Blowing Bubbles

Originally published June 2, 2021

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.

Leading With a Non-Anxious Presence

In today’s chaotic, ever-changing environments, where uncertainty and anxiety are seemingly at an all-time high, people are craving a sense of calm. They are seeking a leader who can serve as a non-anxious presence in the midst of the daily whirlwinds that surround us. When I use the term non-anxious presence, I mean a leader who is able to bring a sense of calm to an otherwise volatile or unsettled situation. How do you do that when you, as the leader, may also be feeling uncertain?

Stop saying “they” and start saying “we”.

When you focus on what “they” are doing to you, your power and sense of calm drain out of you like there’s a hole in your bucket, and your anxiety and sense of helplessness tend to increase in equal measure. One of the quickest ways to infuse a non-anxious presence is shift your focus to what “we” can do. That simple change in pronouns — from they to we — puts you and your people on offense rather than defense. Every time someone on your team utters a “they”, counter with a “we” … as in “Okay, what are we going to do about it?” “We” is active, “they” is passive. “We” indicates a calm resolve, where “they” feels like you have lost control. “We” is non-anxious. Make it your pronoun of choice.

Turn down the volume.

Another way to serve as a non-anxious presence is to turn down the volume on all the what-ifs and what-abouts because, left unattended, they grow both in size and volume over time causing your people to become more and more anxious. Instead, turn up the volume on what is most important — your mission, vision, values and strategic intent. Even though your “how” may get derailed during chaotic times, your “what” should not. Focusing on those things that will not change, even when numerous other things are unpredictable, provides a solid place for your people to stand, allowing them to take a deep breath and find an inner sense of calm.

Ask why.

“We can’t do that” is a frequent refrain in volatile times, to which a non-anxious leader should ask “why?” Amidst the chaos, the rule book often becomes irrevelant, and yet people often cling to “the rules” or “they way we have always done it” as a presumed source of safety. They aren’t. Options that may not have been considered during periods of calm, with more controlled variables, may become the best option during chaotic times. Every possibility should be considered based on the current variables rather than clinging to approaches designed for a different time and place, and every attempt to close a door should be challenged with a why.

As the leader, your actions are contagious. An organization will never be less anxious than its leader, however if you approach a chaotic situation with a sense of calm your people will too. It’s a volatile world out there . . . lead on.

Listening to Your Brain

Originally Published October 20, 2021

When was the last time you paused long enough to “listen to your brain think?” I’m not talking about the intentional processing that takes place when you are trying to address a specific challenge. I mean being quiet long enough for thoughts and ideas to bubble up on their own. Historically, I did this when I traveled by car, often for several hours at a time on my way to meetings. No music, no email or phone calls, just a quiet stretch where my subconscious had the time and space to reveal its wisdom.

When the pandemic prompted many of those meetings to become virtual, that processing time disappeared. Maybe some people can do deep thinking in the midst of a busy office setting, but I am not one of them. I may have gained efficiency by reducing travel time, but I also lost the built-in pause needed for the ideas that had been rolling around in my mind to come to the forefront . . . or for seemingly disconnected thoughts and ideas to emerge and blend together in a new and unique way.

I believe that kind of “simmered” thinking is part of the secret sauce of great leadership, and it doesn’t happen by accident. So how, in our ever-more over-scheduled leadership roles, can we intentionally foster the insight and wisdom that comes from listening to your brain think?

1. Regularly pour in new ideas.

Articles, podcasts, books and other opportunities to learn about topics both within and outside your industry create a library of information to draw from when considering a particular challenge. Even reading fiction can provide context or insight that may transfer to a scenario with which you are faced.

2. Put your challenge on to simmer.

Obviously, this doesn’t work with a time sensitive matter, but whenever possible consider the issue before you and the seeming barriers to a successful solution, then specifically identify that you need to give it time to simmer, and move on. Spending additional time consciously thinking about it rarely brings a quicker solution. Put it in your mind to simmer and then let it go.

