One-Page Leadership

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Our organization’s strategic framework fits on one page. In any given three-year cycle, the framework will include 3 – 4 core areas of focus, and 3 – 4 goals under each of these key areas. That’s it. Our vision, values and operating principles also fit on a single page, as do the impact reports for each of our major programs.

It’s not that we don’t have a lot of data, or details, or documentation. Trust me we do . . . reams of it! And it takes LOTS of distilling down the information, ideas and intricacies to get these documents to a single piece of paper — to reach the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Why go to all of this effort? Because it clarifies, for you and for those you would hope to lead, the ultimate destination.

When you give someone a 47-page document that includes every data point and detail about a project, it is way too easy to get lost in the weeds and allow the pre-ordained plan to guide your actions rather than the intended goal. Also, someone from accounting might think page 12 is the most important, while the program folks are sure you intended page 34 to be the top priority . . . and in the midst of the tug-of-war, the leader’s real intent falls by the way-side. Very few people are going to get passionate about — or even remember what is in — a 47-page document.

When John F. Kennedy said we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, there was no mistaking the priority. People got excited about it and made it happen. That’s one page leadership. Did lots of people have to figure out lots of details to make it happen? Of course they did, and they made it work because everyone was clear on where they were going.

In the military, there is a concept called Commander’s Intent. It is a clear description of the desired end state. Commander’s Intent is important because when things don’t go as intended (not if . . . when) people who know the end goal can adapt their actions in ways that offer the best opportunity for reaching the destination. If all they know is the next step that applies directly to them, you lose the opportunity to benefit from their front-line knowledge or creative ideas.

If it takes more than one page to explain the core priorities, you aren’t being clear enough. If your people can’t remember — and consistently repeat — the big picture goal, they are not going to have the passion or unified focus needed to accomplish really big things. Is that a lot harder than it sounds? Sure it is. If it was easy, anyone could lead.

One page.

Stop Waiting for the Perfect Solution

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Leaders want to be successful. We want to make good decisions. Yet in today’s VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) — where new information is coming to light virtually every day, variables are changing from moment for moment and four different “experts” are giving you five different recommendations — how can a leader gather all the information you need to make the perfect decision? You can’t.

I’m not saying you should shoot from the hip either, however you box yourself in as a leader when your expectation is to have “all” the information before making a decision.

“All” is a moving target. If that is your bar for making a decision, you unconsciously give yourself permission to “sit and spin” . . . to expend lots of energy going in circles rather than moving forward . . . to hold out for that moment of absolute certainty that is never going to come.

What’s the solution?  Enough.

You need enough information to make a decision, and then have the confidence to move forward. Will you sometimes make the wrong decision? Yep. But if you are already moving it is much easier to course correct, and if you start moving sooner (as opposed to waiting until you’re 100% certain) you have the time and energy to make adjustments and still get to the finish line sooner. You are actively striving toward the perfect solution, rather than simply waiting for it to arrive.

So how do you know when you have enough information? I’ll let you in on a little secret  . . . having enough information to start is not the same as having enough information to devise an entire 57-page plan. Leaders who are prone to “sit and spin” usually expect to have the entire (perfect) plan worked out before they start. “Enough leaders” know where they want to go, and then begin the journey when they have enough information to start. They don’t wait until they have enough information to finish — because much of that information can’t be seen at the outset, it is found along the way!

Is there a risk in making a decision without all the information? Yes. But ask yourself . . . is that risk any greater than making no decision, and as a result having no forward movement? Especially when what you are risking is a single step rather than betting the farm on an entire plan. Do you have the information to take that one step?

That’s enough.

Everywhere Else

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Originally Published January 27, 2016

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere else.”

I have this Albert Einstein quote posted at the base of my computer screen. It is a great reminder, every time I glance down from my screen, that new possibilities for mission impact come from the ability to see a future that is beyond our current points of reference — you know, those “realities” that we allow to box us in and constrain our thinking. Those realities are fine if you want to travel from A to B, to carry out tasks as assigned by another, but what about those of us who see a whole alphabet of ways to extend our mission reach? We will never get there by following the A/B logic.

