The Genius of Curiosity

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Far too often, the higher one moves in the organizational chart, the less curious we become. It is not hard to see how it happens. Presumably, a person is promoted or given more responsibility because of a track record of good decisions. This can lead to growing confidence that the leader knows what is “right” for the organization. And over time, amid a hectic pace and growing responsibilities, it is easy to start simply assuming one’s perspective is the best one — you are the leader, afterall — and so you start asking fewer questions, believing you (in all your wisdom) understand the situation. Or maybe you somehow think asking questions, or listening to those with a different perspective, make you look weak or indecisive. The irony is, those things actually strengthen your leadership impact. How?

  • Help me understand” opens the door for an exchange of ideas. It invites people who may have a different perspective to engage with you in a dialog. Leaders often fail to recognize how much their position in the organization is a barrier to the free exchange of valuable information that is readily available. That’s why you have to ask. Yes, such conversations can be uncomfortable . . . your view of things may be challenged . . . and yet, when you are willing to sit in that discomfort you encourage the free flow of information, which is key in making good decisions.
  • “Wondering” prompts people to consider perspectives they otherwise wouldn’t. It provides a context for understanding behavior without passing judgment. Genuinely asking, “I wonder why they would do that . . .” is a way to begin unearthing motivations (which might be three steps back from actions) so you can respond to the cause, not just the symptom, which ultimately increases your long-term effectiveness.
  • “How can we improve?” fosters innovation — which many organizations talk about but far too few intentionally pursue. Your current success, understandably, builds confidence in your processes and approach. However, that confidence is often the biggest deterrent to the curiosity that spurs break-through innovation. Why invest in “fixing” what isn’t broken? Because if you don’t, someone else will. Your organizational systems are designed to maintain the status quo, so it takes intentional questioning on the part of the leader to stay ahead of the curve.

That is the genius of curiosity . . . it allows you to make better decisions, increase your long-term effectiveness and stay ahead of the curve. Why wouldn’t a leader want to do that?

I’m curious. What do you think?

Choosing Your Road

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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

                                                                                        — Robert Frost

It is easy for leaders to romanticize Frost’s words . . . to speak confidently about the desire to forge a new path, to venture into uncharted territory — of course with the presumption of discovering exciting new vistas. The reality, however, is that many paths less traveled are that way for a reason, and a bold explorer is just as likely (if not more so) to find steep inclines, thorny undergrowth or any number of other obstacles that will block the way to the intended destination. And even when there is a way forward, the less traveled path will most certainly offer challenges one would not encounter on a well-trod route. In a day and age when there is low tolerance for “failure” on the part of a leader, how do you decide if it is worth the risk to take your organization down the path less traveled? A few questions to consider:

What is the downside — specifically —of taking the path that most are following?

In most cases, the path others are following is the easiest, most efficient way forward. Why would you want to take on something harder, riskier, lonelier and more likely to deplete your resources? There may be a reason. Just make sure you know what it is, and can explain it clearly and simply to those you need to follow you, or support you, on the quest.

What are the possible gains — again, specifically — of the road less traveled?

A leader should always consider the cost-to-benefit ratio of a potential decision. Wanting a fresh path, feeling lost in the crowd, trying to explore new options may all be considerations, but do those possible benefits outweigh the risks of the unknown? Can you articulate exactly why it is worth leveraging your credibility as a leader to go in a direction most have decided against?

Is this the right time to move in a different direction?

Even if you are convinced that the potential rewards of charting your own path outweigh the risks, is now the right time to make the move? Why? What are the risks and/or possible rewards of waiting?

When you step away from the noise of the crowd, the experts, rebels and the naysayers and answer these three questions — for your organization — the decision of which path to take becomes clear. Note, that I did not say it becomes easy, only that it becomes clear. And that clarity . . . I’m talking single-sentence-explanation clarity  . . . will make all the difference, regardless of which road you choose.

See you on the path!

Know Your Batting Order

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Originally Published July 15, 2015

Have you ever been stressed out by trying to keep too many balls in the air, and all at once you run across something so simple and so profound that it stops you in your tracks? Yep, me too. In fact, I was recently reading a blog post by Anne Lamott when three little words jumped off the page . . .

“Grace bats last.”

I love that! First and foremost because I count on receiving a measure of grace in my own life, but also because those three words provide so much guidance to us as leaders.

If you are in a position of leadership, sooner or later (or both) you will be called on to make a difficult decision — one that is not popular, and maybe even has a negative impact on someone else. That’s part of the job, but how you carry out such decisions can make a huge difference in how you are perceived as a leader.