3. Get quiet.

How many times has a breakthrough idea come to you first thing in the morning, or in the shower, before your brain has fully engaged with the day before you? For me, it may also happen when I am listening to the sounds of nature . . . or in the car listening to nothing at all. The tricky part is, you can’t force it. You have to have the patience to allow the ideas to bubble up on their own. It’s about listening, not telling.

The challenges before leaders today are tougher than ever before. But hey, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. Maybe you should spend more time listening to your brain.

The Art of Making Hard Decisions

Our organization is in the middle of budgeting . . . which often involves making hard decisions. Unfortunately, hard decisions are a part of leadership. There are, however, different kinds of hard decisions. Knowing how to break various types of decision-making down to the crux of the choice can save you a lot of sleepless nights. Some of the types of decisions a leader may have to make include:

1. Operational decisions

These, in many respects, are the easiest type of “hard decisions.” It is making a choice on whether to incorporate some new “thing” into the organzation. It is, “Is there a way for the budget to support adding this position?” Most operational decisions really come down to a yes or no answer based on the organization’s priorities. The difficulty is that you really may need the new position (or whatever the idea is) to achieve your goals. Based on your priorities, you either find a way to make adjustments so it will work or you don’t. These decisions may be hard, but they are also more concrete and tend to be taken less personally than other types of hard decisions.

2. Culture decisions

These are decisions where you are challenged to walk your talk. If you say people are your most important resource, is that reflected in your decision-making? If you want your people to be innovative, do you have a tolerance for mistakes and changing course mid-project? If you want your people to trust you, are you transparent with your goals and expectations? These decisions tend to be more subjective than operational decisions. You may understand the intent of your decisions, but unless you connect the dots for your people they may misinterpret your reasoning based on their perspective. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer when it comes to cultural decisions, so clarity around your values and cultural goals aids in both decision-making and, if necessary, in defending those decisions.

3. People decisions

People decisions can be the toughest of the hard decisions because they are the most personal. In fact, we sometimes try to turn people decisions into operational or culture decisions because those seem easier to make and justify. These decisions require us to look someone in the eye and share a decision regarding them or their performance that they often don’t want to hear or agree with. A key aspect of making people decisions is to base them on clear expectations or behavior. The more general, “You are just not a fit for this position” is much harder for people to accept than “We cannot tolerate this behavior”. Although a more general statement may feel easier, when it comes to people decisions, clearer is kinder.

Leadership often requires mastering the art of hard decisions . . . and the first step is to define the type of decision before you and then respond accordingly.  How will you decide?

Finding Leadership Inspiration on the Bookshelf

Originally Published August 3, 2022

I am a reader. Like pretty hard core. I have a library in my home, along with large bookcases in both my work and home offices, all filled to overflowing. Yes, I know I could get e-books or audio versions, and have, but there is nothing quite like holding a book in your hand and uncovering just the nugget of insight you need to address a current situation. Because of the value I place reading and learning, I am often asked if I had to suggest just one or two books to someone, what would they be? Hard question. Depends on the person and the situation. There are a few authors, however, whose ideas and approaches have made me a better leader.

Jim Collins

Good to Great is his classic, and should be required reading for any leader. Two of his concepts that are especially important for organizations are the hedgehog concept — what are you passionate about, what can you be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. Do that. The second is the Stockdale Paradox, which is to be brutally honest about your current sitation AND have an unwaivering faith that you will prevail. He has also written a corresponding monograph on Good to Great in the Social Sectors but that should be read as a companion piece to the book, not a stand alone. If you’re not a big reader, Collins also has numerous articles and podcasts (as well as other great books) where he shares his insight.

