Say More With Less

I have been called a wordsmith by some and a red pen-wielding copy slasher by others. I’ll gladly claim both.The words we use are critical in communicating a message . . . and most of the time we simply use too many.

An over-abundance of aspiring high-achievers, somewhere along the way, became convinced that big words, lots of qualifiers, and a mind-numbing level of unnecessary explanation and detail somehow made them seem smarter, or at the very least harder to argue with. They were wrong. Simple, focused messages are much more powerful.

The Gettysburg Address was 272 words. It took Lincoln roughly two mintues to deliver, and is widely considered one of the greatest speeches ever made by an American President. 272 words.

There is power in brevity.

People who are not clear on what they want to say tend to ramble, presumably hoping something will stick. Likewise, when a person has a weak argument, there can be a false assumption that the speaker will sound more compelling by using lots of words. Unfortunately, lots of words also increases the likelihood that the listener will miss the main point, instead getting mired down in some irrelevant detail . . . which requires even more words to try to get them back on track. Limiting the length of your communication forces you to identify what is most important.

There is clarity in brevity.

Pascal famously said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time. It is faster and easier to simply dump lots of information on people. It takes real effort to distill down your message to the fewest possible words to make your point. Isn’t your message worth the effort?

Brevity takes time.

Granted, writing and speaking skills come easier for some people than for others. However whether it comes easily or is a hard-won, the ability to communicate effectively is a critical skill for leaders. The most powerful messages, the clearest ones, are succinct and to the point. Yes it takes more time. It’s worth the effort.

Want to say more? Try saying less.

Hearing Through All The Noise

When I step back to consider all the the voices vying for my attention . . . the emails, social media, podcasts, newscasts, publications, seminars, phone calls, meetings and even the occasional snail mail . . . it’s as if Grinch narrator Boris Karloff is in my head booming “Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise!” In 2020 alone, people created 1.7 MB of data every second. Every day, 306.4 billion emails are sent and 500 million tweets are posted.

In the midst of such an onslaught of data, how does one sort through to find the nuggets of information that can move you closer to your goals? A good place to start is to screen out everything that doesn’t fit into one of three buckets: Intentional, Industry, and Interest.

Intentional

Intentional information requires you to be clear on your goals. What — specifically — are you trying to accomplish? Where do you need new insight . . . from experts, from end users, from unrelated industries that may have tackled a similar challenge? Intentional information is data you seek out, as opposed to getting sidetracked by those who assume they know what you need. Sure, you may occasionally receive an unsolicited email touting just the product/information you need at any given time (which of course, you recognize because you are clear on your goals), but in most cases, you are driving the search for this information.

Industry

Industry data allows you to stay up to date on the latest trends or forecasts for your sector. This one has become a bit trickier to distill as companies have become more creative in offering glimpses of the future that they can help you address. (I’m not knocking marketers — that’s my background — just highlighting that there are some really effective ones out there working to meet their goals, not necessarily yours). Find several neutral sources that have a track record of identifying trends, both in your sector as well as business/economy overall.

Interest

While this may seem to be the broadest category, like intentional and industry data, information related to your interests should be something you seek out rather than just passively consume. Where would you like to take a deeper dive . . . perhaps related to a current or desired hobby, stress reduction, a trend unrelated to your work that peaks your interest? And it really doesn’t take that much effort on your part. Algothrims will ensure that one source of information will multiply to three or four or more.

The trick to cutting through all the noise, noise, noise noise is to be proactive, rather than reactive. When you know specifically what you are looking for, those messages rise to the top, making it easier to turn down the volume on all the other voices.

The more you are clear, the better you can hear.

Letting Go of Your Picture

We leaders have opinions and preferences. We (hopefully) think a lot about the future. We consider a range of scenarios and how we would respond. And as a result, it is easy to develop pictures in our mind of what we consider to be the best, most logical solution. There is a tendency to become enamored with our pictures. After all, we are smart, we have considered a range of options, and we have envisioned an end result that makes the most sense to us . . . And then one of your senior staff members or trusted advisors (who by the way has followed the same process as you) describes a totally different picture.

Oh . . . wow . . . okay . . . but you really have confidence in your picture. Sure, you want to encourage different perspectives. You know that the best leaders are open to adapting their plans when they gain new information. And yet, you find yourself feeling a bit defensive in support of your original plan. Should your scenario be given primary consideration because of your position or level of experience? Should you seek out evidence that supports your approach or calls other perspectives into question? Does an openness to changing your plan signal uncertainty, or a lack of conviction for your identified preferred path?

