When The Old Rules Don’t Apply

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Much has been written about the “unprecedented” times in which we currently find ourselves. I’m guessing your email, like mine, is filled with invitations to webinars about how to navigate the unknowns, lead through uncertainty, and adapt to the new normal. The tone of these promotional efforts ranges from frantic (the sky is falling) to overly confident (our presenter has “the” answer to the challenges before you). Perhaps the one constant amid all of the messaging is this — the old rules no longer apply. If that idea makes you uneasy, here’s the up side: right now, you have a unique opportunity to re-write the rules.

How do you go about re-writing the rules?

  • Start with your values. Always. What does your organization stand for and how can you infuse that into the “new rules?” Do you want to be more empowering, collaborative, impactful, inclusive . . . What would it look like to highlight the best of your organization? Don’t tell me it’s not possible. You’re re-writing the rules.
  • Focus on the biggest pain point. What do you want to be different . . . for those you serve, for your organization, your community? What are the barriers to accomplishing your mission? As Winston Churchill noted, “Never waste a good crisis.” People are most open to considering a new way of doing things when it is clear that the old rules no longer apply.
  • Look at the situation with new eyes. Changing variables change perspectives. “Crazy ideas” that you might never have considered in the past may suddenly seem possible. “What if . . .” and “Why couldn’t we . . .” open doors to new opportunities while viewing challenges through the lens of the old rules keeps you stuck in the past.
  • Find your footing. One of the biggest challenges in unsettled times is that it feels like there are so many unknowns. There are . . . and wallowing in the uncertainty only makes it worse. Make a decision. Take a step. Course correct if you need to, and then keep going. Forward motion is always a stronger position than sitting on your heels waiting for the perfect solution to appear. And each step you take helps re-write the rules.
  • Lead. Quit waiting around for permission. The old rules no longer apply.

If you’re looking for clear answers, you’ll have to wait on someone to re-write the rules. For the rest of you, it’s time to step out and start writing.

Calling All Elephants

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Originally Published October 29, 2014

In virtually any leadership team, no matter how high functioning, there will be times when the group is hesitant to bring up a question or concern. Perhaps it is because the topic is something about which the leader is passionate, or really committed to making happen. Maybe they feel like a decision has already been made, or the organization is “too far down the road” to change course, or that sharing a concern will undermine a relationship they have with someone else on the team. Regardless of the cause, an attuned leader may sense the caution in the room, but not be able to put a finger on the source of the unease. It is times like these that a team needs someone who is willing to “name the elephant in the room.”

I am blessed to have a member of my leadership team who willingly takes on this role. She is rarely the first one to speak up, but when she senses people are dancing around something that is weighing on them, she will either name the issue if she knows what it is, or point out that she senses some hesitancy and asks about it. She is able to do this in a supportive, non-confrontational way that makes it feel safe for people to speak their mind. (Not that speaking their mind is usually a problem with my team, but you catch my drift.) Her simple acknowledgement or inquiry has the effect of almost instantly making the conversation more “real”. You can almost feel the room take a deep breath because questions or concerns can now be openly discussed. At times, with additional information, the concerns are allayed. Other times, we tweak the direction or change course all together based on the conversation. In virtually every case though, we all leave the meeting feeling better about it. There is no need to have a “meeting after the meeting” because we addressed the concerns where they should be addressed — amongst the entire team.

If you don’t have someone on your team who naturally assumes this role, why not assign the task of naming the elephant in the room? If it has been assigned to someone, there won’t be the hesitancy of speaking out of turn … they are simply doing what you asked them to do. The effect is the same whether the elephant namer is a voluntary or assigned role. You as the leader have an added layer of protection against unnamed undercurrents that could ultimately undermine your efforts.

One note of caution … This strategy only works if the leader is willing to hear and respond to  feedback, even when that feedback messes with well-laid plans. Elephants only come out to play when it feels safe to do so. And if an elephant gets shot down in an embarrassing or derogatory way, don’t expect other ones to show up at future meetings. They’ll instead decide to dance around amongst small groups after the meeting.

In today’s complex, fast-paced, circus of a world, it takes everyone’s best thinking to achieve the optimum outcome. And sometimes, you can only get to that best thinking by seeing, and naming, the elephant in the room.

Are you in the top third?

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It should concern all of us as leaders when the headlines tout record high employee engagement in the US  . . . and that record high number is 35%! Just over one in three employees is actively engaged in their work in this country. While the number of actively disengaged staff in 2019 also tied its lowest level at 13%, that still leaves 52% of staff in this country as “not engaged”. More than half of workers put in their time at their organization, but not their energy or passion. And passion, or lack thereof, impacts performance.

What can you do to increase engagement among those you would hope to lead?

