities for efficiencies and economies of scale. However, just as there are limits to cost reduction, there are limits on how efficient you can become at a specific task. The question then becomes, is there a better task on which to focus your efforts? And the answer to that question is . . . Yes! Focus your efforts on innovation!

If a leader truly wants no ceiling on value creation you have to not only allow but encourage sky-is-the-limit, “in a perfect world” thinking (no ceilings, right). So often, right out of the gate, we frame our thinking with barriers . . . “They would never” . . . “It’s not practical, but” . . . “It would be cost prohibitive, however . . .” Feel that floor looming?

What if, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we identify the most amazing, creative way to add value and then focus on figuring out a way to do that? I’m not suggesting you disregard your budget, or that you will automatically get there overnight. I am saying that when people are passionate about value creation . . . when innovative thinking is encouraged . . . they find a way.

Where do you start? No ceilings.

Simply Effective

business woman standing with her staff in background at modern bThe hard truth is, a large number of people in positions of leadership really aren’t all that effective. Of course, “effectiveness” is hard to quantify. A quick internet search provides a dizzying number of articles on characteristics needed for effective leadership. I know many people in positions of leadership who have worked to embody such characteristics. They are, for example, smart, personable, have a positive attitude and are deeply committed to their organizations. Shouldn’t these things make them effective? Perhaps it is not so much individual characteristics as a simple set of behaviors that draw on those traits that lead to effectiveness.

A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted the 10-year CEO Genome Project, which identified four behaviors demonstrated by high performing leaders: deciding with speed and conviction, engaging for impact, adapting proactively, and delivering reliably.

In terms of decisiveness, the study did not say that effective leaders’ decisions were always the right ones. Missteps are often easier to recover from  than making no decision, or a half-hearted one where one is merely trying to hedge his or her bets. Thus, rather than waiting for all the information, the simple act of making a decision can be a core attribute in leadership success.

Understanding who needs to be engaged, and how best to gain buy-in, is another core factor in effective leadership. Different stakeholders may have different motivations. Effective leaders understand this and seek out ways to align multiple “wins” for greatest impact. More than a matter of strong communication skills, engaging for impact is about first developing a strategic roadmap to know what to communicate to whom to find the fastest route to the ultimate destination.

When a leader moves into uncharted territory, the ability to adapt and respond proactively is a core trait that will separate high performing leaders from the also-rans. That sometimes means taking two steps forward and one step back. Success is rarely a linear process. Effective leaders know this, and expect that at times they will have to adjust their efforts to reach the final destination.

Setting realistic expectations, and then reliably delivering wins, might seem like an obvious attribute for effective leaders. In fact, all four of the behaviors identified in the study seem pretty self-evident. Leaders sometimes get so mired down in long lists of desirable leadership characteristics, that we miss the forest for the trees.

Maybe instead, we need to focus on four simple behaviors, which research has shown are key factors in overall leadership effectiveness. Simply effective . . . sounds like a winning plan!

Bad Leaders

bigstock--174355768No one intends to be a bad leader. And yet, it seems there is no shortage of individuals in positions of leadership who fall short of what we would call a “good leadership.” There are plenty of resources out there that outline the traits of a good leader, but far less focus on what happens to result in someone being considered a bad leader. Knowing what to avoid, however can be as instructive to a leader as knowing what to strive for.

Fundamentally, there are two kinds of bad leaders — those who are ineffective, and those who are unethical. Ineffective leaders may have noble ends in mind, but they fall short on the means they use to get there. Unethical leaders may be very effective (in that they accomplish their intended goal) but the ends they are working toward, or the means they use to get there, may be illegal or immoral.

Let’s start with the ineffective leader, because they are far more common. These individuals are working toward a noble cause, they just are not able to achieve the results needed to get there. Why? I’m sure we could fill pages with the ways that leaders are ineffective, but let’s start with the big “Cs.”

  • Communication. This is probably the number one reason why leaders don’t succeed. They fail to clearly communicate their vision. That doesn’t mean they don’t talk a lot, it just means they aren’t conveying a clear, concise, consistent message.
  • Culture. Ineffective leaders often don’t focus enough on “the way we do things around here.” Expectations, accountability and transparency can slip off course pretty easily if not tended to. If the leader doesn’t really listen, treat people with respect or live out the organizational values, the culture will follow suit.
  • Courage. It is hard to make the decisions that lead to success. There is risk, and pushback, and uncertainty, and sometimes it feels safer for a leader to stay in a comfort zone and not rock the boat quite so much. Such a leader might not accomplish the ultimate goal, but they’re still plugging away, right?!!

While many of us think we would never fall into the unethical category, it can be a bit of a slippery slope. To what degree to the ends justify the means? There are also several “C’s” on the path toward unethical behavior, and each step in this direction makes the next one easier to take.

  • Conceit. When leaders start to believe that they know better than anyone else, that they are smarter, and above the rules that apply to everyone else, they are starting down a dangerous path.
  • Callus. Unethical leaders have little concern for the impact of their actions on others. They see “collateral damage” as the cost of success, because their goal is more important than the impact they may be having on others.
  • Corrupt. By the time an unethical leader reaches this point, the other two C’s have often convinced them that there is a justifiable reason for their inappropriate, immoral or illegal activities. Few leaders start here, but sadly some end up here.

When you “C” it this way, perhaps the lines between good leaders and bad don’t seem quite so clear cut. Bad leaders provide a cautionary tale for those of us striving to be good leaders. We just have to be willing to “C” the difference.

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.