Building Your Bench

I have been hearing for years (at least in the nonprofit sector) about the impending leadership crisis . . . that there simply aren’t enough potential/emerging leaders willing to step into senior leadership roles. And it’s not just hearsay. I recently led a 9-month nonprofit leadership academy, and two of the individuals who went through the program said their biggest takeaway from the experience was that they did not think leading a non-profit was the right fit for them. (And far better that they recognize the mismatch now, rather than after they accepted an ED/CEO role).

If you are a leader of an organization lacking in leadership bench strength, maybe you need to consider if you are contributing to the hesitance of “star performers” to move into senior leadership roles.

• Are you working crazy hours that would prompt those looking for life balance to look at the way you are carrying out the role and say “No thanks?”

I have always encouraged my staff to arrange their schedules so they could go to their kids’ ballgames or recitals, take time away when they need it, stay home if they were feeling poorly . . . and I thought that was enough, until one of my team members pointed out that if people did not see me doing the same, they would not think it was okay, regardless of what I said. What are your actions telling your people about what it “really takes” to do the job? And for those of you who are thinking, well it takes long hours to get the job done, please refer to the following bullet.

• Are you delegating tasks that give people a chance to gain experience and confidence in their ability to lead?

No, they will probably not do it exactly like you would, and yes, it will likely take longer and they may make a few missteps along the way. And it is figuring out how to deal with things that don’t go as planned, or how to handle a potentially sticky situation that allows people to gain the experience to do it better the next time. If you expect their initial effort to match your current performance (after years of practice) you will be disappointed . . . and your leadership bench will remain sparsely populated.

• Do you give your people the latitude to create leadership roles that play to their strengths?

Just because you have certain responsibilities in your job description doesn’t mean that those same things have to be included in the roles of emerging leaders. Sure, everyone has parts of their job that are less enjoyable than others. However, if there are critical tasks that don’t play to one person’s strengths, but might to another, are you willing to consider a different way of getting the job done? Are you willing to give your emerging leaders a voice in what their future leadership roles might look like? That usually means you have to open the door by asking.

As a senior leader, one of your key responsibilities should be building your leadership bench strength. If that bench is looking a bit thin, the best place to change things up probably starts with you. 

The Path of Least Resistance

Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t resist change. We make changes every day . . . trying a new product . . . learning a new skill . . . eating healthier. What people resist is having change imposed on them. Change as an internally-driven choice, no problem. Change as an externally enforced expectation . . . ah, that is where the resistance lies. So how do you as a leader, who will have to make decisions that impact people’s lives, minimize the resistance you encounter when making a change? Here are three steps to consider:

Start where they are, not where you are.

When you implement a change as a leader, in most cases you have been thinking about it for some time. You have had a chance to consider options, run out scenarios, and address potential barriers. By the time you make the decision, you are well down the road from where you started, and from where your people may be when you announce the change. Too often, we expect people to immediately understand and embrace our actions, rather than taking the time to walk them through how you came to the decision. Take the time. 

Accept that See-Feel-Act is a stronger motivator than Think-Analyze-Act.

Bombarding resistant people with more and more facts, rather than addressing the underlying and often emotional source of their resistance, is likely to result in them digging their heels in even further. The sense that you don’t hear or understand their hesitation, and are instead using facts that are less important to them to reinforce your position, only widens the gap. How do you narrow that gap? A sincere “Help me understand . . .” is a good place to start. And it just might result in an even better path forward.

Recognize that resistance often comes from a source of pride.

When you implement a change, people may interpret it to mean you think the previous approach was wrong, or at least not as good as the proposed new direction. Especially if they were rewarded for or took great pride in how things were done in the past, there is a natural resistance to doing things differently. Honoring what was done previously can help build good will for the new approach. “Because of your efforts in the past, we are in a position to take this exciting next step . . .” or perhaps “a strength of our organization has always been our ability to innovate and change.” However you do it, honoring previous efforts can pave the way for a smoother transition to the future.

Change is hard. The three steps above may not make the process painless, but they could very well help you find the path of least resistance. 

Who’s in Your Tribe?

I was on a zoom call this morning with a group of execs from across the country who lead organizations similar to my own. The purpose of the meeting was simply to share ideas and discuss how each of us were tackling common industry challenges. I find such conversations a great way to connect and get out of my own bubble of possible solutions, and invariably come away with two or three new ideas or different perspectives to consider. As much as I value this group of leaders, however, they are only one facet of the tribe of people I need to surround myself with if I would hope to be a well-balanced leader.

