Hearing Shark Music

Shark music. It is a term we use in our work with traumatized children and families. Picture yourself walking down a meandering wooded path . . . the birds are singing, wildflowers blooming, and you imagine lovely upbeat music in the background. So peaceful. Now consider the exact same scene, except music you hear is the soundtrack from Jaws. Instead of skipping happily through the woods, you are peering around every tree, wondering what is about to jump out at you. Feel yourself tense up? What felt carefree in the first scenario now feels ominous, requiring hyper-vigilance on your part. Shark music.

The soundtracks in our heads have a major influence on our actions. Jon Acuff highlighted that point recently when speaking at the Global Leadership Summit, as well as in his book Soundtracks, The Surprising Solution to Overthinking. Acuff noted that thoughts playing in the background of our mind have a significant impact on our actions. How much time do you waste thinking about something that happened in the past, making assumptions about why someone acted in a certain way or what you should have said? Or conversely, how often have you delayed taking an action because the soundtrack on repeat in your head is . . . “this is probably a dumb idea” . . . “I have to get this perfect” . . . “what will (insert name of person whose opinion is important to you) think if I do this?” How much time and energy have you wasted on self-imposed shark music?

Just like in movies, we often don’t even notice the music in the background, even though it is impacting our reactions. The good news? Once you intentionally start to hear the the tune in your head, you can make a decision to change it. Rather than the paralyzing “I have to get this perfect”, you can choose the soundtrack of, “This is a good place to start, and we can adjust as we go.” Instead of perseverating about what someone meant by their comment, you can switch to “I need to ask them to clarify their comment.” Replacing even a single negative soundtrack can save time, renew your energy, and propel you to action.

Take a moment to consider . . . what tune about yourself, your leadership abilities, has been playing on repeat in your head? Acuff notes, “if you listen to any thought long enough, it becomes a part of your personal playlist.” Is your playlist serving you well, or is it littered with shark music about yourself or others?

You get to choose your playlist. Is it time for some new tunes?

Finding Leadership Inspiration on the Bookshelf

I am a reader. Like pretty hard core. I have a library in my home, along with large bookcases in both my work and home offices, all filled to overflowing. Yes, I know I could get e-books or audio versions, and have, but there is nothing quite like holding a book in your hand and uncovering just the nugget of insight you need to address a current situation. Because of the value I place reading and learning, I am often asked if I had to suggest just one or two books to someone, what would they be? Hard question. Depends on the person and the situation. There are a few authors, however, whose ideas and approaches have made me a better leader.

Jim Collins

Good to Great is his classic, and should be required reading for any leader. Two of his concepts that are especially important for organizations are the hedgehog concept — what are you passionate about, what can you be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. Do that. The second is the Stockdale Paradox, which is to be brutally honest about your current sitation AND have an unwaivering faith that you will prevail. He has also written a corresponding monograph on Good to Great in the Social Sectors but that should be read as a companion piece to the book, not a stand alone. If you’re not a big reader, Collins also has numerous articles and podcasts (as well as other great books) where he shares his insight.

John Kotter

Like Collins, it is hard to pick just one Kotter book to recommend, however Leading Change is definitely high on the list, primarily because 70% of major organizational change efforts fail. Yep, 70% — that’s not a typo. Kotter takes you through eight steps that bolster your chances of success. It seems so easy when you see it in print, and yet so hard to be patient with the process when you are in the midst of it. One big takeaway — we tend to under communicate by a factor of 10! Just because you think you have “said it” a lot (probably to lots of different groups who each have heard it one or two times . . . when they may or may not have been paying attention) doesn’t mean the message is clear. If you’re not in the midst of a change initiative, pick up What Leaders Really Do, which is a master class on the difference between leadership and management — both of which are critical for success, but require different skills and abilities.

Max DePree

Leadership is an Art is my favorite of DePree’s books, perhaps because it was my first exposure to his approach to servant leadership. Unlike Collins and Kotter, who are scholars and researchers, DePree was chairman and CEO of Herman Miller Inc., widely recognized for it’s innovation, management and a best company to work for. DePree’s view on leadership is that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must because a servant and a debtor.” And also, “In a day when so much energy seems to be spent on maintenance and manuals, on bureaucracy and meaningless quantification, to be a leader is to enjoy the special privileges of complexity, of ambiguity, of diversity.” 

These three barely scratch the surface of my recommended reading list, but they are a great place to start. What books brought you important nuggets of leadership insight? There might be just a bit more room in my bookcase . . .