This three-part process can reduce the likelihood that you will find yourself in such a leadership quandry:

  • Openly discuss your thoughts, and those of others on the team, early and often.

It is much easier to consider new information and make course corrections in your assumptions along the way, rather than waiting until you have a fully developed picture. Siloed or independent plan development often leads to more entrenched divisions down the road.

  • Make a sincere consideration of contrarian views part of the process.

It is easy to ask someone to “play” devil’s advocate with the goal of discounting them. What if, instead, the team thoughtfully considered how an intelligent individual who also wanted the best for your organization might see things differently? What if you considered the “truth” of a variety of perspectives. How might that change your conversations?

  • Always leave room to improve a plan.

With every plan, you should start with a clear articulation of the end goal, and end with the caveat that, “This is our best thinking with the information we have AND we need to hear from you if you have additional insight that could impact our overall success. That way, if someone does have additional input, they are not saying your plan is “wrong” they are merely helping to make it better.

Listening only to yourself, or people who think like you, provides a false sense of clarity. It tends to make you over-confident and under-prepared for the complex challenges facing leaders today. Are you confident enough in your process to let go of your picture?

Learning to Read the Road Signs

Originally Published March 18, 2015

Some would say this is a tough time to be a leader. Budgets are tight and getting tighter. Those who purchase your services may very well be changing the ground rules on a regular basis. The task of recruiting, and keeping, the best employees is more competitive than ever before. All the signs seem to indicate that the road ahead will be a bumpy one . . . that is, of course, if you take the signs at face value. The best leaders tend to see things a little differently.

Take, for example, an agency that starts down the road to develop a new program. They are excited about the potential, and yet when proposing the program to different funding sources, they consistently hear, “That sounds great, but we aren’t set up to fund a program like that.” At that point, many people see a stop sign. Great idea, but the money just isn’t there. Visionary leaders don’t allow current funding frameworks to derail an opportunity to extend their mission reach. They don’t see the “no” as a stop sign, they see it as a detour sign that simply means “not yet,” and then look for a path around the barrier in the road. It may take a little longer than planned, but more often than not they will find a way to the other side.

Or what about the talented employee who has so much potential, but who is restless in his or her current role? Talk of new titles or salary adjustments seem to do little to spark the employee’s interest, and the supervisor fears there will be an exit sign just over the next hill. The strategic leader, however, takes note of the scenic overlook sign, and invites the employee to pull over and view the panoramic vistas — which might include more flexibility, or stretch projects, or something as simple as helping them identify a sounding board or confidant so they don’t feel like they’re stuck at the end of a path all by themselves. The scenic overlook may include a glimpse of something the agency has never seen before, and the leader brave enough to take a look may see the path that will keep their most promising staff engaged.

And then there is the funder intent on placing “blind curve” signs at every turn. While many organizations would ride their brakes in the wake of such warnings, the nimble leader finds a steady pace that enables them to maneuver the winding road with a minimum of wear and tear on the organizational machine, allowing for quicker acceleration when the road finally straightens out.

So what is the key to seeing the signs that will take you to the high road of effective leadership? First and foremost, wear your mission glasses to minimize the glare of money, or tradition, or someone else’s goals. The sharper the focus on your strategic direction, the easier it is to spot the signs that will lead you astray. When you know exactly where you are going, you are much less likely to be swayed by the colorful billboard promising an exciting attraction just five miles to the east. Mission glasses also help you realize that money isn’t the goal (and when you start chasing the money, it’s amazing how quickly the mission can drift away.) Money, while critical, is a moving target that shifts depending on which way the wind is blowing. It is the mission that keeps you moving forward on the right road. And when the leader is clear on the destination, the entire organization begins to function like a high-performance machine, hugging the road around every curve, and gliding over the bumps that throw others off course.

Tough time to be a leader? It all depends how you read the signs.

Make the Hard Decisions, and Then . . .

One of the challenges of leadership is the need to make hard decisions . . . decisions that are not “people neutral.” Decisions that are good for some people and are at least perceived as being not so good for other people. Decisions that further the overall goals of the organization, but that have a cost to one or more parts of it. Decisions you wrestle with . . . that knot your gut and yet still have to be made. In such cases, members of my leadership team and I remind each other to “make the hard decisions, and then be kinder than you have to be in carrying them out.”