Who else do I consider essential in the motley crew who are part of my tribe?

People who have known me forever. 

They knew me long before my title (which they really aren’t all that impressed with anyway). They keep me grounded in the values I was raised with . . . the things that helped shape the leader I am today. They remind me of the many times I didn’t have it all figured out, which somehow helps me figure out what I need to do today.

People who will call me on my stuff.

As you move up through the organizational chart, the number of people who will point out when you are getting in your own way often dwindles, or fades away entirely. You need these people in your life. I’m not talking about the perennial cynic who has a critique for every move you make. I mean those individuals who care about you and the organization enough to point out your blind spots and missteps (and yes, you will have and make both).

People who share my values.

I always want my faith and strong sense of values to shape my decisions. I need people who share those guiding principles as a litmus test against my own thinking. Sometimes we can get so busy trying to expediently make a decision that, without even realizing it, we can veer toward the slippery slope of putting our values on the back burner — just this one time — to reach an important goal. No goal is that important, and it can be helpful to have someone who will remind you of that.

People who stretch my thinking.

I also need to intentionally connect with people whose perspectives differ from my own. Leadership provides enough of an echo chamber of people ready to reinforce your thinking. I also need to consider what I might be missing. How might someone else (the “them” in most melodramas) see or experience the situation differently? Such perspectives may be challenging to consider, but usually result in a better, more well-balanced solution. 

People who make me laugh.

Oh, how we need more laughter! You can take your job seriously without taking yourself seriously, and sometimes an hour of laughing so hard your stomach hurts is just what you need. Fun is totally under-rated in our “do more with less, and I need it right now” culture. And it is amazing how often stepping away from the challenge at hand makes the solution so much clearer.

And one more thing . . . too often we think we need to find all these qualities in a single person. But that’s the great thing about a tribe — it is made up of multiple people, each of whom serves an important purpose in your leadership journey. Who’s in your tribe?

Gas or Brakes?

Are you a person who likes to always have your foot on the gas, or do you tend to ride the brakes when you drive? I would guess that many of the people reading this are “foot on the gas” kind of people. Leaders often are. And yet, have you noticed that every vehicle — even expertly designed performance models — come equipped with both gas pedals and brakes. Why?

You need both.

The same applies in our organizations. Heidi Grant Halvorson has dubbed foot on the gas people as promoters, whose goal is to make good things happen. She also notes that protectors, those ride the brakes people in your organization, work to keep bad things from happening. Both groups of people truly want what is best for your organization . . . and they can drive each other crazy.

Promoters often see protectors as glass is half empty sticks in the mud who take great delight in poking holes in every great idea. Protectors, on the other hand, tend to see promoters as unrealistic dreamers who don’t understand all the details, risks and barriers involved in their grand plan. As a result, it can feel like these groups of people are constantly at odds with each other, leaving everyone frustrated and sucking the momentum out of your efforts.

How can you get promoters and protectors to work with each other, rather than seemingly against each other? Start with intent. Both groups want what is best for the organization, they just have different ideas of what that looks like . . . and you need both perspectives! To drive to the top of the mountain, you need the gas to propel you, and also breaks to keep you from driving off a cliff. Have that conversation with the team. Discuss how the different perspectives may result in creative tension, but also lead to better and more sustainable results. Encourage the promoters big ideas . . . as well as the reality check offered by the protectors — which rather than throwing cold water on a plan can actually push the team to come up with an even better, and more sustainable, alternative.

As the leader, it is your responsibility to help your team see that promoters and protectors need to partner with each other, in a synergistic give and take, if the entire organization is going to succeed. Gas or brakes is a false choice. You need both gas AND brakes to get to the top of the mountain.

Stubbing Your Toe

How long has it been since you stubbed your toe?

I’m not talking literally, but rather those missteps, those momentarily painful stumbles you encounter when you are venturing down a new path. As a leader, do you think you are past that “stage” in your journey? If so, that is unfortunate, because that means you are no longer stretching and trying new things. As painful as it may be at the time, stubbing your toe is often when you learn lessons that will stay with you long after the momentarily throbbing subsides. There are three things to consider when it comes to stubbing your toe.

The alternative is standing still — which is rarely mentioned as a top leadership trait.

Effective leadership requires constant learning, adapting, and moving your organization forward. It requires exploring areas where you may not have expertise, or have never tried before, but are necessary to maximize the opportunities before you. Leaders sometimes have the mistaken impression that to be seen as successful, you need to not make mistakes. To be successful, you need to help your organization move in the direction of its strategic goals, which is rarely accomplished along a perfect, pain-free, path.