Is it Worth the Risk?

Act or don’t act. Push back or bite your tongue. Nudge from the inside or blast from the outside. Wait your turn or do an end run . . . How do you choose the best response in a given situation? How do you know if a bold action is worth the risk, or if it is better to take a quieter or more clearly marked path? There is no right or wrong answer, but there are some considerations that may help you determine how to respond in the moment.

1. Is this an on-going issue or is it more singularly focused? 

A one time situation may not warrant taking a significant risk. You might not agree with the approach or specific decision, but if it is an isolated incident you may choose to save your “confrontational chips” for another situation. If, on the other hand, it is an on-going issue that will affect you on a day-in-day-out basis, the potential “reward” may outweigh the risk. In such cases, acting more quickly can save you considerable pain and suffering. If it’s going to happen sooner or later, you might as well pick sooner.

2. Is it going to damage a relationship that is important to you?

Sometimes, focusing first on the relationship rather than the issue prompts you to offer a measure of grace or consider a different perspective than you otherwise might. Perhaps a private conversation is called for rather than a public statement. Are you willing to invest the time and effort into seeking common ground? Is taking this immediate risk worth the set-back to a long-term valued relationship? This isn’t about “selling your soul” or making ethical compromises, but rather pausing long enough to honor a shared history and consider the ramifications of damaging that.

3. Is this your fight, or one someone else wants you to take on?

In our increasingly polarized world, there are plenty of people trying to convince you that you “need” to take a stand on a particular issue. Do you? You can have an opinion and take actions that support that opinion without becoming a poster child for a particular issue. I am not saying you should not take a public and vocal stand on something, but if you take a stand on everything, how might you reduce your influence for those things you care most about?

The final litmus test is listening to your gut. When your head has rationalized a more (or less) subtle or confrontational approach but your gut keeps nudging you to take a different stand, I would take a good hard look at what your gut is trying to tell you. It is often the voice of your wisest self.

Increasingly, leaders are being pressured to take positions that may or may not serve their, and their organization’s, long-term best interests. Chances are, you will get pushback regardless of your decision. The choice is yours . . . is it worth the risk?

Speaking Truth to Power for Long Term Gain

There has been much written about speaking truth to power, however, much of it has been relating to making a single bold statement or move. While there is a time and place for such pronouncements, far more often a more subtle, long-term approach increases the likelihood of embedding the change you seek. For the most impatient change-makers, this may feel like “pandering” or watering down what “really needs to happen.” Having tried it both ways, I have found the long game to be far more successful (even though I have rarely been accused of being patient). What exactly does “the long game” look like?

1. Clearly articulate, for yourself, what you are trying to accomplish. Is it being treated as an equal with a longer tenured but less “cutting edge” colleague? Is it persuading the organization to take a new approach, or try a new technology to improve performance? Is it trying to shift the focus from short-term gains to long-term impact? Resist the urge to respond solely to individual interactions (hard as it may be) and keep your focus on moving toward the long-term goal. Sometimes that means enduring seeming set-backs that position you for greater progress in the future.

2. What is the source of the “power player’s” resistance? What does he or she “lose” (at least in their mind) by embracing your ideas? Do they have legitimate concerns that you need to consider? Is there an unrecognized “gain” for the organization or the power player that you can point out? Not sure the answer to these questions? Ask. Change agents who are willing to be collaborative, to tease out and respond to legitimate sources of resistance, have the greatest chance of moving the dial toward long term change. Does this take longer. Yep. Lasting change is a long game.

3. You don’t have to start by playing every card. You may know that a more senior leader agrees with your position, and if pushed to would most likely back you up. However, if your goal is to move the whole organization forward, doing an end-run at the start of the effort is only going to build unnecessary pushback. Working to overcome resistance only strengthens your position, and allowing people to save face and/or to come to the inevitable outcome themselves does much more to build trust and a collective effort moving forward.

4. Level heads prevail. When people are pushed to change, emotions get involved. Frustration can spark, people can say harsh things, unfair or even untrue things. It is hard not to react. That is why it is good to remind yourself (in advance) that the level head “wins.” Make an impact based on the strength of your argument, not the emotional ferver of your response. At an empasse? It is perfectly acceptable to respond, “I am sorry you feel that way. I hope you are able to reconsider your position in the future,” and then walk away.

The road to lasting change often starts with one brave soul speaking truth to power. And if it’s that important, it is worth taking the time to be strategic in your approach. So make a plan, then step forward and speak up. We need change-makers like you.