John Kotter

Like Collins, it is hard to pick just one Kotter book to recommend, however Leading Change is definitely high on the list, primarily because 70% of major organizational change efforts fail. Yep, 70% — that’s not a typo. Kotter takes you through eight steps that bolster your chances of success. It seems so easy when you see it in print, and yet so hard to be patient with the process when you are in the midst of it. One big takeaway — we tend to under communicate by a factor of 10! Just because you think you have “said it” a lot (probably to lots of different groups who each have heard it one or two times . . . when they may or may not have been paying attention) doesn’t mean the message is clear. If you’re not in the midst of a change initiative, pick up What Leaders Really Do, which is a master class on the difference between leadership and management — both of which are critical for success, but require different skills and abilities.

Max DePree

Leadership is an Art is my favorite of DePree’s books, perhaps because it was my first exposure to his approach to servant leadership. Unlike Collins and Kotter, who are scholars and researchers, DePree was chairman and CEO of Herman Miller Inc., widely recognized for it’s innovation, management and a best company to work for. DePree’s view on leadership is that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must because a servant and a debtor.” And also, “In a day when so much energy seems to be spent on maintenance and manuals, on bureaucracy and meaningless quantification, to be a leader is to enjoy the special privileges of complexity, of ambiguity, of diversity.” 

These three barely scratch the surface of my recommended reading list, but they are a great place to start. What books brought you important nuggets of leadership insight? There might be just a bit more room in my bookcase . . .

The Greatest Leadership Skill

If you read five leadership books, you will likely find five different perspectives on the skills needed to lead successfully, so it is easy to be confused regarding where to focus your energies. I have been in leadership positions for more than 30 years, have advanced degrees in leadership, and have coached numerous emerging leaders. Regardless of what you may hear or read related to successful leadership, experience taught me that greatest skill leaders can bring to the table is curiosity. Why curiosity?

1. Curiosity means you keep learning

When you think you have all the answers, you quit being curious, you quit learning, and then you start falling behind. Challenge yourself to be curious about at least one thing every day because doing so opens the door to new possibilities. Maybe you’re curious about whether there is a different way to tackle the challenge before you. Perhaps you are interested in one of your 20-something staff members’ perspective on how they would like to see your organization increase its impact. Or maybe you are curious about something that appears to have no direct impact on your work, but may influence your thinking none the less. One thing, every day.

2. Curiosity changes your culture

When staff members see you asking genuine questions (as opposed to gotcha ones), considering “what if” or “what about”, you give them permission to do the same. And when curiosity starts to cascade throughout your organization, look out! Amazing things can happen. The trick for leaders is that building a culture of curiosity means you have to loosen your grip on the reins a bit. If you truly embrace curiosity, you will not know exactly how your organization will go about reaching its end goal. Yes, it is your job to make sure you reach the end goal, but are you willing to let the input of others shape the path, even if it is different than the one you would have taken?

3. A curious culture means your staff can bring their whole selves to work

When staff feel like they don’t have to censor themselves or their ideas, their natural gifts and graces begin to emerge and your organization wins. Effective leaders embrace a diversity of ideas and perspectives — even those that make the leader a bit uncomfortable. It is not necessary (or feasible) to act on every idea, but leaders need to listen and really hear where their people are coming from. Rather than embracing the whole of what someone is suggesting, perhaps there is a single nugget of their idea that moves your goals forward. And as a bonus, your staff members feel heard, validated, and energized to help your organization succeed.

It is easy for leaders to think their ideas or perspectives are the “right ones.” Afterall, we didn’t get to our current position without a lot of wins, right? If we are honest with ourselves, however, those wins were undoubtedly the collective effort of many individuals and ideas. 

Want to increase your impact as a leader? Start with a daily dose of curiosity.

Hearing Shark Music

Originally Published August 10, 2022

Shark music. It is a term we use in our work with traumatized children and families. Picture yourself walking down a meandering wooded path . . . the birds are singing, wildflowers blooming, and you imagine lovely upbeat music in the background. So peaceful. Now consider the exact same scene, except music you hear is the soundtrack from Jaws. Instead of skipping happily through the woods, you are peering around every tree, wondering what is about to jump out at you. Feel yourself tense up? What felt carefree in the first scenario now feels ominous, requiring hyper-vigilance on your part. Shark music.

