Making Pie

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Originally Published December 2, 2015

There is an old, rather ragged-looking, but very prolific pear tree in our yard.  No matter how wet or dry the year, this old tree cranks out buckets and buckets of pears. Until recently, we just sort of accepted the tree as part of the yard. The dogs liked the pears, it was a bit of a pain to mow around, but all in all we didn’t really think much about it . . . until this year, when my husband gave an acquaintance a bucket of pears and to show her thanks, she gave us a pie . . . pear pie. Amazing!

Pear pie??? That’s the reaction of nearly everyone I mention it to. Virtually no one has heard of pear pie. But believe me, just because you haven’t heard of it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea! Yes, I now have started making pear pies, and exposing others to the joy of this unique dessert . . . and more importantly, I have now recognized, and am starting to capitalize on, the unique resource I’ve had right under my nose for more than 16 years.

How often do we do that in our own organizations . . . ignore the the unique resources that are right under our noses? Maybe it’s land or buildings that could be used differently, or people with special skills, or a way of viewing the world that allows you to see pie when others only see a ratty old tree. Sure people will tell you that you’re crazy, that they’ve never heard of such a thing . . . that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea!

Every organization has it’s pear trees. They are usually not flashy. They won’t jump up and down to get your attention, they’ll just faithfully hang in there waiting to be discovered. As the leader of such an organization, it is your responsibility to either discover your hidden (or at least not noticed) fruit-producers, or at the very least, listen to your own explorers/dreamers/crazy-thinkers when they share ideas about the potential they see in a resource that is already in your midst.

Is every idea a winner? Of course not. (My attempts to make bread from the fruit of the paw paw tree in our yard being a prime example.) But that doesn’t mean you stop exploring new possibilities! That doesn’t make it okay to get stuck in the rut of seeing things the same way as every other organization. It simply means that idea didn’t work. And there are pleny more out there . . . ideas, I mean. You just have to be willing to see what’s before you with new eyes.

Maybe, just maybe, it is time for you to start making pie.

Being Before Doing

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Ever feel like you are on a leadership hamster wheel, simply trying to keep up with all the items on your to-do list . . . doing, doing, doing . . . and yet for each task you take off the top of the list, three things get added to the bottom? Sure, you know you need to prioritize, balance the urgent with the important, maybe even develop a stop doing list . . . and yet you remain stuck on the wheel . . . doing, doing, doing.

How can you step off the wheel? Focus on being before doing. Seriously. That one conscious shift — that momentary pause to frame your thinking — can make a huge difference in how you approach your day/project/strategic priorities. “Being” looks around . . . it surveys the landscape and identifies opportunities that help move you toward your goals. “Doing” looks down . . . nose to the grindstone, finish the task at hand as efficiently and effectively as possible.

That might sound good in theory, but what exactly does being before doing look like?

Being grateful. Intentionally choosing to be grateful is like putting on night-vision glasses that bring those things for which you are thankful into sharper focus. No the challenges of your work don’t go away, but you are better able to keep them in context. It means you focus on the amazing people you have around you to help move your organization through the tough stuff. It means you appreciate the opportunities you’ve had to learn in the past so you are better prepared to blaze a new trail that others can follow, even knowing it will likely be a difficult path. What you focus on grows in your mind. You can focus on the problem or, by choosing to be grateful, you can focus on the tools you have to solve it.

Being strategic. Deciding to be strategic shifts your perspective from what to why and how. It puts you in the drivers seat to make decisions that move you toward your long-term goals, rather than simply responding to someone else’s priorities. It allow you to identify how a particular task — regardless of how important it may seem to others — advances the vision for your organization, which makes it easier to prioritize accordingly. Being strategic allows you to have confidence in the path you choose because you know that decisions that may not make sense to others in the short term (and thus result in pushback) may be exactly what is needed to accomplish your goals in the long term.

Being you. Claiming your own unique gifts and graces — which got you to your position of leadership in the first place — keeps the “shoulds” offered by well-intentioned people in context. Granted, every strength has a shadow side when taken to extremes, however knowing how you are wired — what energizes you, what special skills do you have, where your Achilles heals lie — allows you to lead most effectively. You will lead differently from others, and prioritize different things. Not only is that okay, it is a requirement of bringing your best self to the role.

Want to step off the hamster wheel? Focus on being before doing.

Are You a Map Maker?