You have to let your people stub their toes, too.

As we look to expand our team’s leadership stills, to decide when someone is “ready” to take on a new challenge, there is a tendency to set the bar at where the leader, or another senior team member, is at the time . . . after years of carrying out a task. If that is your criteria for building your bench strength it will probably be a sparsely populated bench. Think back to when you started a particular task. Chances are you stubbed your toes plenty along the way. You need to give your emerging leaders the opportunity to do the same. Yes, it can be hard, at times even cringeworthy, to see your people stumble in ways that you would not. And yet, that is how they will grow into the leaders you need them to be.

When your team sees you “recalibrating” if things don’t go as planned, you give them permission to do the same.

Giving someone a stretch assignment is going to feel far less intimidating if your people see that you as the leader are willing to try new things, perhaps awkwardly at first, maybe limping through here and there, but always exploring and growing. It sends the message that they, too, will be given the latitude to try new things, learn from the stumbles, and keep going. And you need them to do just that.

The path to success is rarely a straight line. It is lined with twists and turns and plenty of things that can trip you up on the way to your final destination.

Where do you need to stub your toe?

Can You Receive?

Many of us grew up hearing that it is better to give than receive. I appreciate and agree with the importance of caring for others. However, I have seen too many leaders who have gotten really good at giving  . . . direction, strategy, decisions, opinions . . . and yet are not so good at the receiving part. We seem to have missed that the scriptural guidance says it is better to give than receive, not that we should not receive. So how, exactly, should we go about receiving as a leader? There are three key areas that are a good place to start:

Receive New Ideas

Can you hear the creative thoughts of others, or does every new action need to come from you? Beyond just a willingness to hear, do you actually encourage people to bring their unique perspective to an organizational challenge — even if their suggestion is significantly different from your own? You as the leader have to give your staff a safe environment to share their novel ideas before you can receive their best thinking. Instead of rolling your eyes, impatiently shutting them down with a dismissive “we’ve tried that before” or immediately challenging their opinion . . . ask questions, allow them to run their idea out a bit, and encourage them to connect ideas in a new and different way. In return, you will receive a more energized, committed team and a wealth of new ideas, some of which may be the key to your organization’s continued success.

Receive Feedback

This one is harder. It is one thing to encourage your staff to share their ideas, it is quite another to make it safe enough for them to offer constructive criticism of your ideas or the direction of a project. After all, you’re in charge, right? Well . . . it is your job to help the organization succeed, and sometimes that means changing your mind when someone offers new information or a perspective you had not previously considered. One way to open the door to receiving feedback is to ask what you are missing, or if there are variables you may not have considered. When you invite input, you increase the likelihood of receiving valuable feedback that can strengthen your leadership.

Receive Encouragement

Perhaps the hardest of all, at least for some of us, is being open to receiving encouragement. Yes, leadership can be lonely. We deal with a host of challenges that others aren’t aware of, and in our attempts to appear confident we may send the message that we don’t need people to offer their support. You don’t have to share all the details of the pressures before you, but you can still be transparent enough to allow others to help carry the load. And you might be surprised to learn that they feel valued when you let them provide encouragement where they can.

Leaders give a lot. Are you willing to receive?

Blowing Bubbles

After somewhat in-depth and totally unscientific research, I can report that it is impossible (or at least highly unlikely) to remain stressed out while blowing bubbles. Yes, I said bubbles – that soapy child’s concoction that you can pick up at your local dollar store. Maybe it is the deep, steady exhale required to unleash the bubbles, or the distracting pleasure of focusing on the size and color of the delicate floating creation. Have you ever seen anyone scowl or furrow their brow while blowing bubbles? I didn’t think so. Smiles and laughter are the most common response. It doesn’t take special equipment, or a membership, or a lot of time. And yet, blowing bubbles can be more grounding than a lot of other far more complicated strategies. 

Even if having a bottle of bubbles tucked in your desk drawer isn’t your calming strategy of choice (although don’t knock it until you have tried it), every leader needs to know what immediate, in-the-moment techniques are most effective for helping you center yourself in the midst of a high-stress situation. Maybe for you it is taking a five minute walk outside. Or making lists of details and options. A quick phone call with a family member — not about the stressor, just to ground yourself — may be helpful for some people. For others savoring a piece of good dark chocolate can provide the brief respite that allows them to calm their thinking and sharpen their focus.