I’m not saying that A/B logic is bad, in and of itself. We use a lot of it in our organization to ensure we consistently meet or exceed the expectations of our current programs and services.  And many organizations plug along just fine living within the parameters prescribed by others, or that they themselves have developed, to achieve an intended goal.  My point is, the same actions that allow you to achieve one well-defined goal will not get you to another aspirational destination. If you have a big hairy audacious goal, you’re going to have to set the rule book and paved road aside, because those things won’t get you to “everywhere else.”

Charting the route to “everywhere else” is a key function of leadership. While management is about systems and processes and consistency, leadership is about embracing change. (Which is not to say leadership is more important that management, it’s not; it is simply a different focus/skill set.) Many organizations, and leaders, get so mired down by the logic of what “we have to do” that they never raise their eyes to the horizon to consider a different landscape. I believe part of a leader’s job is to look up, see your “everywhere else” destination, and start building roads to get there.

Sure imagination involves risk, but so does logic if it limits your ability to fulfill your mission. Good stewardship is about making the best use of the resources before you to have the greatest impact, not taking the “safest” bet. If you can fulfill your mission by logically moving between point A and point B, great. For others of us, our mission requires us to look beyond the logic of A to B, and imagine the possibilities open to us . . . everywhere else.

Brave Beginners

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Most people are placed in positions of leadership because it was determined they knew what they were doing. They demonstrated competence and found success (or at least a leadership position) as a result. And the more external validation the leader experiences, the more confidence they tend to gain in their skill set. This would seem like a positive thing . . . except when, in the words of Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you here won’t get you there.”

In today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), yesterday’s most effective tools may not lead to tomorrow’s success. To be successful in such an environment, a leader needs to be confident enough to risk being a beginner again, learning the ropes of an entirely new skill or approach. That is easy enough to agree with in theory, but the reality may feel a bit different . . .

Being a beginner means that you will feel incompetent and make mistakes. It requires a willingness to ask for help from those who know more than you in the desired skill — regardless of where that person sits in the organizational chart, or whether they are half your age. It means embracing a growth mindset — with all the hard work and setbacks such a mindset entails — while still being held accountable for positive outcomes. It may even mean that those who have seen you as “a sure bet” become a bit skeptical . . . at least in the short term.

However, if you as the leader are brave enough to embrace the role of beginner, you model for your entire organization that continuous learning is critical for sustained success . . . that expertise isn’t a static trait, but rather an ongoing quest filled with twists and turns . . . that at the same time you are experiencing success in one area, you should also be asking “what’s next”. Over time, this approach will enable your organization to become more nimble and responsive to changes in the environment, and people will come to see your organization — and its leader — as strategic, innovative, adaptable, and resilient.

What leader doesn’t hope to been seen as strategic, innovative, adaptive and resilient? The first step is to scan the environment and decide where you need to step away from the “sure thing” to again become a beginner.

Are you brave enough?

 

Stepping Into the Darkness

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Originally Published February 25, 2015

“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”                                                                                                             Edward Teller

For those of you who think this quote is one of those “whoo whoo” notions that may look nice hanging on a wall, but isn’t practical in the rough and tumble real world . . . you might be interested to know that the author, Edward Teller, was a theoretical physicist who made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, and is known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Yep, that’s right, a hard core by the book science guy acknowledging that sometimes you have to step forward without knowing how things will work out.

Sounds a lot like leadership to me.

Notice, he is not suggesting we should blindly leap toward a half-baked idea. First you have to get to the end of all the light you know . . . you consider the data, you run the numbers, you look at unique variables and possible scenarios and use that information to illuminate the situation as much as possible.  Unfortunately, in today’s volatile environment, in many cases what we know for sure does not exactly create a well-lit path.