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Cartography . . . the craft of map-making . . . one of those lost arts, gone the way of the horse and buggy, right? Actually, no. Modern-day cartography, a profession that is alive and well, is described as being a mixture of art, science and technology. While map-making may be carried out a bit differently in today’s high-tech, fast paced world, the need for individuals who can clearly chart a path is on the increase

Does your organization have a map-maker?

What if you started to look at your leadership responsibilities through the lens of cartography — that mixture of art, science and technology that allows one to chart a clear path to a specific destination? What might that look like?

  • A map-maker leader, first and foremost, identifies the destination. Is everyone in your organization looking at the same map, and are they clear on where you are trying to go? (I know you’re clear, but is your entire team?) If not, what do you need to do to get everyone headed in a unified direction.
  • A map-maker leader keeps the team informed in real time. This is where today’s technology can make the job so much easier. I can zoom with a remote employee, or email, or text regarding unexpected barriers encountered along the way, or get updates from the “front line” that can allow us to adapt our route based on new information.
  • A map-maker leader has a clear touch-point to keep people grounded. When things don’t go according to plan, refer back to the map. When people have questions, the map becomes the reference point. When someone wants to take a side road or follow a rabbit trail the first response should be to look at the map.

Trying to steer a complex organization without a map is similar to looking a convergence of multiple interstates and cloverleaf interchanges without any idea which route to take. It becomes an Alice in Wonderland situation where if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. This route looks scenic . . . everyone seems to be taking that road, perhaps we should go there . . . an “expert” told me this is the best way forward . . .

Without a map, the road you take at any particular moment becomes a test of wills — where members of your team may be pulling in different directions, expending their energy on efforts that do nothing to move you toward the ultimate destination. How do you keep that from happening? Simple . . .

Be a map maker.

One-Page Leadership

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Our organization’s strategic framework fits on one page. In any given three-year cycle, the framework will include 3 – 4 core areas of focus, and 3 – 4 goals under each of these key areas. That’s it. Our vision, values and operating principles also fit on a single page, as do the impact reports for each of our major programs.

It’s not that we don’t have a lot of data, or details, or documentation. Trust me we do . . . reams of it! And it takes LOTS of distilling down the information, ideas and intricacies to get these documents to a single piece of paper — to reach the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Why go to all of this effort? Because it clarifies, for you and for those you would hope to lead, the ultimate destination.

When you give someone a 47-page document that includes every data point and detail about a project, it is way too easy to get lost in the weeds and allow the pre-ordained plan to guide your actions rather than the intended goal. Also, someone from accounting might think page 12 is the most important, while the program folks are sure you intended page 34 to be the top priority . . . and in the midst of the tug-of-war, the leader’s real intent falls by the way-side. Very few people are going to get passionate about — or even remember what is in — a 47-page document.

When John F. Kennedy said we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, there was no mistaking the priority. People got excited about it and made it happen. That’s one page leadership. Did lots of people have to figure out lots of details to make it happen? Of course they did, and they made it work because everyone was clear on where they were going.

In the military, there is a concept called Commander’s Intent. It is a clear description of the desired end state. Commander’s Intent is important because when things don’t go as intended (not if . . . when) people who know the end goal can adapt their actions in ways that offer the best opportunity for reaching the destination. If all they know is the next step that applies directly to them, you lose the opportunity to benefit from their front-line knowledge or creative ideas.

If it takes more than one page to explain the core priorities, you aren’t being clear enough. If your people can’t remember — and consistently repeat — the big picture goal, they are not going to have the passion or unified focus needed to accomplish really big things. Is that a lot harder than it sounds? Sure it is. If it was easy, anyone could lead.

One page.

Stop Waiting for the Perfect Solution

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Leaders want to be successful. We want to make good decisions. Yet in today’s VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) — where new information is coming to light virtually every day, variables are changing from moment for moment and four different “experts” are giving you five different recommendations — how can a leader gather all the information you need to make the perfect decision? You can’t.

I’m not saying you should shoot from the hip either, however you box yourself in as a leader when your expectation is to have “all” the information before making a decision.

“All” is a moving target. If that is your bar for making a decision, you unconsciously give yourself permission to “sit and spin” . . . to expend lots of energy going in circles rather than moving forward . . . to hold out for that moment of absolute certainty that is never going to come.

What’s the solution?  Enough.

