Wading Through the Shiny Objects

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As you continue to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that while all of us are impacted by this crisis, each of our organizations is dealing with a different set of variables. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all response. Of course, that has always been the case. The difference now is that, as industry experts and organizations are trying their best to be helpful — and the generosity being demonstrated is both humbling and inspiring — we can get so focused on not missing out on expert guidance that we delay making the decisions necessary to actually move forward.

When there are no clear “right” answers, it is easy to convince ourselves that if we just had more information we would know what to do. In our desire to make the best possible decisions for our organization, we run the risk of getting distracted by all the shiny objects out there . . .

. . . if I just watch a couple more webinars on how to lead through a crisis, this will all become easier . . .

. . . yes, I know I have already been on six calls this week about a this issue, but this one may have additional information that I haven’t heard before . . .

. . . I should probably find out what a few more stakeholders think and try to get consensus before I make a decision . . .

I have been on some great webinars and industry calls in recent weeks. The information and activities themselves are not the problem. They become shiny objects, however, when I allow these things to become distractions from my primary responsibilities in leading the organization. I love to hear the best thinking of leadership experts. It is really hard for me to make a choice not to carve out time to hear from a thought leader I respect . . . and yet, if I do that at the expense of making critical decisions in a timely fashion, I will be less effective at a time when my organization needs me to provide clear direction.

So what’s the best way to wade through the shiny objects in the midst of this crisis?

1) Clearly identify the decisions that have to be made, by when.

2) Understand that it is unlikely that any of the offerings before you will provide all the information you’d like to have before making a decision.

3) Recognize that there is no one “right” answer.

4) Know that decisions build momentum while shiny objects deplete your energy.

Have a clear goal. Embrace support where it is helpful. Seek out critical information. Provide direction and when necessary, make the hard decisions. That’s what leaders do.

Even . . . and especially . . . when they are surrounded by shiny objects.

What Will You Learn?

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I don’t know what your email in-box looks like right now, but mine is absolutely flooded by well-intended emails/webinar invitations offering strategies/solutions for how to weather the COVID-19 crisis. I get it. People want to help, and their desire to support our organizations in any way they can is truly appreciated . . . AND . . . if we are to make the best decisions for our organizations today, we need to think beyond “weathering the storm.”

I recognize that right now many leaders are faced with extremely painful decisions that will have long-term implications for their people, their organization and their mission. All the more reason that your perspective as a leader is critically important. A “weathering the storm” mentality gives the impression of hunkering down, of digging your heels in and hanging on tight. Are you really going to walk through all the current pain without looking for a gain? What if, instead, you approached each day of this experience by asking “What are we learning now that will make us better on the other side of this crisis?”

  • Is your mission still the driver of everything that you do, or have you lost focus or drifted from what is most important? How will you recalibrate going forward?
  • Are there tasks you assumed “had to” be done a certain way that you are now approaching differently? Is there any reason you need to go back to the old way?
  • Have you learned that things you thought could not be accomplished through the use of technology really can be? Will that free up capacity to expand your focus to other priorities in the future?
  • Have your staff members exceeded your expectations with their commitment, creativity, and can-do spirit? How will you continue to tap into their innovative ideas going forward?
  • Are you connecting with people differently or partnering with different people? Are your priorities changing or becoming clearer? Are there aspects of this current reality you want to continue for the long-term?

Asking yourself and your people “What are we learning from this?” instills a sense of optimism that you will get to the other side. You don’t have to come up with all the answers right now . . . simply asking the question keeps you thinking proactively and expansively rather than reverting to a reactive sense of scarcity. Either way, the challenge is before you.

What will you learn?

The Opportunities of Discomfort

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You may be feeling a bit out of your comfort zone right about now. That’s okay. Just know that times of discomfort are also times of great opportunity . . . as long as you view them as such.  Having a hard time embracing that perspective? If so, consider the following:

It is not the job of a leader to have all the answers. It is the job of a leader to find the answers. The more clearly you can articulate what you do know, the easier it is to identify a path to address what you don’t know. In most cases, what you know far outweighs what you don’t. The things you focus on grow in your mind. Start by focusing on what you know. It increases the sense of calm and helps keep the unknowns in perspective.

Know where to place your confidence. I recently heard an interview with Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers, How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter where she noted that leaders can have high self-confidence while also having low situational confidence — high “can do” and low “know how to do.” What does that look and sound like? “This is a new situation for us, and I am confident that we have the skills in our organization to figure it out.” This approach ultimately leads to a higher levels of team engagement and trust . . . which builds situational confidence!