The soundtracks in our heads have a major influence on our actions. Jon Acuff highlighted that point recently when speaking at the Global Leadership Summit, as well as in his book Soundtracks, The Surprising Solution to Overthinking. Acuff noted that thoughts playing in the background of our mind have a significant impact on our actions. How much time do you waste thinking about something that happened in the past, making assumptions about why someone acted in a certain way or what you should have said? Or conversely, how often have you delayed taking an action because the soundtrack on repeat in your head is . . . “this is probably a dumb idea” . . . “I have to get this perfect” . . . “what will (insert name of person whose opinion is important to you) think if I do this?” How much time and energy have you wasted on self-imposed shark music?

Just like in movies, we often don’t even notice the music in the background, even though it is impacting our reactions. The good news? Once you intentionally start to hear the the tune in your head, you can make a decision to change it. Rather than the paralyzing “I have to get this perfect”, you can choose the soundtrack of, “This is a good place to start, and we can adjust as we go.” Instead of perseverating about what someone meant by their comment, you can switch to “I need to ask them to clarify their comment.” Replacing even a single negative soundtrack can save time, renew your energy, and propel you to action.

Take a moment to consider . . . what tune about yourself, your leadership abilities, has been playing on repeat in your head? Acuff notes, “if you listen to any thought long enough, it becomes a part of your personal playlist.” Is your playlist serving you well, or is it littered with shark music about yourself or others?

You get to choose your playlist. Is it time for some new tunes?

The Importance of Being Uncomfortable

When is the last time you did something that scared you, or at the very least, made you a bit nervous? Too often as leaders, we settle in to doing the things we have always done. Usually, they are things that have been successful in the past, maybe that we have become known for and  . . . well, it’s comfortable. But comfortable tends to mean things are consistent and have a rhythm and outcomes that are predictable . . . you know, status quo. Leadership isn’t supposed to be predictable. It is about stretching and growing — which often involves a level of discomfort.

If it has been a while since you have been uncomfortable, ask yourself these questions.

How are your current strategies keeping you stuck and perhaps causing you to be left behind?

It has been said if you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward. Have you ever uttered these comments, or something similar . . . “I don’t trust this new technology,” or maybe “This younger generation has no clue about what it really takes to do this work,” or even “This approach has made us an industry leader, why would we want to mess with that?” Learn, listen and be willing to change. Otherwise, that scenery out your window is probably the future passing you by. 

How are you stretching and learning?

A wise team member once told me that I could tell staff they needed to be doing something all day long, but if they didn’t see me doing it, they would never really think it is okay. Are you challenging your staff to stretch and learn? If so, how are you modeling that behavior yourself? Whether enrolling in a class, writing an article, speaking at a conference, or meeting with a younger staff member to learn more about their experience and perspective . . . there are a myriad of ways you can stretch and learn, no matter how much others may consider you to be an “expert”.

Have you made it okay for your team to be uncomfortable?

That takes building a culture where “failure” isn’t fatal, but rather it is merely a step on the way to finding the best solution. Try and adapt rather than plan and implement, let people pursue their ideas for getting to the end goal rather than insisting on your approach – and then be okay if it didn’t turn out exactly as you thought it would. Projects are only final if you quit trying to make them better. And people won’t automatically assume adapting and changing as the project moves along is okay . . . unless you say so, repeatedly.

A key to your organization succeeding in the long run is to continually adapt and grow . . . and that will only happen if your people understand the importance of being uncomfortable.

The Next Best Step

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of the decisions before you? When there are numerous interconnected parts and an overabundance of unknowns, and yet you are called upon to develop a comprehensive plan designed to seamlessly get you from point A to point B? Such situations can cause even the best leaders to freeze up a bit. How can you develop an effective plan when there are so many variables that could impact the best path forward?

How about, rather than trying to develop a comprehensive plan that may be rendered ineffective in the blink of an eye, you simply took the next best step.

