Fine is a Four Letter Word

Fine is a four letter word. My recall is that my sister was the first to utter those profound words of wisdom, and we have reminded each other of the sentiment on more than one occasion.

Why is fine a four letter word? From a leadership perspective, it’s a cop-out . . . When someone asks how you or your organization are doing and you say, “fine” . . . are things really fine or is the response simply a way to change the topic of discussion? “Fine” is like poking a hole in a balloon and watching all the air leak out. It’s a four letter word because, quite simply, it is not an appropriate response from someone who hopes to move people to action. Who wants to follow a leader who aspires to fine?

Leadership requires passion. It doesn’t have to be a flashy or outspoken, but there has to be a deep commitment and drive to sustain you through the tough days (and if you don’t think there are tough days, you haven’t been a leader!) Fine is utterly lacking in emotion. It is a deflection of the challenges before you and as a result, people don’t believe it. They might follow your cue and choose not to probe deeper at the moment, but your authenticity takes a hit.

I’m not suggesting you should unload every stressor on someone who is simply trying to make pleasant conversation, but acknowledging, “we have some real challenges before us, and I’m grateful to have such a strong team to help us through the storm,” or maybe “I’m not sure how we are going to get through this, but given our track record in dealing with tough stuff I am confident we’ll find a way” feel both more real and more confident than “fine.” People have to believe in what you are saying if you want them to walk alongside you during the tough stuff. Does “fine” motivate you?

Trust in our leaders and institutions seems to diminish further with every news cycle. We do ourselves a disservice if our words indicate everything is okay when circumstances would seem to suggest otherwise. Transparency builds confidence even, and perhaps especially, when the message is a hard one to hear. Banishing the word “fine” from your vocabulary may seem like a little thing (although it is harder than you might think!), and yet little things can make a difference — for you and for those you would hope to lead.

Fine is a four letter word. Maybe it’s time to clean up your language.

How’s Your Balance?

In my organization’s work with struggling children and their families, one of the basic tenets of our approach is that when you increase structure, you must increase nurture. News flash . . . the same things that work for struggling kids and families also work with the grown-ups you are charged with leading.

When you increase structure, you must increase nurture. That sounds simple enough in theory, however most of us are wired to skew one way or another. If you are a high structure leader, it may seem logical that the way to address continued “misbehaving” on the part of your staff is simply to provide increased structure, more “rules” and less autonomy. For the high nurture leaders out there, you may be proud of your incredibly supportive culture and believe that when you take care of your people, when you do a better job of understanding and responding of their needs, their performance will improve.

If you are strongly wired one way or another, it may seem counter-intuitive to provide the “opposite” of what feels most appropriate given the situation. All things in moderation, my friend. Let’s return to looking at the situation through the lens of our work with kids. Kids need structure. Not heavy-handed or punitive rules, and not 57 of them, however they need to know your expectations and the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Likewise, kids need nurture. They need to know that they can screw up and you will still love and support them. That doesn’t mean you should be a pushover, or doormat to their every whim, but they need you to see them and to be a source of safety and security.

So what, exactly, does the structure/nurture balance look like in the work environment?

  • Providing clear expectations and accountability, AND a willingness to offer guidance and support to help your people meet those expectations.
  • Making the hard decisions, AND being kinder than you need to be in carrying them out.
  • Really listening to and acknowledging the feedback, ideas and proposals offered by your people AND challenging them to demonstrate how their ideas advance the strategic goals of the organization.

Here’s the hard thing about the structure/nurture balance. Under stress, most of us revert to our natural tendencies. If a staff member has fallen far short of your expectations on a critical project and you are a high structure leader, your response is likely to include more expectations and less flexibility. Or, if you are a high nurture leader, you may focus more on responding to the individual explanations or perceived barriers rather than the unmet needs of the organization. In those moments, after you have tried one “dose” of your preferred approach and didn’t get the results you had hoped . . .stop . . . take a deep breath, and intentionally choose a counterbalancing behavior.

What have you got to lose? What you were doing wasn’t working anyway.

