The Donut of Impact

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Last Friday was national donut day. And while I make no promises that the glazed or chocolate covered kind will have any measureable impact on your leadership skills, I recently ran across a donut that just might provide the insight necessary to up your game.

Camille Preston, author of Create More Flow: Igniting Peak Performance in an Overwired World, uses the analogy of a donut to describe how a leader can get into a state of flow — where we are deeply focused, engaged and perform at our peak. She identifies the donut hole as our comfort zone, the donut itself as the learning zone, and the outer edge of the donut as “terror’s edge.” If you were to use a scale, 1 and 2 would be in the comfort zone, 3 and 4 would be in the learning zone, and a 5 would represent terror’s edge. (And for those of you who feel like you are at an 8, having careened right past the edge and off the cliff . . . keep reading!)

Here’s the good news if you are clutching to terror’s edge . . . for maximum impact, the goal is not reaching the comfort zone, but rather the learning zone . . . simply one step back from the outer stress threshold which can feel overwhelming and leads to diminishing performance. While many of us seek what we perceive as the calm of the donut hole, we would do well to re-calibrate our perception of the “sweet spot” of leadership effectiveness — it’s all about the donut.

So how do you get from a 5 (or an 8) to the high performance zone of a 3 or 4? Start by finding a place to gain a foothold — a sense of control. One way to “get back on the donut” is by moving from a “they” to a “we” perspective. Rather than focusing on what “they” are doing, ask how “we” are going to respond in this situation. Answering (even in your mind) with “we don’t have a choice” moves you and your organization closer to terror’s edge, while identifying even one step over which you have control keeps you in a growth mindset where you can discover new possibilities, one decision at a time. Notice, I didn’t say you need to have it all figured out — that is a characteristic of the comfort zone, which maintains the status quo but does not result in peak performance.

Challenges, and the learning that comes from working through them, make us better. Your persistence in “finding a way” to tackle hard things can often lead to the most creative, energizing and impactful solutions — and that is a sweet feeling.

I always knew I liked donuts!

Your Steps in the Dance

Man And Woman Are Dancing. Feet Of Young People Dancing On Party

Have you ever started a conversation with or about an individual with the words, “He/you always . . .” or “She/you never . . .”? Such pronouncements are often shared with thinly veiled frustration because, try as you might, you can’t “force” someone to change their behavior . . . right? Actually you can, but not with the threatening or strong-arm tactics you might be imagining. The way we describe the process in our organization is “changing your steps in the dance.”

Notice, I said changing your steps. Any time two people interact, they become part a behavioral dance — one person moves a certain way, and the other responds with a corresponding step. While telling another person they have to change their steps often feels like talking to a brick wall, you have full control over whether you change your steps.

What does it look like when you change your steps in the dance?

• If someone is consistently late to meetings, and you have historically disrupted everyone’s schedule by waiting for them, or taking time to recap what they missed when they arrive, your scolding is unlikely to change their behavior. So change your steps. Start the meeting on time, and don’t offer a recap to late-comers. By not following their “lead”, you might be surprised at how quickly they start arriving on time.

•  When trying to collaborate, if someone comes across as guarded, defensive or not willing to compromise, rather than moving in the same direction and upping the ante, take an unexpected step. Depending on the situation, you might increase your level of openness, ask about barriers you may not be aware of, or express regret that they don’t see the project as a fit for their goals and then move on with those who do.

• For someone you have come to view as a “pot-stirrer”, rather than getting sucked into the drama or totally ignoring what may be a legitimate issue, thank them for their concern for the situation/organization, let them know you will look into it, and then end the discussion. No defending, no questioning . . . simply take the steps of acknowledgement and moving on.

• What examples would you add?

The hardest part of changing your steps is to see the dance in the first place. What might seem obvious to an observer is much harder to see when you are in the midst of an instinctive or habitual response (often fueled with the certainty that you are “right”). Try this . . . the next time you are feeling frustrated with someone’s behavior, rather than focusing on how you want them to behave, stop and ask yourself how you can change your steps in the dance. Remember . . . it takes two to tango.

See you on the dance floor.

 

The Power of White Space

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Early in my career I designed a lot of printed materials, and I always tried to make sure that there was sufficient white space on the page . . . which helped the important ideas pop out more easily to the reader. Even all these years later, I am still drawn to printed information with a clean design and lots of white space. It gives my brain room to breathe, and focus on the key messages the author is trying to convey. I am able to absorb and reflect on the content much more effectively than when I am blasted with a fire hose of “stuff” on an over-crowded page.