From there, it takes faith. I don’t know if Teller was specifically referencing religious faith or gut instinct, intuition or innate knowledge . . . but for me those things are so intertwined the distinction is irrelevant. I believe my religious faith, and prayerful requests for guidance, seed my gut instincts and intuition. It illuminates my path enough to find a firm place to stand, or a launching pad for flight.

It was leadership born of faith that prompted my organization to identify in our strategic framework that we would have a global reach. We didn’t know exactly how that would happen, but we believed it was an important next step. In fairly short order after setting that goal, we extended our reach not only to one additional country but actually provided training and consultation to professionals from five continents.

The same concept is currently playing out on another stretch project we are implementing. Once you make the leadership decision to move forward, to step out in faith, it is amazing how opportunities start to present themselves — opportunities you could not have known about prior to making the decision.

Nope, there are no guarantees. Yes, it does involve risk. But once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you’d be surprised how many paths forward you might find.

Come on, have faith . . . take that step.

Pragmatic Optimism

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Originally Published January 5, 2016

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”                                               — F Scott Fitzgerald

Powerful quote for leaders today, especially given the ever-growing requirements, expectations, and complicating factors that impact one’s ability to reach a desired outcome. It is so easy, and there are plenty of voices pushing us, to slide into either/or thinking. Pick a side . . . stake out a position . . . then resist any attempts to view things differently. Yet to be most effective — to be of first rate intelligence —a leader has to be able to contend with multiple, often seemingly conflicting realities.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to this as the Stockdale Paradox — accepting the brutal facts of the current reality while maintaining an unwavering faith in the ability to prevail. In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin has a similar concept he calls Integrative Thinking — facing the tension of opposing ideas and, rather than choosing one over the other, creating a new solution that has elements of the two original ideas but is superior to both.

Me, I simply call it pragmatic optimism. As leaders, we have a responsibility to deal with the reality before us, and, I think we have an equal responsibility to remain optimistic about our future. I’ll let you in on a little secret (which is really no secret at all to those who work with me) . . . I have very little patience for “oh poor me.” Sooner or later, we are all faced with situations that really stink/aren’t fair/aren’t our fault.  Sure, it’s okay to have a quick little pity party, but then it’s time to move on.  It baffles me why a leader would hang out in “ain’t it awful land” and wallow in the pain and suffering.  Find a way to make things better and focus on that — not to ignore the current reality, but as a deliberate choice to move beyond it.

Or maybe you aren’t dealing with an “unfair” situation. Maybe you have two trusted advisors who have opposing proposals about the best way to respond to an opportunity. Are you an “all or nothing” leader who locks in on one option, or can you acknowledge the realistic strengths and weakness of each position while also having the confidence that those collective insights can result in a totally new, previously unconsidered, framework for success?

Pragmatic optimism.  The willingness to look reality in the eye, and remain certain here is a path to get from here to your intended destination. Easy? No. Worth the effort? Well . . . let’s just say it sounds like first rate intelligence to me!

Enough Said

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As a general rule, leaders need to use fewer words.

Too many of us have a tendency to pontificate . . . to explain in great detail the rationale and nuances behind our thought processes . . . to generously impart our deep expertise and multiple considerations on the topic at hand . . . And yet, when we use too many words, leaders risk two important things:

  • Burying our core message; and/or
  • People tuning us out all together.

If you hope to influence others with your leadership, it may be helpful to consider the following:

Using fewer words is harder. It requires a more disciplined thought process, a distilling down and prioritization of where to focus one’s time and energy.

Using fewer words provides clarity. Without an abundance of adjectives, qualifiers, or supporting verbiage, the strength of your ideas can stand out.

Using fewer words is more impactful. When people are clear on the destination, they are better able to help you get there.

Using fewer words increases the likelihood that people will listen. And remember. And share your message with others. Which just might be the key to accomplishing your goals.

Enough said.