  • Be clear on why they should engage. Like one sentence clear. Why your mission, why your organization, why this role? Engagement is about an emotional connection, an investment in seeing your organization succeed. And if you as a leader don’t buy into the “why” at a bone-deep level, your people won’t either.
  • Connect the dots. Do your people know how their particular role, how their unique gifts and graces, impact the organizational why? Leaders need to be intentional about connecting the dots for their people, so there is a clear understanding about how their individual contribution leads to overall success for the organization. Of course, to do that well . . .
  • You need to know your people. How can you help someone recognize how their unique gifts and graces contribute to organizational success if you don’t know what those gifts and graces are? Think you have too many people in your organization to know the specialized skills and talents that each brings to the table? Have you tried, or have you just put that possibility in the “too hard pile”?

Yes, knowing your people takes intentional effort. So does managing the budget, but you find a way to do that, right? When you are engaged with your people, they will be more likely to engage with you and your organization. Don’t know where to start? Make a personal connection with at least one employee each day — and not just those you work most closely with. Send someone an email, or better yet a hand-written note, recognizing them personally for something they have done. Strike up a conversation when your paths cross and ask them something about themselves or their work (and then let them do the talking, and you do the listening). Rather than sending a blanket request for input, directly ask one or more people for their thoughts. We will go the extra mile for people we know far more than we will for some generic idea of “staff” or “administration.”

For those of you who may be thinking you have heard all of this before, I have one question: Are you doing it? If so, welcome to the top third!

Gut Check Leadership

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Some people decide to pursue positions of leadership for the perceived external trappings of the position, but more often than not — at least in the case of the best leaders — leadership is an inside job. A sense of vocation. According to Parker Palmer, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself, but that are nonetheless compelling.’”

“Something I can’t not do.” That sentiment has driven many a leader to press forward in the midst of turbulent times. That doesn’t mean the path becomes easy, it means that the leader believes the end goal is worth the effort . . . worth having their intentions judged by individuals sitting in a different chair . . . worth the risk of making difficult choices . . . worth taking actions that fly in the face of “best practice” or popular opinion.

Certainly, leaders make decisions every day that don’t require this level of “gut check” consideration, but if you lead for very long, that day will come. What is a gut check consideration? It is a test of a person’s resolve, commitment, or priorities regarding a particular course of action. Are you going listen to your gut, or all the voices “out there” with easier, ready-made solutions? It is easy to say “theoretically” how you would respond, but it can be oh so difficult when you are in the midst of the challenge. So how should you approach a gut-check situation?

  1. Listen to others. Not just to the loudest voices. Not just to those who support your thinking. Not just to the “experts” or most popular opinions. Listen to those who disagree, and listen with a desire to understand rather than defend. Listen respectfully and with curiosity. Listen to those closest to the challenge, who may rarely be asked for input.
  2. Take time to reflect. Fast thinking is intuitive and emotional. Slow thinking is more deliberative and logical. Without taking the time to reflect, it is easy to jump from A to C or D . . . to make assumptions about why someone is behaving in a particular way. Reflection may cause you to revise your thinking, or it may reinforce your beliefs, but it is always time well spent.
  3. Listen to your gut. In my experience, it is usually smarter than your head. Oh, your head may try to reason with it, but that still small voice can be pretty persistent. And if you have taken the time to listen to others and reflect, you probably know the answer before you even get to this point. Chances are you were just hoping to find an easier answer.

The more challenging the times, the more important it is to have leaders willing to dig deep inside, to respond to that still small voice urging you to do the hard thing on behalf of a great cause. Is this your time? Listen to your gut.

The Power of AND

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Originally Published February 4, 2015

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

That would mean you could never again say things like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Discomfort of Change

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Change is hard. It causes stress, and makes people feel off balance and out of sync. When that happens, there are two ways people can regain their sense of balance: They can hunker down and redouble their commitment to what they believe has worked in the past, or they can move through the change process, however uncomfortable it may be, to get to a new reality on the other side.  What impacts which path people choose? You.

While much has been written on leading change, the part that too many leaders miss is that change is not a “check-the-box” linear process. It requires constant recalibration to keep the disequilibrium, the discomfort, of change moving in a productive direction rather than a destructive one. In other words, if you push people too hard, they will retreat to what they know. To affect productive change, a leader has to gauge and guide people through their discomfort to reach the goal on the other side.

Camille Preston visualizes the process as a donut. The hole in the middle is the “comfort zone.” The donut — the space outside the comfort zone — is the learning zone where there is a tolerable level of tension and stress. She describes the outer reaches of the learning zone — the rim of the donut — as “terror’s edge.” Too often as leaders, we expect people to move from straight from the comfort zone to terror’s edge, without providing them the chance to move through the productive discomfort of testing the waters, learning new things, considering different perspectives, and expanding their understanding.

So how do you help your people move through the discomfort of change?

