What Have You Penciled In?

I recently conducted a national study of nonprofit leaders (more on that in future posts). Since I was interviewing the leaders in late 2020, one of the questions I asked was how COVID-19 impacted strategic leadership in their organizations. One of the answers really stuck with me. The leader’s response was, “I realized that we already knew what to do. We had penciled it in, we just hadn’t implemented (it) yet.” Wow. Felt that one.

What have you penciled in? 

How often do you know in your gut what you need to do in a certain situation and yet you haven’t moved forward? There can be any number of reasons . . . maybe some other urgent priority demands your attention . . . or you want to get input from a few more people . . . or it would require drawing resources away from another important project. Maybe you have penciled something in because you know the decision is going to be disruptive and you don’t think you have the bandwidth right now to devote to it, or you’re hoping another solution will emerge, or someone else will take the lead. Maybe you have penciled something in because you don’t feel like you have all the information needed to be 100% certain in your decision.

I’m not suggesting that it is always a bad thing to pencil something in. There are times when you may have a legitimate reason for delaying implementation even when you are pretty sure you know what you need to do. Just recognize this: When you have penciled something in, you carry the weight of that “sort of/maybe/okay probably, but I just can’t deal with it right now” lack of decision with you through everything else you do. And maybe, like me, you didn’t even really recognize the drag of the penciled in possibilities you are carrying around until it was pointed out to you. You’re welcome. 

So, what can you do about the weight of potential actions you have penciled in? Make a decision. That doesn’t always mean immediate action. The decision could be that you will give yourself two weeks to gather additional information and then you will select the best path. Perhaps the decision is that you will start implementation of the project in six months. You might even decide that you will follow another organization’s lead on a particular project. All fine. It is the lack of a clear decision that weighs on you. Think about it . . . have you ever wrestled with a something for a long time, and then suddenly felt a weight lift when you finally made a decision — even if it was a hard one? Yep. Just think about the additional energy you would have to devote to moving things forward if you sloughed off the dead weight of indecision.

What have you penciled in?

The Seeds of Leadership

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.

Plans Are Useless

“On preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”Dwight D. Eisenhower

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. As someone who spends a good deal of time pursuing strategic goals, I totally agree with this quote. Let me explain.

Developing plans forces us to go through the process (i.e. planning) of identifying the end goal — where we are trying to get to. It is amazing how often that critical element is missing from our efforts. Oh sure, we know the general direction we are headed, but have we specifically identified what success looks like? In military planning they call this Commander’s Intent — how things should look at the end of the mission. When people are crystal clear on the desired outcome, the chance of you actually getting there increases dramatically.

Developing plans also allows us to identify what variables are critical to our success, and what is just noise coming from someone else’s perspective (usually related to their desired outcome). It separates the important from the urgent, so you are not trying to make that determination when someone else is working diligently to make their goal your own. Developing a plan also helps identify parameters around the identified project, whether that is a particular timeline, budget, or some other resource constraint. Parameters can actually help you be more innovative because it removes the “if onlys” that serve as a distraction from the task at hand.

The steps outlined above relate to the planning process. Here’s why the plans themselves are useless: Plans are a static document built around the perceived best course of action at the time they were developed. And the moment they are “finished,” variables are going to change. When people believe their job is to follow the plan, that is what they are going to focus on — not the changing variables that may render specific tactics within the plan obsolete. For planning to be most effective, you have to give your people permission to take actions not spelled out in advance  . . . provided those actions increase the likelihood of reaching the desired outcome. Too often, our people see plans as marching orders to which they will be held accountable (even if they don’t believe them to be the best course of action). After all, who wants to be the one to point out that the “plan” the leader developed is wrong?

What if instead of developing plans, the result of your planning efforts was a framework that clearly articulated the end goal and parameters that would guide the effort?  And what if you specifically articulated the expectation that your people would raise concerns or highlight unexpected variables as the effort moved forward — that you knew that things could change in real time and they had permission to adapt the course of action to increase the likelihood of reaching the end goal? Wow, that feels different.

How are you spending your time . . . on the useless or the indispensable?

It’s Worth Rethinking

I think it is time that we dispel the myth of the noble leader who saves the day by the sheer strength of their convictions . . . by staking out a position, absolutely convinced in the superiority of their solution, and refusing to back down. That might make a good fairy tale, but in truth, enduring leaders recognize that “best decisions” reflect a moment in time, and they are willing to course correct (i.e. make a different decision) as new information presents itself. 

