Trust the Process

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That’s a phrase we use often in our organization — amongst ourselves, and as a source of encouragement for those with whom we work. What exactly do we mean when we say, “Trust the process?” Well, there are several important concepts rolled up in that one simple phrase.

  • Big important goals take time. Success rarely happens in a single leap or stroke of good luck (no matter what it might look like from the outside). Consistent focus on taking one step at a time — even when those steps don’t seem exciting or flashy — builds a solid foundation for future success. Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden started each year by focusing on how his players tied their shoes — which new players often scoffed at. The UCLA basketball team won 10 national championships in 12 years, and Coach Wooden was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Trust the process.
  • The middle of the process often feels like a hot mess. It is during this “muck in the middle” that a leader (and/or their team) can start to lose hope — when it appears that things have gone off the rails and are getting worse, not better. In the midst of this stage, the intended path forward appears futile and a leader may start to seriously question their best-laid plan. Ever hear the phrase “It is darkest before the dawn”? Trust the process.
  • It doesn’t get easier. One would think that once you have walked through the wilderness a few times, you would learn how to avoid the challenges of implementing a major change or new initiative. Not so much. Perhaps that is what separates the leaders committed to long-term success from the wannabes. You have to be willing to work through the discomfort . . . and trust the process.
  • But you can get wiser. Once you accept that the only way to get to the other side is to go endure a bit of fog and a few bumps along the way, you can predict — for yourself and others — what to expect. Being able to clearly articulate in advance, “yes, it always feels bad at this stage, but once we wade through it we will turn a corner, and the outcome will be worth the effort” gives you confidence, and then you in turn can help those you are leading feel more confident as well.

Knowledge is power, even if that knowledge is simply recognizing that the path ahead will include periods of uncertainty and discomfort. When you know that, you can recognize the uneasiness for the progress it is, and you can share that awareness and encouragement with those who are looking to you for guidance.

Trust the process.

The Effort and Uncertainty of Leadership Development

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The professional development of your staff is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities. That’s easy to agree with in theory, but oh so much harder to live out in practice. Why? First of all, it can be hard to prioritize this responsibility among the urgent issues clamoring for your attention. The need for leadership development doesn’t have a deadline, and it is not screaming for attention (well, at least not until you are in a crisis situation . . . and then it is too late). It is more likely to be a persistent low buzz in the background, always there but easy to ignore.

Secondly — and in all likelihood the real reason we avoid leadership development — it takes real effort, and is rife with uncertainty. Not the “book learning” part of leadership development. That part is pretty easy, and frankly that is where far too many organizations stop. I’m talking about where the rubber meets the road. The point at which you give an emerging leader the chance to pursue their idea — even if it is different from the path that you would take, and even if you really need the project to succeed. Hmmm . . . suddenly that bold idea seems a bit more risky. Maybe they’re not ready . . . maybe this isn’t the right project . . . the budget is really tight, do we really want to experiment right now . . .?

If you think I am about to reveal the key to making leadership development quick and easy, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you are looking for long-term success, here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

  • They will stub their toe. (Didn’t you?) Expect it, and recognize that missteps are only “career limiting” if we don’t allow the emerging leader to learn from the experience and find a way around the challenge before them. Mistakes are how people grow, so don’t rescue your emerging leader too quickly. Let them sit with the challenge and identify possible solutions. (Note, this may be harder for you than it is for them!)
  • Don’t set them up to fail. Yes, let them stub their toe and learn from it, but also don’t turn them loose to sink or swim totally on their own. Where do you find that balance point? In questions. For maximum growth, don’t provide them with all the (your) answers — even if they ask for them. Rather, ask questions that will help them consider the critical variables that will impact their success.
  • The “right amount” of guidance is a moving target. How do you find the balance between imparting the wisdom that comes from your years of experience and supporting the emerging leader’s new ideas? Open and on-going “I” conversations are a good place to start — as in “I can share what I have experienced” rather than “this is what you should do.” Then listen, and recalibrate as needed.

Leadership development is not an exact science, but it is worth the effort. Of that, I am certain.

Minimizing Meltdowns, Reducing Conflict & Increasing Cooperation

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I’m excited to share that yesterday was the national release of our new book, Raising the Challenging Child — How to Minimize Meltdowns, Reduce Conflict and Increase Cooperation. We believe the lessons in this book will be helpful to parents, teachers, or anyone who works with kids . . . because even the best kids have challenging moments! I’d be honored if you would check it out and consider purchasing a copy.

That’s all well and good, but why am I talking about a parenting book in a leadership blog (aside from the fact that I am really proud of this book)? You just might be surprised at how many similarities there are between what you encounter as a parent and the things you experience as a leader. Think about it . . . wouldn’t you like to minimize meltdowns, reduce conflict and increase cooperation among those you work with? If so, you might consider a few of the lessons from the book.

