Can You See Them?

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I’m always amazed by night vision or heat-seeking goggles that allow the user to see things that otherwise would not be visible to the naked eye. Wouldn’t it be great if the same technology could be used to develop “systems-seeking” glasses to help you identify and focus in on the unseen forces that may be derailing a leader’s best-laid plans?

The systems that impact our efforts may seem “invisible” to the untrained eye, but just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t hard at work. What exactly do I mean by system? Systems are individual actions/functions that interact in a prescribed way to achieve a specific outcome — much like a set of gears that work together to run a machine. Too often in a work environment, we try to change or impact a “single gear” and then don’t understand why our effort isn’t successful… maybe our people just aren’t trying enough… perhaps they haven’t grasped the larger vision you are trying to achieve… or maybe, just maybe, you failed to see an underlying system.

Short of someone inventing system-seeking glasses, a few pointers regarding systems that might help you recognize their existence:

1) When multiple people are behaving in ways that don’t make sense to you, start looking for the system that is shaping their actions.

If one person is behaving in an unexpected way, it may be a misunderstanding, a learning curve, or some other unique circumstance. However, if multiple managers respond to a request in a similar manner and it feels like, from your perspective, they are just being difficult, start looking for the system that is shaping their actions, because…

2) The “job” of a system is to create a consistent, efficient response — in effect, to maintain the status quo.

Think of a bureaucracy (because it is often easier to see someone else’s systems). Everyone is funneled into filling out the same forms and following the same steps because the job of the bureaucracy, the system, is to achieve a particular result and someone decided this series of steps leads to the desired result. When systems are working, they will resist change . . .that is the purpose of a system! Pushing harder on your people to change, without addressing the underlying systems within which they are working, frustrates everyone — you and your people.

3) To increase the odds of success in a change effort, start by asking what systems will be impacted.

Too often, change initiatives are planned in a vacuum and focus solely on the intended goal of the effort rather than considering how the initiative fits into, or will impact, larger organizational systems. It is much easier for your people to embrace a change when it is presented in the context of the current organizational systems.

The good new is, once you know how to look for “unseen” systems they become easier to recognize… Guess maybe you don’t need those glasses after all.

‘Tis the Season

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As the holiday season winds down, and the “undecorating” begins… as you stand in all the shiny new possibilities that a new year brings, having read more than your share of “how to make this your best year ever” blogs/posts/articles… as you wade through the sea of ever-mounting expectations — both those of others as well as your own… I would simply offer the wisdom/solace/perspective of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a season.

What season is this for you? Is it a time for taking bold steps, or for building stability? Is it a time for focusing internally or externally? Is it a time for endings, and the corresponding new beginnings, or a time to stay the course? It is a season with great clarity and focus, or one with restless uncertainty? A season may or may not be of your choosing. Regardless, you get to decide how to approach it. A few thoughts to consider:

  • Recognize that there is not a right or a wrong season.

I recently attended a retirement party for a long-time friend who is roughly the same age as me. A retirement party! While we have shared many life experiences, and I am extremely happy for her, we are not in the same season. She is entering one of her choosing, and I am carrying on in mine. Neither is right or wrong, they are simply different, and that is okay. Envying someone else’s season does nothing to maximize your own. When you as a leader can embrace the season you are in, it becomes easier for your people to do likewise.

  • Sometimes you have to endure a season, and look for the lessons it holds.

Leaders are sometimes thrust into seasons they would not choose. That doesn’t mean they can’t control how they will respond. Sitting down and wallowing in “oh poor me land” rarely gets you to the other side. It is fine to acknowledge that the current season stinks, but then a leader has to decide what he or she is going to do about it… whether that means offering themselves or others a measure of grace, clearly articulating the end goal and what you will do to get there, or something else entirely. Making conscious choices about how you will move forward helps you recognize that the current season is just that… a season that will pass, leaving in its wake lessons that can serve you well going forward.

  • Just because you aren’t in a specific season now doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future.

In our competitive, high-expectation, instant everything world, patience and perspective tend to be in short supply. And yet, in my experience, seasons — either positive or negative — often happen on schedules that are immune to our deadlines or expectations. Making peace and acknowledging where you are may be just what it takes to move toward where you would like to be.

‘Tis the season.