Start with a shared goal. When you cast the past as bad or ineffective (even if you believe that to be true), people who have been part of the “old way” often hear that they are bad or ineffective, which leads to defensiveness, thereby making it harder to bring about the change you are working to achieve. Starting the conversation with a shared goal — the positive you are working toward — will get people on board quicker that criticizing past behavior.

Break it into bite-sized pieces. Expecting people to move strait from A to Z, to go from their comfort zone to blindly stepping off terrors edge, will lead to resistance. Cast the vision and then then provide specific steps that, while uncomfortable, still feel manageable. Here’s where leaders often get tripped up — you moved through the learning zone while you were considering the change, so “Z” feels like the next logical step. This is all new to your people. Start where they are, not where you are.

Acknowledge that growth is uncomfortable. Let your people know that change is unsettling uncomfortable, and just plain hard. That’s okay. Let them ask questions, push back, and recalibrate. Then take a step forward and repeat. It is the leader’s job to change the narrative from discomfort = bad to discomfort = growth.

And that’s really the bottom line. If you want positive change — it you want growth — discomfort is going to be part of the process. Are you comfortable with that?

The Seeds of Leadership

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Originally Published May 19, 2015

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”  — Mexican Proverb

When I first read this quote, I felt it at a gut level  . . . as in, I have experienced this and know its truth. I’m guessing most leaders who have led a major change initiative or championed an innovation effort also know the dank, dark feeling of being buried by those committed to the status quo, and also the inexplicable inner drive to nurture an idea until it takes root and breaks through to the surface. Seeds indeed.

In most cases, it’s not personal . . . those who would seek to bury us. Bureaucracies, and really most organizational hierarchies, are designed to maintain the status quo. Conformity is what makes such systems efficient and predictable. And to those for whom efficient and predictable are the goals, cloaking themselves in rules and processes feels safe, allowing them to be in control. Such a system works as long as the variables with which you work don’t change . . . as long as the winds never shift and there are no seeds trying to take root. I hear that happened once, back in 1953.

Once the keepers of the status quo come to the realization that seeds are sprouting up, a frequent response is to try to route the young vines through the established systems. “This is how we set rates, so send us your information in this format and we will consider it . . . (to which the seed responds) This new program doesn’t work that way, here is the cost . . . Sorry, we really want to access the service but we have no mechanism to accommodate that funding model.” At this point the seed can decide to become something it’s not, and usually wither and die in the process, or it can find another path that will allow it to flourish. In my experience, seeds will find a way. Sometimes they have to send out long shoots to work around deeply rooted vegetation in their path . . . or have you ever seen a flower spring forth amid the cracks in a slab of concrete? Seeds will find a way.

Systems and processes are a necessary part of organizational life . . . but if you are going to be successful, so is a willingness to nurture the seeds of new ideas whose time has come. That means not burying the crazy suggestion or the voice of dissention, even (and especially) if they come when you are already overwhelmed by the crisis du jour. You never know which of those might represent the seeds of your future success.

So how do know which ideas to nurture? It’s not about how easily it fits into some current structure, or adheres to someone else’s guidelines. It’s about furthering your mission — which may require an approach that no one has considered before. Viewed through the lens of mission, seeds of potential begin to stand out. It is your job as a leader to nurture those ideas — to keep them from being buried, or to help them break through to the surface if some external force has tried to stuff them underground.

If you don’t, someone else will. After all, seeds will find a way.

Leading in the Age of Polarization

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Conflict sells. It grabs people’s attention and taps into their emotions. It divides people into groups who are “for” or “against” a particular thing. And when conflict is fed with 24-hour instant everything media, it tends to grow and push people even farther apart. How does one lead in the midst of such polarization? With a level head, an open mind . . . and it never hurts to have a pair or two of iron shorts.

A few key tips for leading in the age of polarization

  • Identify the issue(s) at the heart of the conflict. As people start to line up on “sides” the central issue often becomes more and more abstract until it is simply about “us” and “them.” The reason people may be fired up on one side of an issue may be different from the primary concerns of those in the opposing camp. Don’t make assumptions. Ask. You have to be clear on people’s concerns before you can identify the most appropriate response.
  • Transparency builds bridges. The greater the conflict, the greater the need for open communications. You know what you are hoping to accomplish, so your actions make sense to you. The people you would hope to influence can’t read your mind, so tell them your intent. Even if you think they already understand. Real or perceived gamesmanship and secrecy feed mistrust. And when people don’t understand the details of a situation, it is a natural inclination to fill in the gaps with assumptions consistent with the narrative they believe to be true.
  • Strive for increased understanding. Leaders have to make decisions that not everyone will agree with — that is a given. If your goal is to convince everyone that you are “right,” you are going to have a lot of frustrating days. Instead, make it your goal to better understand the pain point of people with a different perspective. You just might be surprised at how often you can address their concerns and thus reduce resistance to also addressing your own. Looking for the win-win doesn’t make you a weak leader, it makes you a smart one
  • Maintaining respect is a reflection on you. Sure, there will be days when you are frustrated by someone intentionally or unintentionally twisting the facts a situation . . . or questioning your intent . . . or making an inflammatory comment. In such situations it can be helpful to remember that anything but a respectful and professional response diminishes your credibility and adds fuel to the combatants’ fire. Respect is more about the character of the leader than it is about whether the recipient deserved it.