You need enough information to make a decision, and then have the confidence to move forward. Will you sometimes make the wrong decision? Yep. But if you are already moving it is much easier to course correct, and if you start moving sooner (as opposed to waiting until you’re 100% certain) you have the time and energy to make adjustments and still get to the finish line sooner. You are actively striving toward the perfect solution, rather than simply waiting for it to arrive.

So how do you know when you have enough information? I’ll let you in on a little secret  . . . having enough information to start is not the same as having enough information to devise an entire 57-page plan. Leaders who are prone to “sit and spin” usually expect to have the entire (perfect) plan worked out before they start. “Enough leaders” know where they want to go, and then begin the journey when they have enough information to start. They don’t wait until they have enough information to finish — because much of that information can’t be seen at the outset, it is found along the way!

Is there a risk in making a decision without all the information? Yes. But ask yourself . . . is that risk any greater than making no decision, and as a result having no forward movement? Especially when what you are risking is a single step rather than betting the farm on an entire plan. Do you have the information to take that one step?

That’s enough.

Everywhere Else

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Originally Published January 27, 2016

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere else.”

I have this Albert Einstein quote posted at the base of my computer screen. It is a great reminder, every time I glance down from my screen, that new possibilities for mission impact come from the ability to see a future that is beyond our current points of reference — you know, those “realities” that we allow to box us in and constrain our thinking. Those realities are fine if you want to travel from A to B, to carry out tasks as assigned by another, but what about those of us who see a whole alphabet of ways to extend our mission reach? We will never get there by following the A/B logic.

I’m not saying that A/B logic is bad, in and of itself. We use a lot of it in our organization to ensure we consistently meet or exceed the expectations of our current programs and services.  And many organizations plug along just fine living within the parameters prescribed by others, or that they themselves have developed, to achieve an intended goal.  My point is, the same actions that allow you to achieve one well-defined goal will not get you to another aspirational destination. If you have a big hairy audacious goal, you’re going to have to set the rule book and paved road aside, because those things won’t get you to “everywhere else.”

Charting the route to “everywhere else” is a key function of leadership. While management is about systems and processes and consistency, leadership is about embracing change. (Which is not to say leadership is more important that management, it’s not; it is simply a different focus/skill set.) Many organizations, and leaders, get so mired down by the logic of what “we have to do” that they never raise their eyes to the horizon to consider a different landscape. I believe part of a leader’s job is to look up, see your “everywhere else” destination, and start building roads to get there.

Sure imagination involves risk, but so does logic if it limits your ability to fulfill your mission. Good stewardship is about making the best use of the resources before you to have the greatest impact, not taking the “safest” bet. If you can fulfill your mission by logically moving between point A and point B, great. For others of us, our mission requires us to look beyond the logic of A to B, and imagine the possibilities open to us . . . everywhere else.

Brave Beginners

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Most people are placed in positions of leadership because it was determined they knew what they were doing. They demonstrated competence and found success (or at least a leadership position) as a result. And the more external validation the leader experiences, the more confidence they tend to gain in their skill set. This would seem like a positive thing . . . except when, in the words of Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you here won’t get you there.”

In today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), yesterday’s most effective tools may not lead to tomorrow’s success. To be successful in such an environment, a leader needs to be confident enough to risk being a beginner again, learning the ropes of an entirely new skill or approach. That is easy enough to agree with in theory, but the reality may feel a bit different . . .

Being a beginner means that you will feel incompetent and make mistakes. It requires a willingness to ask for help from those who know more than you in the desired skill — regardless of where that person sits in the organizational chart, or whether they are half your age. It means embracing a growth mindset — with all the hard work and setbacks such a mindset entails — while still being held accountable for positive outcomes. It may even mean that those who have seen you as “a sure bet” become a bit skeptical . . . at least in the short term.

However, if you as the leader are brave enough to embrace the role of beginner, you model for your entire organization that continuous learning is critical for sustained success . . . that expertise isn’t a static trait, but rather an ongoing quest filled with twists and turns . . . that at the same time you are experiencing success in one area, you should also be asking “what’s next”. Over time, this approach will enable your organization to become more nimble and responsive to changes in the environment, and people will come to see your organization — and its leader — as strategic, innovative, adaptable, and resilient.

What leader doesn’t hope to been seen as strategic, innovative, adaptive and resilient? The first step is to scan the environment and decide where you need to step away from the “sure thing” to again become a beginner.

Are you brave enough?