 

 

Pieces of Perfection

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I have a collection of porcelain Christmas ornaments that I have had for a number of years. They were all gifts that highlighted important moments in my life. Each year, I would carefully place them on our tree, making sure they were secure on the branch. And then one year, one of them fell, bouncing from branch to branch in a seemingly slow motion journey to the floor. After the initial pain of seeing something I held dear in pieces on the floor, I had a decision to make. Throw away the broken ornament and maybe look for a replacement, or try to glue the figurine back together as best I could, knowing it would never be the same?

As I pulled the scarred ornament out of its box this year, and positioned it on the tree so the unrepairable hole in the back was less obvious, I recognized that while it was less perfect than the other ornaments in the collection, it never fails to make me smile. As leaders, in our quest to have everything run perfectly, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes the most imperfect part of our work can actually have the most meaning. That is where our effort can have the biggest impact.

Maybe your challenge isn’t gluing together broken pieces. It could be deciding whether to replace a fading ornament with something new, or taking a big risk to totally turn the tree upside down without knowing for sure how it will turn out. Too often, we unnecessarily set ourselves up to fail by making perfection the goal… in all things…at all times. Perhaps the best way to find fulfillment as a leader is to instead look for pieces of perfection… which may, in fact, be quite different than what you originally envisioned. It could be…

…Improvising with Plan B when Plan A fell apart, and having it surpass all expectations

…Thinking you could never replace a key player who walked away, only to have an even better fit step to the table.

…Falling short on the original goals of a project, but making a connection that led to even bigger opportunities.

Pieces of perfection come into view when we let go of some preordained picture of what success is supposed to look like. Not to lower the bar on the impact you are trying to have, simply to recognize that there may be any number of ways to get there.

My Christmas tree is filled with mismatched ornaments, tarnished ones, and aging grade school creations that make my sons cringe… all hanging alongside shiny new additions, and of course my porcelain figurines. I’m certain a designer would not call it a perfect tree. I’m equally sure that it is filled with meaning… and pieces of perfection.

 

Note: This entry was originally posted on 12/6/17. 

Giving Beyond “The Season”

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Tis the season of giving… but “the season” will be over in the blink of an eye. So maybe now, when we are in the midst of the spirit of good cheer, we need to think about how we as leaders can continue to give… beyond the season.

Yes, I know, you give of yourself to your organization all the time. And that is important, it’s just not what I am referring to. How are you using your influence — your time and your talent — outside your organization? Think about all of those times you wished someone in your organization would step up, to embrace and energize an initiative that had great potential to increase your impact. Chances are, there is another organization in your community looking at you and wishing the very same thing.

Yes, I know that your schedule is full to the brim and overflowing with things that are part of your “real job.” And I suppose you could look at giving back to your community as one more drain on your time and energy, however, that is not how I have experienced it. Lending your unique gifts and graces to an initiative that you are excited about can actually infuse a new kind of energy into your day… which is entirely different from saying yes to a request because you think you “should” do it. What excites you? What are you passionate about? How can you be a part of that — or start that — in your community?

Here’s the amazing thing about giving beyond the season… the giver is often blessed/rewarded/enriched as much or more than the organization on the receiving end. Maybe it is new relationships formed, new opportunities revealed, new perspectives embraced. When a leader gives back to their community, their influence is extended, their lives enriched and (the original goal) their community is improved. Who can’t find a bit of time for that?

My challenge to each of you as you wind down one year and look ahead to the next, is that you find a way to give beyond the season. Multiply your influence and impact beyond the walls of your organization. When you do, you encourage those you lead to do likewise, and thus your gift is multiplied far beyond a “season.” Your community will benefit… and so will you!

 

 

December Leadership

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Well gang, here we are… smack dab in the middle of December… you know, that month where most of us try to cram about three months worth of activity into 31 holiday-filled days. Yep, that’s the one. Chances are, you and your staff are working hard to complete end-of-the-year projects (in addition to your “regular” workload), carve out extra time for a host of tasks that contribute your goals for holiday cheer, participate in a range of gatherings with family and friends, and of course allow enough space to focus on the real Reason for the season. If you’re not careful, the sheer volume of activity and expectations can overwhelm your best intentions and those of the people you hope to lead. So what’s the best strategy for modeling December Leadership?

  • A time for every task.