How’s your balance?

Culture Doesn’t Happen in Theory

Much has been written in the business press — from Inc. to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company to Strategy + Business — about the importance of culture fit in organizations. The wisdom suggests that cultural fit is more important than skill and experience (assuming basic qualifications for the role) when it comes to making a good hire.

While it is difficult to find a universally accepted definition of culture, some of the most common components of how people describe culture include: “How we do things around here;” shared and observable patterns of behavior; values and rituals; underlying beliefs and assumptions; a common understanding; an informal control system. It would seem, based on these descriptions, that culture shapes how people think and act in an organization . . . so hiring someone for culture fit means (consciously or unconsciously) hiring people who think and act in ways consistent with the ways people already in the organization think and act.

At the same time, organizations are gaining a keen appreciation for the importance, and bottom line impact, of teams with a diversity of lived experience, perspective and skills. Which begs the question . . . are culture fit and diverse teams mutually exclusive?

Technically, the answer is no. In reality, however, it’s up to you. Culture doesn’t happen in theory. Do your actions demonstrate a desire to embrace different perspectives within your culture?

• Do you reward people for challenging the status quo? Are you welcoming of new ideas and different perspectives . . . really?

• Do your policies, procedures or practices create an unnecessarily narrow picture of expected behavior . . . perhaps simply because “we have always done it that way”?

• Do you shine a light on areas of peace and harmony in your organization or on the value of vigorous and at times uncomfortable conversations?

If any of the above questions gave you pause, maybe you need to be more specific in defining what “culture fit” means in your organization. What if, instead of looking for people who think and act like you, you focus on finding people who share your values and goals? What if you as a leader clearly articulate an expectation that the organization explores a diversity of perspectives related to your goals because that is how the best decisions get made? Perhaps that sounds simplistic in theory . . . but are you doing it in practice?

Culture doesn’t happen in theory.

Tea Bags

Originally Published on September 9, 2015

I’ve always been a fan of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “A woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Of course, you could easily replace the word “woman” with “leader.” A key tenet of leadership 101 is that, as a leader, it is not a matter of if you will find yourself in difficult, challenging situations — hot water — but when. And as much as you might think you know how you will react in such situations, you often don’t until you are in the midst of it.

Usually “hot water” entails a higher than average number of uncontrollable variables. For those leaders who like to be in control at all times (know any of those?!?), this can be extremely challenging. Add to this the fact that your staff will be watching how you respond to give them an indication of how they should respond. Remember, calm begets calm . . . even if you have to fake it till you make it!

So how do you steep the strongest leadership out of a hot water situation?

First, realize that no matter the situation, there are things you can control. You can choose to take a deep breath, which will help move you out of the reactive, fight/flight/freeze part of your brain and into the part of your brain where you can think rationally. This is the first step toward responding in (what at least appears to be) a thoughtful, decisive manner. In most cases, there aren’t nearly as many things that you “have to” do as some external source might want you to think. You might “have to” do them to get the response the external source is seeking, but it may or may not produce the outcome you want. In fact, your calm consideration is usually the best antidote to an external frenzy.

Stonewalling, acting like everything is okay, going “underground”, or looking for a scapegoat is much the same as ripping a hole in your tea bag. All your power seeps out, and in the end you will often end up having to swallow the bitter dregs . . . and deal with the lingering aftertaste for a long time to come.

It is also good to remember that a bit of hot water every now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hot water mixed with a good tea bag can wake you up, keep you on your toes, and hone your focus on what is most important (. . . that would be your mission, your people, your long-term viability . . .)

As a tea drinker, I like my morning mug steaming, strong, and filled to the brim. Two or three of those, a deep breath for good measure, and I’m ready to face whatever comes my way.