When you lose routine, you gain insight. Stepping outside of what you know gives you the chance to view things with fresh eyes, to make connections that you otherwise would not have made. In Create More Flow, Igniting Peak Performance in an Overwired World Camille Preston refers to this as the learning zone — that space outside your comfort zone where you are engaged and inspired. Yes, this space can be a place of struggle, but also a place of great growth. Don’t wallow in the struggle, focus on what you’re learning by walking through it.

Change is easier in the midst of challenge. When situations feel uncertain, there is less resistance to change. Seize the opportunity! Do you need to streamline policies and processes or set up new structures? Have you been looking for opportunities to collaborate, strengthen current partnerships or demonstrate how your organization can contribute? People are much more willing to try new approaches in the short term to address an immediate crisis. After the crisis, assuming the new approach has proven effective, it is harder to make a case for returning to “business as usual”.

Out of your comfort zone? Opportunities abound in the discomfort. Don’t waste it.

The Mother of Invention

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While the difficult decisions leaders are facing as a result of the coronavirus threat may be new and mired in uncertainty, leaders have always needed the ability to pivot in a timely fashion based on unexpected challenges. Your approach to the current unknowns and hardships can make all the difference in how your organization is able to bounce back. Philosophers have long recognized that necessity is the mother of invention. What about you?

Are you viewing the current disruptions as “merely” an unavoidable burden/inconvenience/financial hardship on your organization (which it undoubtedly is!), or are you also on the lookout for creative responses that will ultimately strengthen the way you work? There will be no such thing as returning to “business as usual” but we will eventually find a new normal. How can you use the current challenges to proactively invent what that new normal will look like?

The decisions you make in the most challenging times form the foundation of how you will function in the best of times. Are you making decisions from a place of fear and defensiveness, or with a confidence that you will come out of this experience stronger and more resilient? Your people are looking to you as a gauge for how they should respond. This is not a time to downplay the challenges before you, however a calm, measured response will go a long way toward encouraging your staff to respond in kind.

Not feeling calm and measured? At times like this, it is perfectly okay to go into duck mode — where you look like you are gliding smoothly across the water at the same time you are paddling like crazy under the surface! And the cool thing is, when you intentionally present a confident exterior, you start to buy it on the inside, too. Sure you are still going to be paddling as fast as you can, but you also get into a rhythm that maximizes your effort and that of your people allowing you to surge forward in exciting directions.

Right now, external pressures are requiring that we change how we do business. Will you choose to see those changes as a barrier that keeps you from accomplishing your best-laid plans, or a temporary necessity that can serve as the mother of invention for even better ways to accomplish your goal? Someone will see this experience — this current necessity — as a springboard to reinvent how your business is done.

Will it be you?

Are You Using the Right Perspective?

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Like most leaders today, I tend to have a lot on my plate at any given time. That’s not unique and that’s not going to go away — nor do I want it to! Sure there are days I look at the length of my do-to list, and the piles on my desk and it exhausts me. But truth be told, that has far less to do with the quantity of items on my list and far more about the lens with which I am viewing the situation.

As a leader, you have a continuum of responsibilities that range from strategic to tactical . . . from big picture to detail-oriented. To be most effective, you need a different perspective for each of these types of activities. If you apply the perspective needed for a strategic task to a tactical one, or vice versa, the work will feel much harder, it will take longer and the results will be less impactful.

When you are being strategic, you need to have a big-picture perspective.

When a project is strategic, you have to be intentional about surveying the landscape to see trends, points of connection and paths forward that cannot be seen from the ground level. Getting bogged down in details and specifics, the what-ifs and what-abouts, sucks the energy out of the process and makes it both more difficult and, in my experience, less effective.

When you are being tactical you need a focused perspective.

When you have a short-term project to complete, you need to direct your energies to the specific task at hand, the details of what and when and how, blocking out the buzz of everything else. If you try to step back to consider other options or opportunities, you can easily get distracted in such a way that it undermines both your speed and thoroughness in completing the task at hand.

When you shift from a strategic to a tactical activity, you also have the shift perspectives.

This is where it is easy to undermine our own effectiveness. Most leaders toggle between strategic and tactical activities throughout the day. Sometimes, however, we forget to also switch our perspective.