Especially during this month, untethered items on a to-do list tend to grow in our minds and zap our energy. It is like a constant low drone of “gotta get done, gotta get done, gotta get done.” The simple act of scheduling time for specific tasks allows you to remove them from your brain until the appointed hour. (Really… give it a try!)

  • Focus on the moment, not the list.

Then, give the current task or activity your full energy and attention. If other things start to creep into your brain, intentionally stop, remind yourself when you will focus on that item, and then bring your focus back to the here and now. Work projects will be completed more quickly, social gatherings aren’t weighed down by anticipatory worry, and you can truly enjoy time spent with family, friends and special traditions.

  • Talk slower, and look people in the eye.

When you appear rushed or distracted, you transfer that stress onto those with whom you are interacting, and really, that is not the gift they are hoping to receive from you this month. There may be times where you feel a bit like a duck (you know… when you look like you’re gliding through the water but under the surface you’re paddling like crazy), but even then, gliding feels better than frantically splashing about and as a result you will feel calmer, too.

  • Whenever possible, stick to the routine.

It may feel like you don’t have time for those activities that have helped center you the other eleven months of the year — be that exercise, healthy eating, time for reflection — but it just might be those very things that make it easier for you to accommodate all of the extra stuff we want to fit into the month.

  • Remember… he’s watching you… 

Okay, maybe you are long past believing in Santa, but you can rest assured your people are watching you. You set the tone for how to not just endure, but to truly embrace this month in all its glory. That, my friends, is December Leadership.

 

Hard Work, Joy, and Chocolate

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If I had to sum up the secret to leadership success in three words, they would be hard work, joy, and chocolate. (Okay, I realize that is technically 4 words, but 3 ideas, so go with me here!) Sure there are countless books and articles on leadership that go to great lengths teasing out the nuances of what it takes to be successful, but at its core, I’m convinced these three things pretty much capture it.

Hard Work.

There is no way around it. Effective leadership takes countless hours and significant effort… in thinking about the most effective way to address the challenges before you (at all hours of the day and night)… in doing the research to expand your understanding of an issue or topic or idea… in guiding a diverse group of people, with a range of ideas and perspectives, to rally around a single organizational goal. Sort of like trying to put together a complex piece of equipment with no instructions while also attempting to herd cats — full of challenge, even on those days when you see little to no progress. If you want to be an effective leader, hard work is a given… so what fuels you to persist with of all that effort?

Joy.

Yes, even in the midst of the cat herding and a lack of instructions, the best leaders also find joy in their role. Joy in the opportunity to chart a course that moves your organization forward… in helping others recognize, and maximize, gifts and graces they may not have known they possessed… in seeing an idea take hold and gain momentum in ways that exceeds your expectations. One tip: In most cases, joy doesn’t seek you out. You have to look for it. Where? Perhaps in the friendly banter of co-workers, or the invitation to be part of something (that may, in fact, require hard work, but is exciting nonetheless), or in the recognition of a hard won accomplishment. What you focus on grows…choose joy, and…

Chocolate.

Okay, I suppose I could have made the third word, exercise (which is also important) but sometimes a leader just needs the kind of 30-second sensory hug that a good piece of chocolate can provide. Maybe for you it is taking a few moments to be mindful, walk outside, or make a quick call to a friend or loved one. It’s about knowing when you are being pulled toward a swirling vortex, and making a choice to momentarily hit pause and regain your footing — Little nuggets of self care that clear your mind and boost your spirit.

Hard work, joy and chocolate… works for me!

 

Leadership Lessons?

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I lead a human services organization, and have often noted that the same strategies we use with the kids and families we serve also work with our staff, and those outside the agency with whom we interact. Sure, if you read books and articles on “leadership” the terminology might be a bit different than we use in our direct services, but the concepts really aren’t. Sometimes, I think we leaders simply make it too hard.

I recently had the privilege of presenting at a TEDx event on lessons we have learned from our work with kids and families. While these lessons are highlighted as applying to “any child, in any situation”, I invite you to also consider these lessons from the perspective of how they might apply to your interactions with individuals in your own organization.

  • Relationships are primary
  • All behavior has meaning
  • How you respond shapes your (child’s/co-worker’s/colleague’s) response

I hope you’ll give it a listen and let me know what you think. Are these lessons primarily for kids, or maybe, just maybe, are they also lessons for leadership… and life?

You can watch the full presentation by clicking here.