It is no different with our schedules and priorities. And yet, too many people have bought into the myth that one indicator of leadership effectiveness is a schedule that is overflowing, a never-ending to-do list, and an unrelenting pace. While those things may make you look important in some people’s eyes (perhaps even your own), that is not the path to maximum impact as a leader. It is hard to see, much less think about, what is most important when you are sprinting from point A to point B, all day long.

Yes, leaders have a lot of responsibilities and people urging you to take up their priority. Yes, the schedule at times can be a bit overwhelming. Yes, you will feel like there is always more to do. Which is exactly why you need to intentionally insert some white space into your schedule . . .  to allow yourself to consider, prioritize, and focus on those things that will move you most effectively toward your ultimate goal (which, by the way, are often not the actions that may seem most important at first glance).

Granted, white space is something that is fairly easy to agree with in theory. It is the practical application that is much harder to make happen . . . in part because we convince ourselves we don’t have time for it. Also, what might work for one person doesn’t work for another. So start small, in a way that works for you. Set a goal of 30 minutes of white space a day. That could be 30 minutes at the beginning or end of the day. It might be two fifteen-minute windows, or three ten-minute pauses to reflect on new information you have received and how it will impact your actions going forward (seriously, you can find 10 minutes). Counterintuitive as it may seem, slowing down for a few minutes really does allow you to go faster and accomplish more in the rest of your day.

Why not start right now? . . . The space is yours.

 

The Three Fingers Pointing Back

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At some point in my childhood, it was impressed upon me that any time you point a finger at someone else, you should remember that you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. I always smile when one of these nuggets of wisdom from my youth is validated with modern research (apparently grandma really did know what she was talking about!). In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall note that more than half of your rating, your impression, of someone else’s performance is a reflection of your characteristics, not those of the other person. Therefore, Buckingham and Goodall recommend that you offer feedback in the context of how you experienced it, rather than making assumptions about characteristics of the other person . . . in other words, focus on the three fingers pointing back at you.

As a leader, your words carry extra weight. How often have you started a conversation with “you need to . . .” (feel the finger point?) and watched a person either wilt in front of you or respond defensively? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t share feedback with your team — that’s part of your job. How you offer it, however, makes all the difference in whether you open the door to a person’s growth or shut down their momentum. So how should you offer feedback?

Start with your three fingers. How did their actions affect you, or how would you respond? For example, “I didn’t get a clear picture of the key point you were trying to make . . .” (rather than “you were unclear”) or “When I was in a similar situation I . . .” (rather than “you should . . .”). This isn’t about soft-peddling your feedback. It is recognizing that you bring a particular lens to the situation that might be different from the perspective of others.

Ask about their three fingers. Given the opportunity, most people can self-reflect quite accurately. “Is there any part of the project you would have handled differently?” or “If you were in my shoes, how would you respond?” Probing for an answer rather than simply providing one fosters problem-solving and growth rather than pushback and second-guessing.

Focus on the ends, not the means. Let’s face it, your way probably isn’t the only way to get a task completed. Assuming adherence to basic organizational values, the “what” of an expectation is far more important than the “how”. And yet, how often do we start finger-pointing about the “how”?

As the leader, you set the tone for how feedback is given and received in your organization. In my experience, the growth or contraction that comes from critiques is usually a result of the fingers pointing back at you.

The Stories We Tell

View Of Female Hands Writing Her Life Goals In A Journal

Whether you realize it or not, you are a storyteller. I’m not talking about the ability to draw others in with a compelling narrative, or perfectly timing a punch line. I am talking about the stories we tell ourselves . . . our perspective of a situation that impacts our beliefs, actions, and responses. Those plot lines may be based on accurate, one sided, or totally erroneous information, and yet when we are crafting them in our mind, they inevitably feel as if they are true. Have you ever noticed, however, that gaining additional nuggets of information can totally change how we view the same set of “facts”?

An example of this I heard many years ago was of a man who boarded a bus with three young children. The man slumped down in his seat, seemingly oblivious to the rowdy behavior of his children who were bouncing around and disturbing those near him. Finally, one frustrated passenger spoke up, telling the man his children were bothering others. The man wearily looked up and apologized, explaining that they were heading home from the hospital where his wife had just passed away, and he guessed none of them quite knew what to do. Wow. Can you imagine how differently the passengers felt about the children’s behavior in that moment? The “facts” of the behavior didn’t change . . . it was the understanding of why they were acting as they were that changed the passengers’ perspective.

It is so easy to assign intent to a person’s behavior, decisions, or beliefs — intent that is consistent with the storyline we have already constructed in our mind — which may or may not bear any resemblance to what is really motivating the other person’s actions. There are two aspects of this “storytelling dilemma” that leaders should consider . . .

  • How can you improve the accuracy of your own internal storytelling?