As a leader, you may not be able to eliminate polarization, but you can keep your focus on the destination not the distractions. Invite people into understanding rather than pushing them away. Take the high road, even with it is lonely . . . and don’t forget your iron shorts.

Mind the Gap

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Riders on the London Underground are given a visual and audible warning to “mind the gap” when they are stepping on or off the train. This reminder that there is a space between here and there is designed to protect passengers and keep their footing sure. Likewise, leaders would do well to mind the gap lest they stumble and fall in the space between where they are standing, and the place they are trying to move toward.

Where, exactly, do leaders need to mind the gap?

1) Between the leader’s perspective and that of their critics. Recognizing the gap between you as a leader and your critics — in experience, information and/or desired outcome — can help you respond more effectively to those who would (sometimes quite vocally) recommend a different course of action. Rather than being thrown off balance by an outspoken challenge, look for the source of the gap. Are the critics missing information, are their goals different from yours, have they had an experience that differs from your own? What can you learn from them that could build greater understanding on all sides? Curiosity can help bridge the gap whereas defensiveness widens the chasm.

2) Between the leader’s intent and how others experience them. As leaders, our actions make sense to us because we understand our intent — we know our end goal. For our followers, there may be a gap between what we intend to accomplish and how they experience our actions. Ever have someone misinterpret what you are trying to do . . . or jump to conclusions based on their own perspectives and storylines? Mind the gap. Connecting the dots between your intentions and your actions is a simple as stating what you are trying to accomplish. It is easy to think people understand your reasoning because it is so clear to you. Often times, they don’t unless we tell them. As an added bonus, when we clearly state our intentions, people may be able to suggest an even better way to meet our goals . . . they can help us fulfill our intent, but first they have to know what it is.

3) Between the “map” and reality. Wouldn’t it be lovely if everything worked out exactly as we outlined in our carefully developed plans? Except it doesn’t. If we are so focused on following the plan, rather than arriving at the destination, we are likely to stumble . . . sometimes with devastating consequences. It is a leader’s responsibility to monitor the terrain, to look for new information that might require you to change your approach, or your timing, or the route you use, and adapt accordingly. And if you have followed #2 above, and made your intent clear, your people will help you find the best route forward.

As a leader, there are many things that can trip you up as you try to move from point A to point B. What’s the best way to keep your footing sure on the journey? Mind the gap.

Adjusting Your Focus

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Have you ever noticed that some leaders seem to take chaotic situations in stride, perhaps even thrive amid circumstances that bring other leaders to their knees? What’s the difference?  Is it advance planning, a stronger team, some innate strength of character? Those things all definitely help, however the real key to leading well in the midst of a crisis is where you place your focus.

There is a natural tendency to focus on the impact of things outside of your control — often the very thing that created the crisis in the first place. Unfortunately, that approach tends to foster fear, sucks the energy out of the room, and leads to reactionary rather than thoughtful responses. I’m not suggesting you ignore the challenges before you. The ostrich approach — where you stick your head in the sand — isn’t leadership at all. I am suggesting that the way for a leader to find a positive path forward in the midst of a storm is to focus on what you do know.

Focusing on what you know — which gives you a sense of control — is one of the key factors in psychological hardiness. The other two factors of psychological hardiness are strength of commitment, and a belief that challenge leads to learning and improvement. As noted by Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge, research has shown that psychological hardiness is more important than personal constitution, health practices or social support in fostering a resistance to stress.

Leaders who focus on what they know are better able to calmly identify how they can influence the outcome of the current situation. They can help their people avoid feeling powerless in the face of the challenges before them. “What you know” gives you solid footing, and a clarity of thinking amid the noise swirling around you, that enables you to consider new approaches . . . new ways to capitalize on the skills and abilities of your organization. It allows you to go on offense, and develop a strategy that will allow your organization to succeed.

What you focus on grows in your mind. Focusing on the unknowns allows them to “scream louder” and gives them an oversized influence on you and your organization. Focusing on what you do know brings the unknowns down to size. That doesn’t mean they go away, but focusing on what you know gives you the control to walk through the unknowns rather than being swallowed up by them.

Feeling overwhelmed by the challenges before you? Maybe it’s time to shift your focus.