There is not one right way to tap into your wise inner core in the midst of a stressful situation. Your people may prefer a totally different approach than you do, and that’s okay . . . as long as you have all taken the time to figure out what works best for individual members of your team. Someone who is calmed by making lists and getting details on paper may find talking a walk stresses them out because they are “wasting” time that they could be using to dissect the challenge. For others, without taking a few moments to breathe and gain perspective, their thought process may be scattered all over the place. In the heat of the moment, it is important to offer a measure of grace for members of your team who ground themselves differently than you do. And it is easier to do that if you have considered in advance how to best support your colleagues while also honoring what works best for you.

Not sure what in-the-moment strategy works best for you? While I can’t give you a definitive answer, you might want to start by blowing bubbles.

Tend the Forest

Forest scene; Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

You can’t see the forest for the trees.

It’s one of those phrases that we all have heard, and yet we fail to heed its warning time and again. We spend so much time addressing the crisis du jour, our ever-growing to-do list, today’s opportunity or our competitors most recent actions that we lose sight of the big picture . . . the forest . . . if we were ever really clear on the big picture in the first place. 

Here’s the thing. Individual trees can get struck by lightning. A bigger tree might block the sun and so the one in its shadow may never grow to its full potential. Or you plant a seed with great confidence, only to be disappointed that it doesn’t seem to take root like you expected. If your primary focus is on the tree, such set-backs can send you into a tailspin, scurrying around to respond to this crisis or that. 

When you step back and focus on the forest, however, you recognize that not every tree will be a majestic oak, and that’s okay. You don’t have to turn yourself inside out for every project as long as you are keeping your eye on the well-being of the whole. You can acknowledge that some seeds germinate at a slower pace — or maybe not at all, but it is still worth the effort to plant them.

Keeping your focus on the forest doesn’t eliminate the day-to-day challenges of leading, but it does help keep them in context so you can focus on the end game. From a big picture perspective, it is easier to recognize that some of your best laid plans may not work out the way you had hoped, but one particular “tree” is simply that . . . one tree in a whole forest of pathways and opportunities. 

The biggest challenge comes when you have not clearly defined the forest. What are the three or four big goals you are working toward? Not 57 . . . that’s tree counting. You have to push past seeing every project — every tree — as an end unto itself. Define the forest.  Arriving at that kind of focus is harder than you think. But when you get there, it is much easier to step back and find a different path to your destination when things don’t go as you had hoped. And they won’t. 

If you are having one of those weeks where you feel like you are simply running from tree to tree, stop. Take a deep breath. And tend the forest.

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!

Complicated ≠ Complex

Is that thorny challenge before you complicated or complex? Because it can’t be both.

While there is a tendency to use those two words interchangeably, they really mean very different things. Complicated challenges are hard. They can be difficult to figure out. But once you identify the parts and how they interact, complicated challenges are predictable. You can develop systems around them. There is an order, a logic, to complicated things. They can be repeated. Yes, it may take a specialized level of skill or expertise, but complicated challenges can be solved. Sending a rocket to the moon is complicated. Writing computer code is complicated. But there is a formula for success.

Complex challenges, on the other hand, are unpredictable. With complex challenges, you cannot look at the individual parts and find a linear cause and effect chain.  You have to consider the ever-shifting whole. For complex challenges, there is not predictability or a single right answer. Complex challenges require one to be agile, willing to experiment, fail and adapt. Complex challenges are a moving target. They are ambiguous. You don’t “solve” complex problems. You have to lead your way through them.

If you are a leader, you need to find really smart people to focus on your complicated challenges so you can spend your time on the complex ones. For example, what is the best strategy to expand your market share? Well that depends on what your competitors do. That depends on what happens to the price of your raw materials. That depends on how people react your offerings . . . you get the picture. You have to consider the interplay of all the moving parts to make the best decision at that moment in time. A week from now, the variables may be different. Are you willing to experiment and fail? Are you comfortable continually recalibrating based on new information, while also recognizing that you have to get a product to market?

Don’t limit your impact by approaching a complex problem like a complicated one. Too many leaders get stuck because they think if they just gather more “data” they will find the right path forward. Complex challenges are not like a math problem. There is not a single right answer. And the minute one of the variables change, the options before you change as well. With complex challenges, you need to consider the information before you and take the next best step. Then reassess, recalibrate, and take the next best step. Yes, be clear on where you are trying to get to, but you cannot chart your entire path before you start because the “best” way forward is constantly shifting.

Complex challenges require confidence . . . to make a decision that doesn’t come with a guarantee. They require humility . . . to know that you most likely need to course correct.

They require agility . . . because you have to quickly assess the situation and decide.

Complex challenges require leadership . . . it’s really no more complicated than that.