I think far too often, we get the batting order mixed up. We start out by being overly flexible, willing to negotiate expectations, trying to be patient and accommodating at all costs . . . until we reach the end of our rope, we’re done, we draw the line, and we’re the bad guy. What if, instead, we set clear guidelines/boundaries/expectations at the beginning, and consistently held people accountable to those. When that happens, you separate out those situations that are never going to work from those that really could. And if a situation that looks promising needs a bit of a concession, a measure of grace, you will still have the energy and ability to accommodatea special circumstance.

Even when you have to make a decision that will be hard for some to accept, I believe the best leaders find a way to offer a measure of grace in the process. Make the difficult decision, yes, and then carry it out with great kindness. Be more generous than you have to be in the process. Sure, some will think you’re soft, but most will see you as fair, and someone they want to work with . . . You know, the whole Golden rule thing . . .

Lastly, we may occasionally need to remind ourselves that grace bats last for us as leaders, too. Our impact is more than the sum of a single decision or action. Too often, I’ve seen leaders afraid to swing at an opportunity because they fear they may strike out based on a single action. While I suppose there are circumstances where that could happen, in most cases, we will be judged by the long view, by the total sum of our actions.

So take that swing, do what you know you need to do, and then let grace bat last.

The Power of AND

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Originally Published February 4th, 2015

Take a moment and consider how your leadership perspective might change if the words “but” and “or” were banned from your vocabulary . . .

That would mean you could never again say things like:

“What our client really needs is “X”, but we could never get “Y” to pay for it.”

“Do you want me to look at the big picture, or deal with the details?”

“Sure that sounds like a great idea, but let’s be practical.”

“But” and “or” limit your potential. They are creativity killers. They require trade-offs. They feed into a scarcity mentality. “And”, on the other hand, is about abundance. It is about stretching your thinking in new ways, and considering multiple possibilities.  It’s about not stopping when you run into the first closed door . . . or even the second.

Make no mistake, infusing “and” in an organization can be challenging . . . some might even say not realistic . . . and yet it’s worth the effort to stick with it.  When you reach a tipping point, when “and” becomes part of your culture, a new energy is released and exciting things start to happen. “And” attracts the kind of people who reach for more, who aren’t willing to settle, who have an inner drive to live your mission. Don’t believe me? Consider two organizational approaches to the same situation . . .

“This family really needs X, but our contract won’t pay for it.” (Depressing dead end, right?) 

“This family really needs X, and our contract won’t pay for it, so how else can we help them get their needs met?” (Feel the energy, and the permission to be creative?) 

Same situation. Change three letters — but to and — and suddenly staff are at least thinking about different options, peering outside the box to look for new possibilities. No one broke any rules, or ignored reality, they simply didn’t view the current situation as an end of the discussion. Which organization do you think is going to attract the most passionate, motivated staff — the game-changers who can ultimately help your organization succeed?

If you want “and” people in your organization, it is up to you to role model “and” behavior. Try it for a week. Stop yourself every time you respond to a challenge with “but” or “or”, and consider what new possibilities might present themselves if your approach was “and.” At the end of the week, reflect on your outlook, your energy, and your accomplishments.

Good week? Things seem to fall into place? Enthused about pursuing a new idea?

That, my friends, is the power of “and.”

Achiever or Leader?

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I recently had the chance to hear writer, executive educator and coach Marshall Goldsmith speak. One of the (many) things he said that stuck with me was this: “One of the hardest things for high performers is to transition from being a great achiever to being a great leader.” What’s the difference? To be a great achiever the focus is on “me”. To be a great leader, the focus is on “them.”

Certainly a number of great achievers aspire to occupy the seat at the top of the organizational chart, or at least the head of a division or department. If you see yourself, even vaguely, in that statement, it may serve you well to reflect on whether such a role is appealing because it would serve as validation or a crowning achievement to years of effort on your part, or if you feel drawn to the role because it would afford the opportunity to help your organization, and the people in it, succeed.

There is not a right or a wrong answer to that question. The world needs both leaders and achievers. And it does not diminish the impact of your accomplishments to focus on, and feel you should be recognized for, your talent and hard work. It may, however, mean that for high achievers, a transition into the role of a leader could be harder than you anticipate, because the two roles require a different set of skills.

What skills does it take to be a great leader? While far from an exhaustive list, some of the attributes leaders need include:

  • The ability to see the potential in others, and the patience to develop that potential.
  • The strength of will to position the organization for long-term impact rather than near-term gain.
  • The confidence to see the value in different approaches, and the curiosity to seek out opinions that may differ from your own.
  • The grit to take an unpopular stand for what you believe to be the greater good.
  • Trust in your people, and a recognition the only way achieve the organization’s mission is through the work of others.

