Trying on Shoes

Originally Published November 11, 2015

I believe one of the keys to wise leadership is the ability to try on a lot of shoes . . . not all of which will be comfortable. Some may pinch a bit, or have you tottering to maintain your balance. Some will be well-worn and rather tattered with little to no support. Others will be thick and rigid like a ton of bricks. And dozens of others will fall somewhere in between. But the time and effort it takes to walk a mile in someone’s shoes (not a block, a block is easy, we’re talking a mile here) can make all the difference in moving you from “reasonable” . . . “justifiable” decisions to truly impactful ones.

You may make one decision when all you see is a child’s disruptive behavior, and you want that behavior to stop. You may make an entirely different decision when you realize that no one was home to get the child up in the morning, he is basically raising his baby sister, he is scared and hungry, and putting on a tough exterior so no one will know. If you’re going for impact, simply addressing the behavior will to little to truly change the situation.

While it may be easier to empathize with a child, the same concept applies to staff, contractors, partner organizations — you know, those we call “grown-ups.”  When one of these individuals acts in a seemingly illogical, from your perspective detrimental, or otherwise aggravating manner, do you insist that they fall in line (afterall, you’re the leader, right?!?) or do you dig a bit deeper to see why they are responding as they are?

You’re right. You don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand, to nurse them along until they can get on board. And I’m sure you will have much more time down the line, when your project gets derailed and you have invest the time to go back and try to re-group, or fill the void left by a partner who decided to walk away. I understand, your shoes are really comfortable. Why should you mess with trying on someone else’s shoes?

Because, hopefully, you’re in this leadership gig for the long haul. And making decisions without taking into consideration other perspectives is short-sighted.  That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like every decision you make, but it does mean when you seek first to understand you have a better chance of reaching your ultimate goals. 

So how do you know when you need to test drive some new footwear? A good starting point is when you find yourself taking a hard line on something, and aren’t interested in someone else’s opinion. That is usually exactly when you need to take a walk the most. You ultimately may not change your position, and that’s fine. When people know you looked at a situation from their perspective, even if they aren’t thrilled with the ultimate decision, it becomes easier for them to come on board and take the journey with you.

Maybe it’s time you tried on some new shoes.

The Opportunity of New Dimensions

The mind, once stretched by a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.Oliver Wendell Holmes

All of us have had our minds stretched in the last year. Things we might have been sure would never work, actually did. Ideas we had been talking about but hadn’t implemented fell into place much more smoothly than we might have imagined (nothing like a crisis to reduce resistance to change!). We learned that expectations around what was “required” to do our job perhaps weren’t really quite as non-negotiable as we thought. And the creativity, oh the creativity and adaptability we have witnessed in the past 12 months . . .

So now that people are beginning to talk about a return to “normal,” how should you as a leader go about guiding people toward something that, for all practical purposes, will never return to its original dimensions?

Recognize that “business as usual” won’t be. Those clear parameters no longer exist. This may trigger a sense of loss among those craving the seeming stability of “normal,” and enthusiasm from those who don’t want to give up the perceived benefits of new ways of working. No matter where they fall on the continuum, people will be looking to you to define the new normal.

It is the leader’s job to navigate divergent expectations. How can you provide predictability while also capitalizing on the positives of new-found flexibility? Where do your own desires or expectations fall in the mix? Is it necessary to have consistent expectations across the board, or can you have different “rules” for different roles? There is no proven best path on this one, and you still have to pick one.

Keep talking. Many leaders dramatically increased their communication and transparency during the pandemic. Your people have come to expect it. Don’t stop just because you are moving out of “crisis mode.” Everyone benefits when you keep the dialog going. Yes, it takes an investment of time. It is time well spent.

Don’t forget the human connection. In person, absolutely. Nothing replaces three-dimensions and spontaneous interactions . . . and yet, there was also a human side to the glimpses we gained into each other’s lives by zooming into make-shift home offices. How can we maintain that connection with, and appreciation for, the whole person we would hope to lead?

We have all been stretched. There is no going back. That also means you have a rare opportunity to provide a new dimension to your leadership, and your organization. How will you shape them?

Are You an Effective Leader?

What does an effective leader look like?

This question came up in a recent conversation with a colleague. In my experience, most people tend to answer this question in one of three ways:

  1. They describe an effective leader with whom they have interacted.
  2. Their picture is shaped by whomever the business media currently identify as a successful leader that others should emulate.
  3. They cherry-pick the most laudable characteristics from a group of leaders to create some mythical super-leader.

None of these approaches are effective in helping you identify how you can be an effective leader. (Which is really why we ask the question in the first place, right?).  Introverts and extroverts can both be effective leaders. Visionaries and those with a process orientation can both be effective leaders. The highly educated and bootstrap entrepreneurs, with a diverse set of skills and experiences can be effective leaders. Birth order, gender, height . . . there have been those who have attempted to connect all of these traits and skills to leadership success, and yet a singular picture of effective leadership remains elusive . . . maybe because there is no such thing as a singular picture of an effective leader.

Leadership is about two things: goals and influence. To lead effectively, you have to have a clear picture of where you are going, and the ability to persuade others to follow you in the quest. And while the first half of that equation may seem to the be easiest, it is often where would-be leaders struggle the most. Too many leaders set goals that may seem clear on the surface but, in trying to remain open to a myriad of possibilities, are actually way too broad. We want to serve children and families — okay, how? We want to expand into California — okay, LA or Sacramento? We want to be the industry leader — okay, what steps are we going to take to get there?