One Sentence to Increase Your Success

It is well documented that 70% of change efforts fail to have the intended impact. Seventy percent! Why do so many “best laid plans” fall short of the mark? In many cases, it is because we haven’t distilled the plan down to it’s simplest, clearest form. In my experience, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time it takes you to explain the effort and the likelihood of it’s success. Regardless of the “size” of the initiative, if you can’t explain it in a single sentence, chances are pretty good you’ll be in the 70%. Here’s the challenge . . .

One sentence is hard.

There are, no doubt, numerous variables, complexities and details that are critical to your plan. Really, how can you capture that in a single sentence? And in this age of transparency, we want to make sure that people have as much information as possible . . . the phases, processes and nuances of the effort. That’s what good leaders do, right? Provide the context, outline the plan and then empower their people to carry it out? Except, the more complex your explanation, the greater chance it gets misinterpreted in the re-telling. Maybe not by a lot at the beginning, but a small variance at the starting point can lead to an entirely different destination when you run it out.

One sentence takes time.

It is easier, and faster, to include volumes of detail. If you want to increase your odds of success, however, you have to take the time to identify the complexity, and then wade through all that stuff to arrive at the single focused goal on the other side. More time on the front-end of the effort to determine and clearly articulate what success looks like, specifically, significantly increases your odds of achieving it on the back end. “Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade” may have made some people nervous in 1962 — they may have preferred a more generic “30% increase in lunar projects”— but no one was unclear about the measure of success.

One sentence is energizing.

Success is exciting, and when your people know exactly what success looks like, momentum builds and creativity flourishes. People can focus on reaching the specific destination rather than be distracted by preliminary plans that have been rendered irrelevant by unexpected variables. One sentence gives your people the permission to find alternate, often better, paths to your ultimate goal. Besides that, a 47-page plan sucks the life out of even the more detail-oriented person, while a clear succinct target — say a one sentence destination and a one page framework for how you will get there — fuels the innovation needed ensure your project is among the 30% of efforts that succeed.

What’s your sentence?

The 15 Minutes That Makes All the Difference

People don’t leave jobs. They leave supervisors. I hear this consistently from my friends in HR, and have seen it happen too many times myself. Good staff, with the right values and solid skills, who feel unnoticed or unappreciated. While their supervisor is distracted by squeaky wheels, bureaucratic hoops and other forms of (often) unnecessary drama, these foundations of your team start to slowly lose their sense of engagement and energy for the job. Does anyone notice? Does anyone care that these individuals are “ripe for the picking” in the midst of a demanding job market?

According to Marcus Buckingham, in his new book Love+Work, spending 15 minutes each week with each of your direct reports is a foundational component of building engagement among your team. Fifteen minutes, asking four simple questions: What did you love about last week? What did you loathe about last week? What are your priorities this week? What help do you need from me? 15 minutes. Once a week. According to Buckingham’s research, doing this every week drives team member engagement up by 77%, and voluntary turnover in the next six months decreases by 67%. 15 minutes, once a week.

In that 15 minutes, over the course of time, you will learn what sparks each of your team members. You will know what unique aspects of their role keep them coming back day after day. Because even if you have a dozen people who all have the same job description, each of them connects with their role in a very different way. That’s the beauty of a team — everyone brings their own unique gifts and graces to the table, which enrichs your team and makes it more impactful.

In that 15 minutes, you will also learn how best to support your people. Are they motivated by public recognition or prefer a private “job well done”? Do they like to work interactively with people or prefer more solo work? Are they driven by the letter of the procedure, or do they prefer a bit of creative license to dance near or perhaps slightly over “the line”? When you see and appreciate them for the unique individual they are, rather than a person filling a position, their engagement with and positive impact on your organization will only expand further.

15 minutes. Even if you have 10 direct reports, we’re talking two and a half hours of your week . . . to increase engagement, reduce turnover, and learn more about the important work happening in your organization every day. Two and a half hours of leading.

Working on your priority list? Maybe you should start with 15 minutes that can make all the difference.

Be a Noticer

Originally Published May 19, 2015

This week I had the opportunity to drive across numerous states, and landscapes . . . the rolling green Flint Hills of Kansas, the rocky barren beauty of rural New Mexico and the lush desert landscapes of Arizona (who knew there were purple cacti?). The ever-changing scenery stood out because it had been a number of years since I last traveled through this part of the country (and then it was with a young family in a mini van, so it is likely I missed a thing or two). As a result, I noticed details of the landscape that I imagine those who travel the same road every day probably don’t see any more. I also thought about how someone from Oklahoma might be taken aback by the sheer greenness, and peaceful river bluffs that I sometimes take for granted in the place I call home.