I’m not suggesting you just shoot from the hip on an important project. I am suggesting there is a middle ground between the 47-page detailed plan (which provides a totally false sense of comfort) and just winging it — a strategy that will allow everyone to breathe easier, respond to emerging information and foster more effective and timely outcomes. What exactly does that middle ground look like?

It starts with a clearly articulated end goal. Where exactly are you trying to get to? What are you trying to accomplish. You should be able to state this in a few sentences, including both the “what” and the “why”. These sentences form the foundation, the intent, of the plan. You can include a few sentences on the “knowns” of the situation — where you are starting, timelines, expected budgets, etc. Finally, identify who will be making the decisions that get you from where you are to where you want to be. The full plan should be no more than one page. And then, to implement that framework, you simply take the next best step.

There are numerous advantages to a next best step approach.

  1. It allows you to respond to changing variables in the moment, rather than having to go back and make adjustments to a plan that was based on unknowable assumptions about how the project would unfold.
  2. Once you have taken the next best step, you can see things you would not have been able to see from the “starting point.” Your perspective is different, and more accurate, allowing you to see shortcuts and roadblocks that were not visible two steps back.
  3. It builds a sense of ownership and accountability that is so often lacking in a “just follow the plan” approach. Active engagement in making decisions to ensure the success of a project moves you from a “they” to a “we”, and we is always more effective.

There is one catch, of course. A next best step approach requires trust. You have to trust the people closest to the work to make decisions about the best path forward. No, they don’t have to make decisions in a vaccum, but you do have to create a level playing field where their perspective and insight is given equal weight with the experience of those farther removed from the issue at hand.

The decision is up to you. What’s the next best step?

The What and the How, Now

By the time a person reaches a position of leadership, he or she usually has a certain level of confidence. They have obviously succeeded, their ideas and approaches have been rewarded, and people have looked to them for guidance. When that happens, it is easy for a leader to think that others should follow their lead, to act in ways consistent with the leader’s style and priorities. And that is true . . . sort of. It is also true that with changes in the market, in generations, and a myriad of other variables, approaches that worked in the past may not necessarily work in the future. How does a leader find the right balance of setting standards and priorities while also allowing enough breathing room for a new generation of emerging leaders to bring their fresh ideas to the table?

  • Clearly articulate values and strategic priorities — the what.

Part of a leader’s job is to set the guard rails, to clearly articulate the end goal and the behaviors expected to be at the forefront in accomplishing those goals. When desired behavior is rewarded, it becomes part of the culture, and as noted by Peter Drucker, culture eats strategy for breakfast. When stated values are ignored, or not emphasized, everything else the leader says is likely to be seen as optional as well. It is the leader’s responsibility to set the context in which the work will be accomplished.

  • Remain flexible on the how.

This is where things can get tricky. It is so easy for a leader to want to weigh in on the how, because they know what has succeeded in the past. Except, it is no longer the past. Prime example . . . I started my career in marketing, and I was good at it. My organization accomplished a lot of positive things when I had a responsibility for positioning our agency. And while I have vivid recollections of that, I have not “done marketing” for a long time. The approach to marketing today is very different than it was 20+ years ago, and so I need to, in many respects, minimize my own feedback so those who are more attuned to effective strategies in the current environment can help us succeed. The “how” I used in the past wouldn’t be effective today.

  • Create opportunities to connect the what and the how.

Connecting the what and the how often means bringing different generations of leaders together, and making sure that the “what people” — often the senior most leaders — don’t cast such a large shadow that a new generation of “how people” feel like their voice isn’t heard. That doesn’t mean that a leader can’t push back against ideas, only that consideration of input should be carefully weighted. Just because one approach succeeded in the past doesn’t mean it should carry disproportionate sway on how to move forward in the future. 

It is obviously not an exact science, however when a leader makes a decision he or she needs to be careful not to overemphasize what worked in the past. Those who succeed consider the what and the how best suited for now.