Marshmallow Test for Leaders

Marshmallows Laid Out In The Shape Of A Heart Isolated On A Gray

The famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, originally conducted in the 1970’s, has had a resurgence in popularity of late, with parents posting their child’s performance in the experiment on Facebook for all the world to see. The premise of the experiment is this: The researcher/parent puts one marshmallow in front of their child, and then tells the child that he or she can have a second marshmallow if the child can go 15 minutes without eating the first one. The researcher/parent then leaves the room for 15 minutes — all the while recording how the child handles the dilemma. As entertaining as the footage can be, it does spur the question . . . if there was a marshmallow test for leaders, how would you perform?

Do today’s leaders have the patience, the willingness to persevere, the ability to delay gratification even if waiting means doubling their reward? In a world that increasingly expects speed, agility, and the ability to change course at the drop of a hat . . . what is a leader to do when maximizing the gain requires patience and a long term view? How do you respond when board members, shareholders, staff members, and various other stakeholders seem to be figuratively chanting “eat, eat, eat!” How do you hold off?


Clarity around the goal.

Clarity about why you want to get there.

Clarity in your communications.

Unfortunately, clarity for a leader can be much harder than it is for a child. We have so many choices. So much information. So many experts telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. Someone always has a “better way,” a new opportunity, competitors are offering new features, and someone read something somewhere that we should consider. It is hard work to distill down all the possibilities into a clear path forward, because saying yes to one path means saying no to another. But once you have a clarity of focus, an amazing thing happens . . .

Clarity is like a volume button. It allows you to turn down the background noise. It allows you to look at the marshmallow and see where the rewards will take you, rather than be distracted by the voices singing the praises of the immediate sugar rush. Clarity makes decisions easier. It gives one the patience, the perseverance — and perhaps surprisingly even the agility and ability to change course — in pursuit of a clear goal.

When you have clarity, you can stare down the marshmallows before you with confidence and lead on . . . toward a reward that is twice as sweet.

Exploit and Explore


As a leader trying to maximize the impact of your organization, there are two important and seemingly opposing tasks you have to focus on: exploiting and exploring.

While sometimes cast with a negative connotation, the word exploit is actually defined as “make full use of and derive benefit from.” Are you doing this with your programs or services? Have you squeezed every ounce of value or benefit from your current efforts? What kinds of incremental change — tweaking if you will — could you and your team implement that would create additional efficiency/effectiveness/benefit? Not sure? Ask your people.

The potential for exploitation is often most easily seen by those closest to the product or service. Chances are your frontline staff could identify a host of small changes that could make a big difference. Exploitation is about maximizing systems and processes. It is internally focused and detail oriented. It may not be as flashy as exploration, but it is also less risky. It is the tortoise in the race with the hare . . . and we all recall who won that race.

Exploration on the other hand is externally focused. It is all about scanning the environment for new opportunities. It is about making novel connections and leaps in thinking — viewing the world with fresh eyes and seeing opportunities not previously considered. The trick with exploration is to have a clear vision or goal the organization is working toward. Otherwise, if the sky is the limit, interesting but unproductive distractions — rabbit trails — can easily pull you off course. Exploration can provide big wins. It can also drain resources for an idea with no guarantee of return.

How do you balance the tension between exploiting and exploring?

  1. Know which approach you skew toward as a leader, and surround yourself with people who provide a counterbalance. If you are a proud explorer, you need people who will focus on the details and ask the hard questions. Likewise, if you are a practical exploiter, find people you trust to stretch your comfort zones with new ideas.
  1. Give wings to your exploiters and roots to your explorers. At least initially, you will probably need to ask exploiters for their input, and give them permission to stretch the rules or change the systems. Provide your explorers parameters regarding testing little bets before investing in big ones.
  1. Know that it’s rarely 50/50 split. As a general rule, most organizations need more exploiters than explorers. Exploiters are about the strength of today. Explorers are about the potential of tomorrow. Once the explorers identify and test the next big thing, it is the exploiters who develop the systems and processes to take the idea to scale. Both play a critical role, but you need more exploiters.

Where are you and your organization at on the continuum? 

Exploit. Explore. Lead.   