Learn to consciously separate people’s action (behavior) from the why of their actions (their intent). How? The simple phrase “Help me understand . . .” is a nonjudgmental way of opening the door to greater insight into what is driving a person’s actions, and allows you to respond in a way that takes multiple perspectives into consideration.

  • How can you influence others’ internal storytelling?

Start by clearly articulating your intent. We tend to assume that others know what is driving our beliefs/decisions/actions — because it is so clear to us — but that is often not the case. The bonus benefit of routinely sharing your intent — beyond giving people a sense of context and making it less likely that they will “fill in the blanks” with a faulty storyline — is that it also opens the door for them to offer input that could ultimately help you more effectively reach your goals.

As a leader, you are a role model for how to develop a narrative that effectively guides your actions, and those of your organization. So, what’s your story?

The Moving Target of Success

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I recently celebrated 25 years at my organization. Amid congratulations from friends and colleagues, I also received several comments along the lines of, “Wow. Twenty-five years at the same organization?” Except it’s not. The organization I am part of today looks very different from the organization I joined a quarter-century ago, just as I’m sure there will be a myriad of changes a generation from now . . . not because we aren’t successful today, but because we want to remain successful tomorrow.

Sometimes, the greatest barrier to future success is current success. After all, what you are doing is working . . . whether you define that as extending your mission reach, having a positive impact on the bottom line, growing market share, or some combination thereof. Why would you want to disrupt that? Because if you don’t, someone else will. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of organizations whose view of the future was distorted by overconfidence based on their current success (Kodak, anyone?). Improving or refining a program, product or service that people no longer want or need is a hollow, and unsustainable, victory.

Success may be a moving target, but that doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs. The core values of our organization are the same as when we were founded 166 years ago. Our work has always been focused around kids and their families. However, what kids and families want and need today is different from 100 years ago, or five years in the future. That means, to be successful today and tomorrow, your organization has to continually refine what it is doing now while also taking steps to make your current approach to the work obsolete.

It is a leader’s job to guide your organization through the competing perspectives and tensions of focusing on the now versus preparing for the future . . . which ideas to explore and for how long, when and how to shift programs or approaches, how resources will be divided between the current and future orientations . . . And regardless of where you focus your energies, there will be those — who are truly committed to your organization — who will think you are wrong, that you are skewing too much one way or another. Too safe . . . too risky . . . is it the wise voice of experience or an over-emphasis on outdated approaches . . . is it a crazy idea or the wave of the future?

One thing you can be sure of . . . the target of success WILL move. Your organization will be different ten years from now than it is today. How? Well, my friend, that is up to you.

What Every Leader Needs

 

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As soon as I finish writing this blog, I am going to close my computer and spend the day with a dear friend who is visiting from out of town. I have known her for decades, and she is the kind of friend who, along with being one of my biggest cheerleaders, is not afraid to challenge my perspective, or tell me I just need to get over something, or throw out a question and then leave me to wrestle with it. She is the kind of friend that every leader needs.

Even when you have a great leadership team, which I absolutely do, organizations tend to take on the perspective of the leader. People learn to present ideas in ways that fit with the leader’s approach. And that’s a good thing! It is also a good thing for a leader to have one or more trusted advisors outside the organization to support and/or challenge the leader’s thinking, and here’s why:

Leadership can be lonely. Ultimately, it is the leader’s responsibility to be a good steward for the organization, and sooner or later that will entail making hard decisions. Regardless of the amount of input you may receive, the point of decision — or at least making the case for the best path forward — lies with the leader. Getting an impartial perspective from someone who won’t be directly affected by the decision can help provide that extra nudge or bit of clarity a leader needs to make the best decision for the organization.

Leadership comes with a host of expectations. And it should. However, being “on” and “professional” at all times can take a toll. Leaders need a safe space to vent, and on some days maybe even get a bit snarky. They need the kind of friend who perhaps knew you long before you had the title of leader, or is willing to overlook your role and instead see the whole person, quirks and all. They know how to help you recharge  . . . by giving you space, laughing with you, being totally unimpressed by you, whatever the case may be . . . so you can bring your best self to your leadership role.

Leadership is hard. The challenges from day-to-day, week-to-week, can loom large. A trusted friend can help provide context. You are more than the result of a single challenge or decision, however sometimes that is hard to remember that when you are in the midst of the battle. That’s your passion and commitment to the organization speaking, and that’s a good thing. So is having someone who can help you step back to see the bigger picture, either by cheering you on, or telling you to end the pity party.

Leadership is not a solo act. It takes a great team inside the organization, and one or more trusted advisors outside the organization. I think I’ll leave it at that . . . I have a friend to meet.