What does that look like? You have a tactical project that needs your focused attention and yet you are still in big picture mode so you scan all that is before you, bouncing attention from one item to the next, and as a result don’t feel like you make progress on anything. Or, you are still in a focused mindset when you need to be thinking long-term, and you find yourself mired in the details and perceived barriers, which drains you of the energy and ability to see a path forward.

Feel like you’re spinning your wheels or running into brick walls?

What’s your perspective?

It’s Not What You Know

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Originally Published July 9, 2014

. . .  It’s what you do with what you know! I’m not sure who said this, but I think the graphic above by cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captures the concept perfectly.  In my experience, leadership, innovation and ultimately, organizational success, is a result of seeing connections where others may not. That is why I encourage my staff to read widely outside our field, and to add the wisdom of their own unique experiences to the discussion of how to carry out our mission and ministry.

There have been a number of times where something I read in Fast Company, totally unrelated to human services, spurred an idea for how to extend our mission reach . . . or an article in Harvard Business Review caused me to look at a situation differently. I’ve had fiction books I was reading for pleasure spark an idea related to some work issue I had been grappling with, and walks through nature open my eyes to new connections. And if my entire leadership team is doing the same, we have exponentially expanded our ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas in new and powerful ways. Think about it, if the only place you are getting information is from within your industry, from people who basically have the same perspective and professional experience you do, how much harder is it going to be to see things with new eyes and find an innovative solution?

Consciously seeking ways to “connect the dots” is a skill we need to teach our staff as well. We provide thousands of employee training hours each year. In effect, we invest a lot into filling our people with dots . . . and yet if we stop there, we have wasted our investment. We also have to give them intentional experiences that encourage them to find the connection points between the informational nuggets they have gained. We need to give our staff the latitude to find that aha moment that can help them tackle a specific situation, or maybe inform the entire way we do something. Giving a staff member latitude is not the same as tossing them into the wind. There need to be parameters, but supervisors also need to have a tolerance level to allow staff to bring ideas together in a new way that, in our case, might help a child when nothing else has

I know a number of people who are incredibly smart, and yet if they do nothing more than accumulate disparate facts … if they don’t make the leap to connect the dots … they’ll make a great team member in a trivia contest, but may not be the best person to give your organization an innovative edge. What you know is a start, but what you do with it makes all the difference.

It’s time to make a difference.

Teaching Your Team to Play Chess

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Originally Published December 14, 2016

I have written before about the importance of knowing how to play chess — mastering the art of placing organizational “chess pieces” in pivotal positions in preparation for future impact. In today’s ever more complex world (yes, it really does feel like you are now playing against three different opponents at once), it is not enough to have a single leader master this long-term game of skill and strategy. Now more than ever, you need to teach other organizational leaders to play chess as well.

According to a recent article in strategy+business, in a study of 6,000 senior leaders only 8% of those individuals rated as strategic leaders. Eight percent! Yes, that would appear to mean the odds are stacked against having more than one strategic leader in a single organization. However, all hope is not lost! There are steps you can take to build a strategic culture within your organization. Think of it as chess lessons. Not everyone will enjoy it or become an expert, but at least they will understand the rules of the game.

Lesson #1: Everyone needs to know the end goal. When you are transparent about where you are going, your people can do a better job of helping you get there. In the military, the concept is known as “commanders intent.” It came about because in combat (or in today’s challenging environment) things rarely go exactly according to plan. If squad leaders don’t know the ultimate goal, they might make a decision that makes perfect sense given their limited information, but could ultimately undermine the larger intent. Let your people help you be successful by making sure they are clear on the end goal.

Lesson #2:  Encourage new solutions. As a general statement, those closest to the “front line” can often see solutions that may not be considered by those with a different vantage point. Is such input encouraged, or is it squashed by those with more experience or expertise? Discounting input because of who is offering it closes the door on a potential strategic advantage under the mistaken assumption that those who have done something longer can see it more clearly. Fresh eyes can observe a lot of things that those who see something every day overlook.

Lesson #3: “Failure” needs to be seen as part of the process. No one wins at chess without losing a few pieces along the way, and your team will never try to play the game if they get penalized for what, in effect, is part of the process. Make it safe to try something, tweak it as needed, and try again. The only way that is a failure is if you stop the first time something doesn’t work as planned. Make adjustments an expected part of the process and you will foster creative problem solving among your team.

Teaching chess takes time, but the fundamental steps above are a good place to start.