The same thing can happen in our own organizations. There are undoubtedly some pretty amazing things taking place right under your nose . . . a grounds keeper who takes personal pride in keeping the place looking its best . . . a caseworker who buys a pizza for a family and takes the time to really build a relationship with them . . . a teacher who continually finds creative ways to engage a struggling student. Do you notice them? Or have they simply become part of the background you pass on your way to the next meeting?

And what about those things that perhaps don’t cast your organization in the best light? Do you see the peeling paint, or hear the frustration in the voice of a supervisor who is trying to reason with a difficult client? Do you see the resignation on the face of a staff member who feels like, once again, no one is listening? You might not notice, but it’s a pretty safe bet that someone who is experiencing your organization for the first time will see those things, and so much more.

Part of a leader’s job is to be a noticer . . . to identify and recognize those positive details, and not so positive, with the eyes of a visitor or potential customer. A noticer doesn’t generically say “You did a great job,” but, “Thanks so much for your patience. Your approach really diffused what could have been a very difficult situation.” A noticer doesn’t say “You need to improve your attitude”, but rather, “You appear to see things differently. Help me understand the situation from your perspective.” It’s the little things that can make all the difference in how someone experiences you organization. Do you see them?

My challenge to you today is to be a noticer. Walk through the day with the eyes of a visitor. Identify at least three things that would likely stand out to a guest . . . Do staff greet others when they walk past, or seem to not even see them? Are people given individualized responses or a recitation from the rule book? Is your front entry way warm and inviting or cold and cluttered? Then ask yourself, are these the things you want someone else to notice about your organization?

The best part is, once you as the leader become more of a noticer, the rest of your staff will likely follow suit. If a staff member sees you noticing the candy wrapper on the ground and picking it up, the more likely they will be to notice and dispose of trash in the future. If others observe you asking the opinion of front line staff, they will be more apt to do the same in the next situation. When you recognize someone who has gone the extra mile, it encourages their colleagues to put in extra effort because they have noticed it is valued.

Lead with the eyes of a noticer . . . you just might be amazed at the view.

Hearing Your Brain Think

We live in an increasingly noisy world. Not only is the amount of information vying for our attention growing exponentially, but the volume of the cries seems to be increasing at a similar rate. Most leaders today are being “shouted at” about things that need our “immediate response” at a level and frequency that is simply unsustainable. At the same time, that still small voice inside — you know, where most of our wisdom comes from — remains consistently still and small. If we want to use that as our guide (and we should) it takes an intentional effort to get quiet enough to hear it.

I’m not here to tell you the best time and place to get quiet. Some people find clarity through exercise or early morning reflection. For others, it is spending time in nature or while driving on an open road. In the vast majority of cases, it happens during time spent away from devices and other people. And in my experience, you have to ease into it. If I have a two-hour drive to a meeting, it is probably going to take me 30 minutes to quiet my mind enough to hear my brain think. But then, look out! Insights and ideas seem to come out of nowhere, pieces start to fit into place, seemingly disconnected things start to connect . . . Now I have to admit, I love these kind of car rides, but they do occasionally make my people a bit nervous, especially when I start our next meeting with, “I had a thought the other day on my way to . . .”

Still, the challenge remains, how do you carve out time to hear your brain think in your already overloaded schedule?

1. Identify it as part of the job. Too often, we feel like time spent in reflection or thinking is not really “working” because there is not a clear result we can check off of a to-do list. Or, it gets relegated to something we can do in our “spare” time (you know, when you should be sleeping). Trust me, the broader your scope of authority, the more critical this becomes — it is most definitely part of the job.

2. Schedule it. It would be nice to think that you will find chunks of time in your calendar for reflection, but how often does that really happen? More than likely, free blocks of time are filled with emails, returning phone calls, or moving stacks of paper from one pile to another. Be intentional. This is a critical function. Schedule it.

3. Process with others. Once you have heard that still small voice, share your ideas, thoughts and reflections with your team. They will often add their own insight to make the end result even better. Reflection is often the starting point of a discussion, or a way to break through a stalemate. It is rarely the final solution. When you encourage others to build on your reflection, you not only model the importance of quiet time, you encourage them to engage with the bigger solution.

