Know Your Batting Order

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Originally Published July 15, 2015

Have you ever been stressed out by trying to keep too many balls in the air, and all at once you run across something so simple and so profound that it stops you in your tracks? Yep, me too. In fact, I was recently reading a blog post by Anne Lamott when three little words jumped off the page . . .

“Grace bats last.”

I love that! First and foremost because I count on receiving a measure of grace in my own life, but also because those three words provide so much guidance to us as leaders.

If you are in a position of leadership, sooner or later (or both) you will be called on to make a difficult decision — one that is not popular, and maybe even has a negative impact on someone else. That’s part of the job, but how you carry out such decisions can make a huge difference in how you are perceived as a leader.

I think far too often, we get the batting order mixed up. We start out by being overly flexible, willing to negotiate expectations, trying to be patient and accommodating at all costs . . . until we reach the end of our rope, we’re done, we draw the line, and we’re the bad guy. What if, instead, we set clear guidelines/boundaries/expectations at the beginning, and consistently held people accountable to those. When that happens, you separate out those situations that are never going to work from those that really could. And if a situation that looks promising needs a bit of a concession, a measure of grace, you will still have the energy and ability to accommodatea special circumstance.

Even when you have to make a decision that will be hard for some to accept, I believe the best leaders find a way to offer a measure of grace in the process. Make the difficult decision, yes, and then carry it out with great kindness. Be more generous than you have to be in the process. Sure, some will think you’re soft, but most will see you as fair, and someone they want to work with . . . You know, the whole Golden rule thing . . .

Lastly, we may occasionally need to remind ourselves that grace bats last for us as leaders, too. Our impact is more than the sum of a single decision or action. Too often, I’ve seen leaders afraid to swing at an opportunity because they fear they may strike out based on a single action. While I suppose there are circumstances where that could happen, in most cases, we will be judged by the long view, by the total sum of our actions.

So take that swing, do what you know you need to do, and then let grace bat last.

The Power of AND

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Originally Published February 4th, 2015

Take a moment and consider how your leadership perspective might change if the words “but” and “or” were banned from your vocabulary . . .

That would mean you could never again say things like:

“What our client really needs is “X”, but we could never get “Y” to pay for it.”

“Do you want me to look at the big picture, or deal with the details?”

“Sure that sounds like a great idea, but let’s be practical.”

“But” and “or” limit your potential. They are creativity killers. They require trade-offs. They feed into a scarcity mentality. “And”, on the other hand, is about abundance. It is about stretching your thinking in new ways, and considering multiple possibilities.  It’s about not stopping when you run into the first closed door . . . or even the second.

Make no mistake, infusing “and” in an organization can be challenging . . . some might even say not realistic . . . and yet it’s worth the effort to stick with it.  When you reach a tipping point, when “and” becomes part of your culture, a new energy is released and exciting things start to happen. “And” attracts the kind of people who reach for more, who aren’t willing to settle, who have an inner drive to live your mission. Don’t believe me? Consider two organizational approaches to the same situation . . .

“This family really needs X, but our contract won’t pay for it.” (Depressing dead end, right?) 

“This family really needs X, and our contract won’t pay for it, so how else can we help them get their needs met?” (Feel the energy, and the permission to be creative?) 

Same situation. Change three letters — but to and — and suddenly staff are at least thinking about different options, peering outside the box to look for new possibilities. No one broke any rules, or ignored reality, they simply didn’t view the current situation as an end of the discussion. Which organization do you think is going to attract the most passionate, motivated staff — the game-changers who can ultimately help your organization succeed?

If you want “and” people in your organization, it is up to you to role model “and” behavior. Try it for a week. Stop yourself every time you respond to a challenge with “but” or “or”, and consider what new possibilities might present themselves if your approach was “and.” At the end of the week, reflect on your outlook, your energy, and your accomplishments.

Good week? Things seem to fall into place? Enthused about pursuing a new idea?

That, my friends, is the power of “and.”

Achiever or Leader?

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I recently had the chance to hear writer, executive educator and coach Marshall Goldsmith speak. One of the (many) things he said that stuck with me was this: “One of the hardest things for high performers is to transition from being a great achiever to being a great leader.” What’s the difference? To be a great achiever the focus is on “me”. To be a great leader, the focus is on “them.”

Certainly a number of great achievers aspire to occupy the seat at the top of the organizational chart, or at least the head of a division or department. If you see yourself, even vaguely, in that statement, it may serve you well to reflect on whether such a role is appealing because it would serve as validation or a crowning achievement to years of effort on your part, or if you feel drawn to the role because it would afford the opportunity to help your organization, and the people in it, succeed.

There is not a right or a wrong answer to that question. The world needs both leaders and achievers. And it does not diminish the impact of your accomplishments to focus on, and feel you should be recognized for, your talent and hard work. It may, however, mean that for high achievers, a transition into the role of a leader could be harder than you anticipate, because the two roles require a different set of skills.

What skills does it take to be a great leader? While far from an exhaustive list, some of the attributes leaders need include:

  • The ability to see the potential in others, and the patience to develop that potential.
  • The strength of will to position the organization for long-term impact rather than near-term gain.
  • The confidence to see the value in different approaches, and the curiosity to seek out opinions that may differ from your own.
  • The grit to take an unpopular stand for what you believe to be the greater good.
  • Trust in your people, and a recognition the only way achieve the organization’s mission is through the work of others.

What would you add to this list?

Jim Collins refers to people who are wired this way as Level 5 Leaders — people who demonstrate personal humility and professional will. Certainly, not every person in a position of leadership has these characteristics, but the best leaders do. Can great achievers become great leaders? Absolutely! However, one role is not necessarily a steppingstone to the other and success as an achiever is no guarantee of high performance as a leader.

Achievement is about your performance . . . leadership is about theirs.

 

 

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

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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.