It may appear to be a careful balancing act for leaders — exhibiting confidence while also remaining open to course corrections — but that all depends on how you define confidence. What if your confidence was placed, not in a sense of superiority of yourself or your ideas but rather in a belief in your ability, and that of your people, to figure out the next best solution? In Adam Grant’s new book Think Again, he suggests that the ability to rethink and unlearn is a critical component for individual or organizational success.

It takes a confident person to challenge their own beliefs and assumptions, especially if those beliefs and assumptions have helped get you where you are. And therein lies the challenge. When you are rewarded for thinking and behaving a specific way, we become less likely to rethink what we believe to be true. And yet, if we are to learn and grow — as individuals and as organizations — we have to be open to doing things differently. As Marshall Goldsmith noted, “What got you here won’t get you there.” 

Rethinking a position, approach, or idea is not about right or wrong (although there are plenty in our polarized world who would like you to believe that.) Rethinking is about curiosity, possibility and the desire to achieve more. It is not about discounting everything you know to be true, but is about imagining a future that is different from the present and then taking step to proactively position your organization for that future. 

Granted, it can be more comfortable to listen to the voices that agree with us, that don’t push us out of our comfort zones. That’s why it’s important to recognize that rethinking isn’t personal, it’s about working your way through a puzzle. As Grant notes in the book, it is about scientific thinking, experimenting with various options, considering a range of ideas and yes, making mistakes on the way to finding breakthrough solutions. It is about being more committed to finding a solution than to being “right.”

And we need leaders to guide us on that journey, perhaps today more than ever before. Are you up to the challenge? Might be worth rethinking.

Days Like That

Ever have one of those days? Like the adult version of the children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. Yeah, one of those days. Well unfortunately, this blog is not going to tell you how to avoid days like that. They happen. That’s life. And when you are a leader, the weight of those days can feel even heavier because the consequences of our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days can have an impact far beyond ourselves. What we may fail to recognize in the midst of our most challenging days, however, is that while we may not get to stop them, we do get to decide how we respond to them — and the impact of that can have a far-reaching impact on our organizations, and those we would hope to lead.

So, how should you respond when it feels like things are going from bad to worse?

1. Identify what you can control.

Part of what makes “those days” so frustrating is the feeling that there is nothing you can do about it. When you start to feel like one or more people or situations are doing something “to you,” stop and consider what you can impact. Maybe it is taking steps to make sure the current situation doesn’t happen again. Maybe it is changing course in how you reach your goal. Or maybe it is deciding to live out your values in how you handle the situation, even if others aren’t taking the high road. Identifying what you can control gives you a place to plant your feet and regain your bearings.

2. Recognize that you and your organization are more than the current challenge.

When a difficult situation, or a series of them, is urgently screaming for attention, it is natural to place our entire focus there, which allows the current situation to loom larger that it really is. Stepping back, even briefly, to recognize that you are more than the current challenge can provide context. That is not to say that you should unrealistically downplay the current situation, however reminding yourself that you have successfully navigated challenging situations before can provide the boost you need to move forward.

3. Take a step.

Wallowing in “ain’t it awful,” or freezing for fear of making the wrong decision, does nothing to move you beyond the situation before you. We are all human, so wallow momentarily if you must, but then take a deep breath, consider the variables and options before you, and take the next best step. There is rarely a single path forward, and you can course correct as you go if needed. Take a step.

As a leader, you will have tough days. The ability to keep your bearings and press forward in the midst of challenges doesn’t just help you and your organization today. It sets the example that your people can follow when they, too, have days like that.

Don’t Close the Door?

Most leaders will tell you that they want input from their people. For example, when leaders present an idea, it is not uncommon to end with, “Let me know what you think.” So, if no one offers input, it is only natural to assume that your people agree with you, right? Well, maybe. Or maybe you shut the door in their face.

As a leader, your words carry more weight. Whether you intend them to or not, your ideas, your suggestions, your words can be seen as a “declaration” by your people. Declarations close doors. Even if you feel you are simply offering an option for consideration, if the discussion seems to wind down shortly thereafter, you may have just closed the door on further conversation.