The VUCA Advantage


We live in a VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex, and is a concept first developed by the US Army War College in the late 1980’s. Far more than a trendy phrase describing the ever-changing world in which we are called to lead, each of the concepts in this acronym requires our organizations to act in specific ways to maximize our impact — call it the VUCA Advantage. 

Distilling down the components of the chaotic environment before us is the first step in positioning ourselves for success.

  1. Volatile means that a shift is fast and unexpected. It has to do with the unpredictable rate of change.
  2. Uncertain means the past is not a good predictor of the future, resulting in a lack of clarity about the best decision in the present.
  3. Complex means there is lots information to process and multiple inter-related variables impact decision-making.
  4. Ambiguous means that cause and effect are unclear, and there may be a number of “unknown unknowns.”

So how should you respond to gain a VUCA Advantage — to act in ways that position you for ultimate success in the midst of the fog?

  1. Volatility requires advance preparation, anticipation. What plans/supplies/safety nets do you have in place for a “rainy day”, or times when you have to pivot with little to no notice? Such preparation allows you to be reliable in the mist of volatility.
  1. Uncertainty is best addressed with information. What are you doing now to stay attuned to new developments, expand your knowledge base, and remain curious? Having a depth of knowledge results in you being seen as trustworthy when things are uncertain.
  1. Complexity calls for strong problem-solving. What organizational systems, structures or experts do you have in place to bring clarity to a myriad of seemingly disconnected variables?  Connecting the dots in advance allows you to bring logic and transparency to situations that may seem anything but clear.
  1. Ambiguity calls for experimentation. A culture that rewards innovation, and has a tolerance for making mistakes, learning, adapting and trying again, strengthens ability of the organization to adapt to change. It empowers people in the organization to become active participants in problem-solving.

Notice anything about the suggestions above? All of them require pre-emptive efforts — having specific systems, processes, mindsets and cultures in place BEFORE you are in the midst of a crisis. The VUCA Advantage is not about having all of the answers in advance. It is about creating an environment where you and your team have the solid confidence that you can find the answers and thus weather whatever VUCA storm might be coming your way.

Advantage indeed.

The Stories We Tell


What stories are you telling yourself about the people or situations you are facing today? 

Whether we recognize it or not, all of us have a creative writer hard at work in our heads. Numerous times a day, we make assumptions or judgments about the “why” of someone’s behavior. We fill in the blanks regarding a person’s intent in ways that are consistent with the plot line echoing in our head. “See, she is always trying to make my life difficult” . . . “What is he trying to pull by leaving us out of the conversation?” . . . “They clearly don’t have a good grasp of the situation.” What’s more, based on the stories we tell ourselves, we may then act in ways that create a self-fulfilling prophesy. If I make decisions based on the assumption “he is trying to pull something,” chances are my behaviors are only adding to the storyline in “his” head.

So how do you change the story?

Replace the villain with a hero in your mind. What if someone you trusted or respected displayed the same behavior? Would you automatically assume the worst, or would you stop and think about a host of scenarios that might be driving their actions? Chances are, you could think of a range of reasons — other than ill intent — why the “hero” behaved as they did. Hmmm . . . is it possible one of those reasons was also driving the “villain’s” actions? Taking even a few moments to “change the characters” in your mind can impact how you respond.

Cultivate curiosity. Another option for changing the story is to ask the other person to set the scene. “Help me understand . . .” is a great way to gain new perspective. Unlike “why did you do that?” seeking to understand doesn’t put people on the defensive. It doesn’t point fingers. It merely asks for their assistance in gaining clarity. And adding even a few additional details to the picture unfolding in your head can change your opinion about the best course of action.

Invest in editing. Good editors not only change or remove details that weaken the overall story, they also serve to confirm the parts that contribute to a stronger conclusion. Editors are not immersed in creating the story, and thus they don’t approach the situation with pre-conceived expectations. An objective eye can either support your storyline or poke holes in it. Either way, you end up greater confidence in the result. Find an objective “editor” to give you feedback, especially when you feel certain characters getting under your skin.

The stories a leader tells have ripples of impact. The first draft of a story is rarely the best. 