  • Invest in the relationship bank. Think of your interactions with your staff as a relationship bank. Are you making more deposits than withdrawals? Deposits are things like asking their option, praising their efforts, showing genuine interest in them as a person, not just a means to an end. Withdrawals happen when you shoot down their idea, ignore them, or don’t acknowledge their contribution to a project. There will be times when you have to make a withdrawal, but those are easier for a staff member to take in stride when you have lots of deposits to draw from.
  • Share power to get power. The fact that an employee does what you ask of them does not mean they respect you. Following a directive in the moment is not the same as being fully engaged and taking ownership for one’s actions. However, when a leader is willing to share power through listening to new ideas, willingness to compromise, or providing autonomy on how a project is completed, we not only make deposits in the relationship bank, we also increase the confidence, mastery and commitment of our staff members.
  • Change your steps in the dance. If you catch yourself thinking, “Bob always . . .” or “Sue never . . .” you have fallen into an ineffective pattern, or “dance” with this individual. Assuming you have taken steps to try to change their behavior to no avail, perhaps you need to consider changing your steps in the dance. If you are frustrated because Bob always shows up late to meetings, keeping everyone else waiting, change your behavior and don’t wait for him. Start the meeting on time and let him deal with the natural consequences of missing part of the meeting.

Did I mention the book includes 30 Lessons and has an audio version? What have you got to lose by checking it out . . . other than meltdowns, conflict and a lack of cooperation?

Getting the Game-Changing Win

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We have a book that releases next week. I look forward to sharing more about the book in an upcoming blog (okay, probably several upcoming blogs …) but today, I want to focus on the choice to take this journey. Hindsight is 20/20. It is easy to clearly identify something as a good idea at the end of it — when the wisdom of your decision is evident, the project is a success and everyone is patting you on the back for a job well done. Unfortunately, “good ideas” rarely come labeled as such on the front end. In fact, those leadership decisions that end up being the biggest “game changers” often have the most skeptics at the outset.

So what does it take to turn that “crazy idea” that keeps tugging at you into a long-term, game-changing win for your organization?

  • Strategic clarity. This is what gives you the confidence to choose to pursue an initiative that others in your industry might advise against. Most people offer feedback based on where they are standing — their perspective — which may be entirely different from your strategic focus. The clearer you are on your organization’s destination, the more confidence you can have in decisions that might not make sense to someone who is pursuing a different or more well-trod path.
  • Adaptability. When you are really clear on and committed to the destination, you don’t let roadblocks stop you. You find a way to adapt. Our book evolved over the time we worked on it. Sure the topic and goals for the book are the same as when we started, but the format, the title, the specific chapters and look of the book unfolded a bit differently than we imagined at the start of the project — and the end result is better! I’ve yet to see a successful project that didn’t require, and benefit from, some adapting along the way.
  • Impatient patience. Patience has become a rare commodity in today’s instant everything, “quarterly bottom-line” world. We started the process of writing this book in 2015 . . . more than 4 ½ years before its actual release date! Most big ideas don’t bear fruit in a single year, much less a single quarter, and so you have to be realistic — with yourself and your stakeholders — about the long-term nature of the expected outcomes. At the same time, you have to have a sense of urgency to keep pressing forward, always asking, “What is the next step in the process?”

Making and implementing an “out-of-the-box” decision is not for the faint of heart. It takes strategic clarity, adaptability and impatient patience. As we start a new year, are you willing to take that journey?

Here’s to a game-changing win!

Leadership Lessons Born in a Manger

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Originally Published December 23, 2014

How many leaders today could even fathom their impact being felt throughout the world for more than 2,000 years? Truly, from the most humble of earthly beginnings came the greatest leader that any person could strive to emulate. In this Christmas Season, as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, it seems most appropriate to reflect on a few leadership lessons born in a manger.

  • He was humble, yet would not be deterred from his mission. Twenty centuries later, Jim Collins would describe this as Level 5 Leadership — a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. Jesus set an unreachable bar in terms of knowing it was not about him, but it was up to him. Just because the bar is unreachable doesn’t mean you and I shouldn’t strive to follow his example and make sure the focus stays on the what, not the who.
  • He never lost sight of the big picture, or the importance of little things. Here was a man who clearly knew how things ultimately needed to unfold. In spite, or perhaps because, of that he took time for the little things — an individual conversation or blessing, a meal with friends — that would forever impact those he touched. How many of us either get consumed by the what-ifs, or distracted by the details, and ultimately diminish our impact?
  • He recognized, and built on, the gifts and graces of his team. With all due respect, it was a rather motley crew that he called to serve as his disciples. And then there was Saul (before his conversion to Paul). Seriously, who among us would bring someone who was persecuting us into the fold? And yet, Jesus saw the gifts and graces within each of these souls. Are we as leaders willing to look beyond the safe bet, the likely candidate, to build on the potential hidden in unlikely wrappers? How might we extend our mission reach if we took that risk?
  • He took time to renew his spirit. I know, I know, we don’t have time to step back . . . demands are coming from every direction . . . our staff are seeking guidance . . . a deadline is looming . . . Um, hello, Jesus had to deal with, among other things, 5000 hungry people, a panicked staff, and two loaves and fishes, and yet he still found time to be by himself. If the Son of God needs time for rest and renewal, do you think maybe, just maybe, we mere mortals could improve our performance by taking a deep breath every once in a while?