So how do you keep the door to discussion open, or re-open one that has inadvertently been closed? Questions. Questions open doors. 

Jumping back to the opening paragraph, “Let me know what you think” is not a question. As a leader, you may think you have asked for feedback, but those words could also be perceived by all but the most bold among your staff as a closing statement. So how do you make sure (assuming you really do want to hear what people are thinking) that you keep the feedback door open?

1. You unlock the door by giving permission 

. . . I want to hear your perspective on this 

. . . You are the expert in this area 

. . . I need your best thinking to make sure we arrive at the best solution

. . . Play devil’s advocate for me

There are a whole host of ways that you can convey to your staff, “no really, I want to hear your honest opinion.” If your staff seem reluctant to offer opinions that may be different from your own, be intentional in giving them permission to offer their perspectives.

2. You open the door by asking questions

. . . What have we overlooked?

. . . If you were to change one thing, what would it be?

. . . How do you think our (customers/front line staff/stakeholders) will react?

. . . How else could we accomplish our goal?

The more specific your questions, the greater likelihood you will get the kind of detailed feedback that will help fine-tune your decision-making.

Most leaders truly do want to hear what their people think. Sometimes we just don’t realize that, the weight of our words — our position —discourages people from sharing their best thinking. The best way to counteract that?

Don’t close the door.

It’s Not A Volume Game

How is it that we have access to more data than at any time in the history of our species, and yet wisdom seems to be in such short supply? Perhaps it’s because, in spite of our super-sized efforts to stack “fact” upon “fact,” on the premise that more is better, wisdom isn’t a volume game . . . it’s a vision game.

  • Wisdom requires the ability to see what is most important, sometimes in spite of the overwhelming reams of information at our disposal. (Ever experience the wisdom of a child that cuts through all the superfluous stuff to identify a foundational truth? Yeah . . . that).
  • Wisdom is confident enough to look for points of connection that perhaps have not been considered before because they resided in different “boxes,” in our own or someone else’s mind.
  • Wisdom casts its eye past “knowing” in search of understanding, past sides toward seeking solutions. And that’s a whole lot harder that solely focusing on a single set of facts.

I am certainly not suggesting that leadership doesn’t require a baseline level of knowledge or experience to competently carry out our responsibilities. I think it does. And yet, past a certain point, adding volume may contribute to an increase in accumulated knowledge . . . but that is not the same as an increase in wisdom. It is easy to convince ourselves that smarter = wiser, however smart is about intelligence, wisdom is about judgement. Two very different things. 

There are lots of really smart people in this world. Surround yourself with them. Learn from them. Just remember, your job as the leader isn’t to be the smartest person in the room, it is to seek out the wisest solutions for your organization. Wisdom requires you to consider a range of variables and perspectives, and then to run that information through the sieve of your own experiences and insight (that is, your best judgement) to bring into focus the best path forward.  Not the most popular. . . or the easiest path . . . or the one with the greatest amount of supporting documentation. 

Wisdom isn’t a volume game. It’s a vision game. And we need more leaders on the team.

No Shoulding Allowed

In our organization’s work with children and families, one of the core tenants we teach our staff is to start where the child and family is at — not where you think they ought to be, or where you are, but where they are in that moment. “Shoulding” them, shaming them or scolding them because of where they are does not help them move forward faster. In fact, such approaches often raise their defenses in ways that slow their progress. Guess what? The same principles that work with kids and families also work with the grown-ups you are trying to lead on a daily basis.

Leaders often find themselves “farther ahead” than their people. Before we implement a change initiative, or try to get our people to think differently about a topic or approach, we have usually already been thinking about it for a while. We have worked through the questions, the alternative options, and done our own internal wrangling before we decide to introduce the new approach. And yet even though we had to walk through that process before moving forward, once we have reached a conclusion, there is a tendency to expect that our people will immediately get on board — just because we think they should. Oh, wouldn’t that make life easier . . .

Even in our hurry up, instant everything world, there is no shortcut around Lao Tzu’s observation that, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Have you given your people a roadmap for how to get from where they are to the intended destination, or have you just assumed they would figure it out the same way you did? Blaming, bullying or belittling someone who isn’t where you want them to be rarely prompts them to get on board.

So how do you encourage someone to take that first (or second) step?

            • Identify the goal and assume positive intent.

            • Clearly articulate why the new course of action is important.