A good leader cares about his or her people. They are not just someone filling a position in an org chart, but rather a living, breathing human . . . with families and hobbies and goals and dreams. And sometimes, a leader has to make a decision that is going to impact all of that in a person’s life. So what does it look like to be “kinder than you need to be” in such situations?

Perhaps there is a committed employee who has been promoted, and it becomes obvious that they are not going to succeed in that role. Do you continue to encourage and guide them, even while you are confident that the role is just not a fit? Do you allow them to stay in the role until they “fail”? Or, is it kinder to find another role in the organization where their gifts and graces are a better match — even if it involves a lower “rank” and salary — where they can ultimately be successful? It may be hard at the time, but more than once I have had an employee ultimately thank me for seeing that a different role was a better fit.

You may have a longtime staff member with whom you need to part company. Having made the decision, however, put yourself in their shoes. Would extending a particular benefit longer than best practice would dictate, or making other unique allowances, make the situation easier for them? Are there other ways you can be kinder than you need to be in the situation? This consideration is less about whether someone “deserves” it and more about the kind of behavior you want to model in your organization.

If you have to make a decision to cut back in one part of the organization so another part can flourish, are you willing to sit down with those impacted and listen to their anger, their fear, their frustration, and acknowledge the pain of the situation? Sure doing so may feel awful. Are you willing to sit in that pain with them to allow them to be seen and heard?

Being kinder than you need to be doesn’t really make hard decisions easier, but it does speak volumes about you as a leader . . . and that type of kindness is contagious. Make the hard decisions, and then be kinder than you need to be in carrying them out.

How to Avoid Hitting the Wall

I was recently asked how one can keep up the necessary pace of leadership while also avoiding hitting “the wall.”  The question brought to mind a quote from Parker Palmer, in his book Let Your Life Speak. His words resonated with me the first time I read them, and have stuck with me over many years. Palmer noted, “Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little!”

Think about it . . . haven’t there been times when you were taking on what seemed to many like “too much,” and yet you remained energized and undaunted by the task at hand? Times when you were in a state of “flow” and completely engaged in and invigorated by a project? When you are leaning into your gifts and graces, you can often work at a pace and intensity that may appear unsustainable to others because you have a deep well to draw from . . . and counterintuitively, maximizing your gifts and graces actually replenishes your “well” even as you are drawing from it.

Conversely, I am guessing you have also been involved with projects that sucked the life out of you. Even thinking about the tasks ahead left you feeling drained and dreading what would be required of you. During those times, were you trying to give what you did not possess . . . perhaps something counter to your natural giftings? Certainly, there are parts of every role that don’t necessarily play to our strengths, but there are things you can do to make sure you are maximizing your leadership impact.

1. Recognize what tasks energize you, and which drain your energy. And then partner with someone whose gifts complement yours . . . perhaps someone who takes great pride in managing the details of a situation if you are a big picture person. You take a weight off your plate, and give someone else’s gifts a chance to shine.

2. Know what re-fuels you. If you are an introvert, maybe it is reading or spending time in nature. For extroverts, it could be carving out regular time to socialize outside of work. Exercise . . . prayer . . . time for reflection . . . competing in sports . . . giving back to others . . . spending time with family and friends . . . What activities allow you to physically and emotionally maintain your equilibrium and/or hit the reset button?

3. Sometimes, it really is just too much. We’re not talking one day here – all of us have days like that. However, when you feel like you are getting buried deeper and deeper with no light at the end of the tunnel, you need to step back, take a deep breath, and then prioritize, delegate, and rest. In spite of how it might feel, the world will not stop spinning if you take a pause before you crash headlong into the wall.

Leadership is hard. The pace can at times be daunting. And you have a choice. Energize, re-fuel, hit pause. Telling yourself you don’t have time for any of those things is also a choice . . . one that often puts you on the fast track to that wall.

The Post-Pandemic Path Forward

After two years of adapting, pivoting, changing, and working in ways we would not have considered possible before the on-set of the pandemic, how do we move forward now that many of the restrictions are being lifted? Not by returning to normal (whatever that was). As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” There is no going back to the way things were. There is only the opportunity to move forward. And perhaps, as we move forward, we leaders can set the context where the “unexpected” becomes a bit more expected. How does one do that?