Clearly, I am no theologian . . . but I do consider myself a student, and one who has barely scratched the surface of the many leadership — and life — lessons born in a manger so many years ago. As you listen to the carols, and perhaps walk past a nativity set, I hope you’ll take a few moments to reflect . . . not only on the baby in the manger, but also on the rich lessons His life holds for all of us who are called to lead. May you and yours have a most blessed Christmas.

What Star Guides Your Organization?

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Yes, the holidays are fast approaching, another year is drawing to a close, and chances are your to-do list has gone rogue, seemingly multiplying of its own accord . . . Stop. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. (Go ahead, I’ll wait). Now, when your brain feels quiet enough to think, consider this question: If you asked every person you lead “What is the star, the singular destination, that guides our organization?” how many answers would you get?  Ten . . . twenty-seven . . . a slightly different one for each employee?

I’m not talking about whether your staff can recite your mission statement — although that is good, too. I am talking about a big, hairy, audacious goal that lights a fire under all your efforts. I am talking about something that is “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade” specific. . . a gleaming star of a destination that guides and permeates all of your actions. Yes, I realize that you have 14 programs, 8 funding sources, and a host of tedious external requirements that all seem to be pulling you in different directions. Besides, while it might sound good on paper, it feels too risky to lock yourself into a singular destination . . . better to hedge your bets, right?

How many staff members have you seen bring their A-game to hedging their bets? Trying to cover all the bases is what causes your to-do list to go rogue and suck you dry. It diffuses your energy and attention, and that of your people. By contrast, a powerful guiding star builds energy and excitement. Yes, you might still have 17 items on your to-do list, but when they are all moving you closer to a single gleaming destination, you gain momentum as you go, rather feeling like you are getting farther and farther behind.

Simplicity, clarity and focus are the three biggest challenges facing leaders today. Our world is complex, the options before us are endless, and attention spans are shorter than ever before. As a leader it is your job to chart a course through all the noise, to provide a beacon for those you lead that is clearer and brighter than all the shiny objects seeking to grab your attention and that of your people.

Don’t have a guiding star? The New Year is a great time to identify one. Yes, this may feel overwhelming and virtually impossible at first. There will be lots of people trying to get you to follow their star. There will be well-intended naysayers suggesting you should follow multiple stars at once (stop and think about how much progress you will really make by doing that . . .) But here’s the thing: it is totally worth the effort. Once you focus in on a clear destination, you actually have more options, not fewer. You (and your people) will have more excitement, more energy, and more bandwidth to accomplish amazing things.

Find your star.

One Step Beyond Logical

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I recently attended an international conference targeted toward researchers of nonprofits. I lead a nonprofit organization. One might assume that researchers who study nonprofits would have similar perspectives as practitioners who work in one. For the most part — at least based on this experience — that assumption would be wrong. And just as some of the viewpoints I heard differed from my own experiences, I’m guessing some of my questions felt a bit unexpected to the presenters . . . and that’s a good thing!

Looking beyond logical points of connection to intentionally spend time with people who are addressing a similar challenge from a different perspective can stretch your thinking in powerful ways. As a leader who is deeply immersed in your field, it is easy to get siloed in your thinking without even knowing it . . . simply by surrounding yourself with people or attending meetings and conferences that look at a challenge from the same “lane” that you arein . . . i.e. only going to conferences with other nonprofit execs. After all, you’re the experts, the ones who really understand the issues, right?

Maybe it’s time you stepped outside of your usual lane. Simply taking a half-step in either direction from your current viewpoint can result in surprising new insights. It’s not as hard as you might think:

  • Look at how different industries have taken on a similar challenge. For example, if you are in a nonprofit organization, how have manufacturers handled situations that at first glance may not seem the same, but at their core really are?
  • Attend a conference that piques your interest, even if it is not an obvious fit. Learning about less familiar topics can yield, perhaps surprisingly, more “light bulb” moments than continuing to chip away at an issue with similar-minded people.
  • Read a magazine or follow a blog that is different from what you usually read. If you are a Harvard Business Review kind of person, read a few issues of Fast Company or Inc. magazine or ask a young professional for a recommendation of a podcast they think you would like.
  • Talk to people working in different aspects of your industry — or people who have little to no knowledge of your industry — and ask their perspective on the challenges you are trying to tackle.

I know, I know . . . you don’t have time or resources to keep up with everything inside your field, much less investing time and energy into something that on the surface seems unlikely to help you address the challenges before you.

But what if it does?

I’m not suggesting that you give up on gaining wisdom and direction from within your industry, only that you also take advantage of the fresh insight waiting for you  . . . one step beyond the logical.