            • Walk them through the steps you took in arriving at your decision.

            • Listen to and acknowledge their perspectives, questions and concerns.

            • Develop a path forward that honors a range of “starting points.”

Just because someone isn’t where we want them to be, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are difficult, or uncommitted, or not as smart as we are . . . it simply means they are in a different spot.  You’re the leader. You still get to make the call. Consider, however, that the time spent getting people on board on the front end allows you to go farther and get there faster. 

Need to lead your people somewhere important? Start where they are. No shoulding allowed.

Past the No

As a leader, if you are willing to stop at the first no, you simply didn’t want it bad enough. Period.

Leadership is about influencing the behavior of others to strive for a clear destination. In most cases, it’s about charting a course toward a big hairy goal that followers otherwise would not achieve. If the intention is to continue on the same well-trod path, you don’t need a leader. In that context, the first “no” is simply an indication that you are bumping up against the system designed to maintain the status quo – which should happen if you are trying to accomplish something new!

Leaders strive for better, or more, or simpler, or faster, or less costly, or to right a wrong . . . a vision that is different from what has previously been experienced or achieved. Because of that, the same thinking that was used in the past won’t get you where you’re going (even if you use a bigger hammer!) The first “no” simply reminds you that the new goal is going to require a different approach. Leaders see past the no.

A phrase I think captures this sentiment (and I have been known to utter from time to time) is . . . “No doesn’t mean No, it means not yet.” The key to effective leadership isn’t about the path, it is about the destination. That means, if the first path is blocked, you look for a second. If the second approach doesn’t work, you consider a third. For Thomas Edison, it meant trying 1,000 different options before arriving at the one that led to the lightbulb.

The place where leaders often stumble is focusing more of our energy on the path than on the destination. Our ego gets tangled up in being convinced that we have identified THE way forward, and if that way doesn’t work then we tell ourselves (and others reinforce for us) that it must not be possible. Confidence might have a louder voice, but commitment and curiosity win the day.

Committed leaders see past the no and wonder, “How else could we approach this?” They ask people with different experiences or perspectives, “What would you do?” They recognize that sometimes people who “know less” about a particular industry/system/problem may actually be able to come up with a solution that people with deep expertise, or past success, might overlook. It is that “what else” curiosity that enables leaders and their teams make the break-through discoveries that are only apparent once you move past the second or third (or thirtieth) no.

Frustrated because it seems like you’ve hit a brick wall? Take a deep breath, and look past the no.

Standing Tall

Originally Published January 26, 2016

No matter who you are, or how much you do all the right things from a leadership perspective, there will be days  . . . oh yes, you know those days. Someone disappoints you, or undermines what you thought was a collective effort, or otherwise blindsides you with their actions. The days when friends and family can take one look at you and, without you even uttering a word, instantly respond with “Wow, bad day?” Yeah, those days.

Those are the days where all the waxing philosophical about leadership goes out the window and you come face to face with a decision. Who are you really going to be as a leader? Will you respond in kind to the offending action, or will you choose to take the high road. It may seem like an easy decision as you sit at your computer and read this; it likely will be far less clear or easy when you are in the middle of said situation.

And yet, someone has to be the grown-up and keep things in perspective . . . and if you accepted a leadership position in an organization that you care deeply about, that should probably be you. Because here’s the deal. No matter how someone else acts, you get to decide how you will respond. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” A similar, although far less eloquent, sentiment straight out of my rural roots says “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get muddy and the pig likes it.”

Regardless of the words, you get the picture. It is hard to stand tall and stoop at the same time. And no matter how it might feel in the moment, people will notice and remember how you respond. Your people. The ones you want to trust and follow you.

Now let me be clear. I am not suggesting that taking the high road means you simply ignore or become a doormat for someone’s actions. Accountability is part of your responsibility too, and you can choose to hold someone accountable in a transparent, clear and professional matter.  Really, you can. Check your frustration at the door, look the individual in the eye, calmly state how you plan to respond, and then move on.

As leaders, our job would certainly be easier if everyone treated us the way we want to be treated. But then, I’m guessing most of us didn’t get into this job because we were looking for easy. Easy is nice when you can get it, but impact is what drives most leaders, and you rarely reach the point of impact without a few bumps along the way.

The best way to handle the bumps? Stand tall and lead on.