Aftershocks and Opportunities


The need for strong leaders is never more evident than in the midst of a crisis. People with the ability to assess the immediate situation, pivot as necessary, and take decisive action help everyone maintain a sense of calm and collective focus through the storm. And yet, responding to the immediate crisis is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of a leader’s responsibilities. Leaders simultaneously need to lay the groundwork for the long term — by preparing for “cascading aftershocks and reset opportunities.”

Aftershocks are shake-ups or instabilities that occur after the initial major “earthquake” and may continue for weeks, months or years. And one aftershock can lead to — cascade into — another, causing an impact that is delayed by time and space from the original upheaval but no less challenging to your organization. What key organizational drivers suddenly seem uncertain? It is the unknowns that lead to aftershocks. How would you respond in the best case scenario . . . or the worst? As a leader, you need to be thinking about positioning yourself to respond to future unknowns, even in the midst of the original crisis.

Reset opportunities are the chance to re-write the rules. (Link to blog 313 – old rules don’t apply). Based on what you know, what suddenly feels possible? What entrenched systems have been upended in such a way that you now have a chance to change them with far less pushback that you would have received pre-crisis? The key is to act quickly — to implement new approaches before the “stability” of the new normal sets in. Yes, that means you need to be looking for reset opportunities in the heat of the moment.

While that may seem like a lot to juggle at one time, looking for aftershocks and opportunities actually allows you to focus in a way you otherwise might not. What key organizational drivers suddenly seem uncertain? Pick no more than two or three, and then move all the other uncertainties to the back burner so you can focus on developing scenarios around those key drivers. Likewise, which one or two opportunities present the greatest opportunity to significantly change systems. Place your energy there.

In the middle of a crisis, too many leaders get caught in the swirling fear and the fog — the “what ifs,” “what abouts,” and “what nows”.  Rather than adding to the sense of overwhelm, considering aftershocks and opportunities just might bring best way to find a path forward into focus.

Leadership Shark Music


Imagine yourself walking down a winding woodland path. The birds are singing . . . rays of sunshine are peaking through the trees . . . wildflowers are blowing in the breeze. Nice, right? Now, imagine the exact same scenario except this time, you hear the soundtrack from Jaws echoing in your head . . .  All of a sudden, you are on high alert, scanning the landscape, waiting for something to jump out at you. Now instead of enjoying a pleasant walk, you imagine what horrible things might be lying in wait for you around the next bend. Even just reading these words, do you feel your body tense up? In our work with severely traumatized kids, we call that “hearing shark music.”

Right now, a lot of leaders are hearing shark music. I’m not saying that there aren’t real, legitimate reasons for that, however shark music is a sign that you are functioning out of back brain — the reactionary, fight, flight, freeze part of your brain. If it feels like you may be spending too much time hanging out in back brain (and if you are, I guarantee your people are, too), what steps can you take to tap into the thinking, reasoning part of your brain?

  • Find a way to center yourself. There are lots of ways to do this . . . exercise, talking to family or friends, deep breathing, prayer, replaying a funny memory in your mind . . . Taking even a few moments to focus on something other than the crisis at hand serves to turn down the volume on the shark music, allowing you to keep the challenges before you in context. And if you are thinking you don’t have time for any of those things right now, it’s probably a good sign that you need to make time for them.
  • Focus on what you do know. Yes, at the current time there are lots of things you probably don’t have answers to. News flash, there are always lots of things you don’t have answers to. The difference is, shark music causes you to feed into the unknowns rather than calmly consider the options before you. What you focus on grows in your mind. Focus more on what you do know than what you don’t.
  • Make a conscious decision. You can always change your mind if you get new information, however the longer you stew about the unknown monsters that could be lurking around the corner, the louder the shark music gets. Each decision turns down the volume. Making a decision doesn’t necessarily make the risks go away, but it does increase your confidence (and that of your people) that you will be able to respond to whatever comes your way.

You may not be able to totally turn off the shark music, but you do get to control the volume. How’s that sound to you?