Who are you going to allow to set your leadership priorities — those screaming with the latest/greatest solution, or that innate, hard won wisdom you hold inside? I’m betting on you. And all it takes is getting quiet enough to hear your brain think.

Connecting the Dots

Did you ever take on a dot-to-dot puzzle when you were a kid? Depending on its complexity, that initial view of dots and numbers — going in every direction with no apparent logic — could be a bit overwhelming. Once you started to connect the dots, however, a clear picture started to emerge. That’s really not so different from what many people face in their jobs each day. Projects and activities may seem random and disconnected to those carrying out the work. You, as the leader, probably have a clear understanding of the final picture you are working towards, but do your people?

When people know the desired outcome, it is much easier to engage them, excite them, build momentum and bring about creative solutions. When they know what the picture is supposed to look like, your people can better identifiy a misstep early on, when it is easier to course correct, or offer a suggestion to improve the final result. That sounds logical enough, and yet so often we just assume that since we know where we are going, our people do to. Not true.

How do you connect the dots for your people?

1. Provide a one sentence description of the end goal.

Not a paragraph with three charts and six pages of further explanation. No one will remember that. People can remember a single sentence. Also, distilling your complex goal down to a single sentence forces you to become clearer on exactly where you are going — not a general direction that is open to misinterpretation by multiple people —the exact measure of what will be considered a successful completion of the goal.

2. Repeat the end goal . . . a lot.

Your end goal may be your number one priority, but the only way it will become that for your people is if you remind them. Repetition builds retention. Become a broken record. Only when you hear your people sharing the end goal with others – in your exact words – will you know that they hold in their minds the same picture of success that you do.

3. Describe how each project supports the end goal.

Just because you know how this particular project supports the overall project, that doesn’t mean that others do. It only takes a few minutes for you to connect the dots for them, and you can see it in their eyes when all the pieces click into place. Never assume that people see the picture the same way you do. Added bonus . . . your people may come up with an even better way to meet the end goal . . . but you’ll only know that if you take the time to connect.

When you and your team are going in multiple directions, working on what some might see as disconnected projects, it is critical that everyone has a clear picture of the end goal. The best way to do that? Connect the dots.

The Courage to Continue

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” Now, it is easy for wordsmiths like me to tout such pithy phrases during challenging times, but when you tease out Churchill’s words they are instructive to all of us who would hope to lead.

Success is not final. So celebrate it NOW. Don’t wait for the big giant wins. Acknowledge the daily steps forward — both yours and those of the people you lead. You can hold people accountable for reaching their goals while still encouraging and thanking them, along the way. What “mini-celebration” is in order today? Ice cream for the team . . . a written thank you note . . . a heartfelt compliment for someone’s novel solution to a unique challenge.

Far too often, we don’t even take time to celebrate the big wins, much less the small steps forward. Success in one area merely becomes a blip on the screen toward the next goal. Maybe we think we’ll come back and celebrate it once we complete the entire project. Except we won’t. Even when it feels like we have reached the peak, there will always be other mountains to climb. Success is not final — so give yourself and your people permission to take a moment to smile, to pat each other on the back and and acknowledge your good work . . today. Success is not a destination. It is a feeling generated by the leader each step of the way.

Failure is not fatal. Yes, it may feel like it at the moment. And the more you cared about the project at hand, the worse it hurts when you come up short. So give yourself a moment to catch your breath and feel the pain of the situation (notice I said a moment, not a month), honestly ask yourself what you learned from the experience, and then dust yourself off and take a step. Will people trust you, will they believe you know what you are doing after you just failed? That all depends. Have you built a culture that recognizes that experimentation and making adjustments are part of the process? Can you acknowledge where you came up short and ask others to help you find a different solution? Are you overwhelmed by what you can’t control, or are you able to identify what you can control and start planning from there? You have the power to decide if failure is fatal, or serves as a launchpad to future success.

It is the courage to continue that counts. Or to use another Churchill quote, “When you’re going through hell keep going.” Leadership is hard. There are days when the successes are fleeting and the weight of failure feels unbearable. Take a step. It doesn’t have to be huge or especially noteworthy, but move. Keep going. Failure infects the stagnant. So don’t be stagnant. Take a step. Consider it an act of rebellion if that helps . . . a refusal to let failure win. 

Lots of people can follow a clearly identified path. But when those best laid plans go awry? That’s when you need a leader . . . not a perfect one who has never failed . . . simply with the courage to continue.