What would you add to this list?

Jim Collins refers to people who are wired this way as Level 5 Leaders — people who demonstrate personal humility and professional will. Certainly, not every person in a position of leadership has these characteristics, but the best leaders do. Can great achievers become great leaders? Absolutely! However, one role is not necessarily a steppingstone to the other and success as an achiever is no guarantee of high performance as a leader.

Achievement is about your performance . . . leadership is about theirs.

 

 

The Donut of Impact

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Last Friday was national donut day. And while I make no promises that the glazed or chocolate covered kind will have any measureable impact on your leadership skills, I recently ran across a donut that just might provide the insight necessary to up your game.

Camille Preston, author of Create More Flow: Igniting Peak Performance in an Overwired World, uses the analogy of a donut to describe how a leader can get into a state of flow — where we are deeply focused, engaged and perform at our peak. She identifies the donut hole as our comfort zone, the donut itself as the learning zone, and the outer edge of the donut as “terror’s edge.” If you were to use a scale, 1 and 2 would be in the comfort zone, 3 and 4 would be in the learning zone, and a 5 would represent terror’s edge. (And for those of you who feel like you are at an 8, having careened right past the edge and off the cliff . . . keep reading!)

Here’s the good news if you are clutching to terror’s edge . . . for maximum impact, the goal is not reaching the comfort zone, but rather the learning zone . . . simply one step back from the outer stress threshold which can feel overwhelming and leads to diminishing performance. While many of us seek what we perceive as the calm of the donut hole, we would do well to re-calibrate our perception of the “sweet spot” of leadership effectiveness — it’s all about the donut.

So how do you get from a 5 (or an 8) to the high performance zone of a 3 or 4? Start by finding a place to gain a foothold — a sense of control. One way to “get back on the donut” is by moving from a “they” to a “we” perspective. Rather than focusing on what “they” are doing, ask how “we” are going to respond in this situation. Answering (even in your mind) with “we don’t have a choice” moves you and your organization closer to terror’s edge, while identifying even one step over which you have control keeps you in a growth mindset where you can discover new possibilities, one decision at a time. Notice, I didn’t say you need to have it all figured out — that is a characteristic of the comfort zone, which maintains the status quo but does not result in peak performance.

Challenges, and the learning that comes from working through them, make us better. Your persistence in “finding a way” to tackle hard things can often lead to the most creative, energizing and impactful solutions — and that is a sweet feeling.

I always knew I liked donuts!

Your Steps in the Dance

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Have you ever started a conversation with or about an individual with the words, “He/you always . . .” or “She/you never . . .”? Such pronouncements are often shared with thinly veiled frustration because, try as you might, you can’t “force” someone to change their behavior . . . right? Actually you can, but not with the threatening or strong-arm tactics you might be imagining. The way we describe the process in our organization is “changing your steps in the dance.”

Notice, I said changing your steps. Any time two people interact, they become part a behavioral dance — one person moves a certain way, and the other responds with a corresponding step. While telling another person they have to change their steps often feels like talking to a brick wall, you have full control over whether you change your steps.

What does it look like when you change your steps in the dance?

• If someone is consistently late to meetings, and you have historically disrupted everyone’s schedule by waiting for them, or taking time to recap what they missed when they arrive, your scolding is unlikely to change their behavior. So change your steps. Start the meeting on time, and don’t offer a recap to late-comers. By not following their “lead”, you might be surprised at how quickly they start arriving on time.

•  When trying to collaborate, if someone comes across as guarded, defensive or not willing to compromise, rather than moving in the same direction and upping the ante, take an unexpected step. Depending on the situation, you might increase your level of openness, ask about barriers you may not be aware of, or express regret that they don’t see the project as a fit for their goals and then move on with those who do.

• For someone you have come to view as a “pot-stirrer”, rather than getting sucked into the drama or totally ignoring what may be a legitimate issue, thank them for their concern for the situation/organization, let them know you will look into it, and then end the discussion. No defending, no questioning . . . simply take the steps of acknowledgement and moving on.

• What examples would you add?

The hardest part of changing your steps is to see the dance in the first place. What might seem obvious to an observer is much harder to see when you are in the midst of an instinctive or habitual response (often fueled with the certainty that you are “right”). Try this . . . the next time you are feeling frustrated with someone’s behavior, rather than focusing on how you want them to behave, stop and ask yourself how you can change your steps in the dance. Remember . . . it takes two to tango.

See you on the dance floor.