Part of setting effective goals is connecting the dots for those you would hope to influence. Here is where we are going — specifically. Here is why we are going there. Here is what I need you to do to help us get there. Why is that so hard? Because the more you focus on the singular thing you are working towards, the more you say no to other options. It there risk in a singular focus? Sure. But it is also hard to maximize your influence when you are hedging your bets.

Want to be an effective leader? Start with the goal you are leading towards.

Who Has Your Back?

Originally Published August 2, 2016

Do you lead in such a way that your staff will have your back when the chips are down? Not out of a sense of fear of the repercussions if they don’t . . . that’s simply compliance. I’m talking about staff willingly stepping up to do what needs to be done when you are otherwise occupied, with or without being asked, to support you individually and ultimately the organization as a whole. It is a huge weight off a leader’s shoulders to know that when the unexpected happens, their team will handle what needs to be handled, no questions asked. And yet, I regularly see leaders at off-site meetings who spend the majority of the time on the phone dealing with issues at their office, or who never truly relax on vacation because there are tethered to their computer. Heaven forbid if a personal crisis hits and they suddenly can’t keep their finger on what their staff is doing.  That’s not leading, that is micromanaging, and it is exhausting for everyone involved.

So how do you lead so your staff will have your back when the chips are down?

Have their back. Do you offer your staff a measure of grace, and step in to provide support when “life gets in the way” for them (even when it’s inconvenient for you)? If you are understanding of the individual challenges your staff face, there is a much greater likelihood that they will return the favor (you know, that whole Golden Rule thing).

Trust them to handle things. Presumably you have people in senior leadership positions because they have proven themselves capable and trustworthy. The best way to show them you believe that is to let them make independent decisions. Will they handle things the way that you would every time. Nope. However, the vast majority of the time the way they handle it will turn out just fine. And if it doesn’t, it provides a learning opportunity for all involved. 

Keep them in the loop. Your staff can’t support things they don’t know about. It does not make you more powerful, or more in control, when you are the only one holding all the information . . . it simply makes you more stressed when the unexpected happens. A few minutes regularly invested in communicating with your staff can save you huge amounts of time and energy in the long run. 

I’m sure my team has grown weary of hearing me say, “If you get hit by a bus tomorrow . . .” but leaders should be able to be sideswiped by the unexpected and know that their organization will be able to carry on without missing a beat. The three principles above are a good place to start. 

Yes, leadership responsibilities can weigh heavy, but they become more manageable when you have built a team that you know will have your back. 

Lessons from the Blarney Stone

Originally Published March 15, 2017

I have kissed the Blarney Stone. Perhaps this will come as no surprise to those who know me. What may be a surprise, however, is that far more than simply endowing one with the gift of gab, this experience can also grant a glimpse into fundamental, but often unspoken, reality of leadership.

It is a journey to get there.  Many people assume that the Blarney Stone is on the ground — that they simply have to arrive at Blarney Castle, take a leisurely stroll, maybe wait in line a bit, and then kiss the stone. Umm . . . not so much. The Blarney stone is on top of the castle ruins, and you have to climb up four stories on narrow winding stairs to get there. Likewise, there is a tendency to think that simply because someone has been placed in a position of leadership they have arrived at the destination. Little do they know that it’s a trek filled with twists and turns and uneven steps before one reaches the ultimate destination. Being placed in a position of leadership is akin to making it to the grounds of Blarney Castle. You’re moving in the right direction, but you’re not there yet.

Lots of people think they want to do it. Many people just assume if you’re going to Ireland, kissing the stone will be part of your itinerary. Even when you get to the castle grounds, you hear people buzzing about it. Then comes the realization of what it takes to get to the Stone. The crowds start to thin. Some people start the climb, but then opt out after a story or two. Others get all the way to the top, see what is really required, and then keep walking. Only a portion of those who started willingly take the plunge. I often hear concerns of how few are stepping up to take on leadership roles. As much as people may talk about wanting to lead, they ultimately may decide it’s not for them. That’s okay. That doesn’t make them less valuable to the organization. It simply means this is not the path for everyone. 

Even when you get there, there will be moments of questioning your sanity. Look at the picture above. See the glimpse of blue through a hole at the top of the ruin. Yep, that’s where it is . . . on the outer ledge of that opening. To reach the stone, you have to sit on the edge, lean over backwards and out to actually reach the thing. But not to worry, there is a tiny little Irishman (who is 80 if he is a day) sitting there to hold your legs. And there are a couple bars and a bit of chicken wire to help break your fall should you lose your balance. Why would anyone want to do this? Good question. The best answer I have (at least when it comes to leadership) comes from Parker Palmer who said, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’” Leadership is a vocation that not everyone is called to, and even if you are, that does not mean it’s an easy path.

A family member snapped a picture of me as I was kissing the stone. The look on my face is one of determination tinged with a bit of terror. The fact that those emotions were quickly followed by a huge grin doesn’t mean they were any less a part of the experience. Leadership is a tough, scary, at times lonely, and ultimately amazing journey that is worth every step . . . and that’s no blarney!

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.