•  Recognize that change is not episodic, it is constant. We set ourselves up for being caught off guard when we act as if the status quo will once again emerge if we can just make it through this “period of change” or “unexpected disruption.” If you instead present change as a constant, you and your people can start to see it as a muscle you build rather than a difficulty to endure. You gain a confidence in your ability to respond to variables that come your way. You and your people see change as an opportunity to step up and set the example. Change is something you do, rather than something that is done to you.

Don’t over-dramatize the experience. After the last two years, I would vote to remove the word “unprecedented” from the English language. Words like this only serve to give people the perception that something similar is extremely unlikely to ever happen again. Really? I live along the Mississippi River, where in recent years we have had 100-year floods, 500-year floods and a host of other “surprising” flooding events. Hyperbole may be great for news headlines. Not so much for preparing your organization to adapt to on-going change. Over-dramatization makes it feel like there is nothing you can do to impact the situation. There is always something you can do.

• Claim your resilience. How you and your people see yourselves has a huge impact on your actions. Do you regularly talk to your team about how resourceful, or creative, or adaptable they are? When my boys were little and would fall and scrape their knee, my standard response wasn’t to rush in and ask if they were hurt, but rather to note, “It’s a good thing you are such a tough kid.” Their typical response was “Yeah!” (even if their chin was quivering a bit when they said it). When your people know that you see them as adaptable and resilient, they are more likely to live up to your perception.

There is no magic in finding a post-pandemic path forward. You simply need to recognize that change is a constant, acknowledge that you have choices in how you respond, and know that you are tough enough to take it all in stride. Because it is, you do, are you are.

Are You Fearless?

More than 20 years ago we had a crisis situation in my organization. In the aftermath, as we were trying to determine what led to the conditions in which such a situation could occur, we began to hear through the grapevine that a few staff members had expressed, “I could have told you that was going to happen.” I was aghast (okay, maybe a bit naïve, but still aghast). How could someone be aware of an action or actions that could result in a crisis and not speak up? All these years later, Dr. Amy Edmondson provided the answer in her book The Fearless Organization. The answer? Psychological safety — or more specifically the lack thereof.

Edmondson broadly defines psychological safety as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing themselves. That means they can sharing concerns without fear of reprisal, blaming or shaming. They trust their colleagues and feel they can ask questions. They speak up about mistakes so there can be a quick correction — even when the potential mistake is being made by someone with “more authority” . . . such as a nurse questioning a Dr.’s order.

As leaders, it is easy to say that we want to cultivate such an environment in our organizations, but performance expectations, deadlines, and a host of ever-changing variables make it much harder to implement in practice. Do individuals feel like their supervisors and team members will “have their back?” Are they confident it is worth the risk to bring up concerns — even seemingly small ones — or will they pay a price for voicing their observations? And even if the senior-most leader works to foster a psychologically safe workplace, how can he or she have confidence it is cascading throughout the organization? Here are a few good places to start.

•  Build input into your plans. It can be hard to push back against authority. If you, as a leader, bring forth a plan, it can be perceived that a staff member is criticizing you if they raise a concern (afterall, it is your plan). How different would it feel if, when announcing the plan you indicated, “I am going to need your help in identifying what I may have overlooked,” or “Here is the end goal, but I would like you to help me flesh out the details.” In that way, it is clear that you want input to help improve the plan.

• Invite the Devil’s Advocate. Specifically ask for people to identify what could possibly go wrong with the plan. And then don’t move forward until one or more possible points of failure have been identified. (If you ask the question and then simply move on if no one immediately speaks up, it feels like a rhetorical question.)

•  Highlight and reward course corrections. Publicly thank people who identify real or potential problems so the issue can be addressed. Talk about mistakes you have made and learned from, and send the clear message that is it only a failure if no one takes action to fix it. Make the “reward” for speaking up outweigh the risk. That doesn’t mean there isn’t accountability, but it does mean there is a clear expectation everyone has a responsibility for the outcome.

Do these steps guarantee you will have a fearless organization? No, but they’re a pretty good place to start.

Steeping Your Leadership

Originally Published September 9, 2015

I’ve always been a fan of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “A woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Of course, you could easily replace the word “woman” with “leader.” A key tenet of leadership 101 is that, as a leader, it is not a matter of if you will find yourself in difficult, challenging situations — hot water — but when. And as much as you might think you know how you will react in such situations, you often don’t until you are in the midst of it.

Usually “hot water” entails a higher than average number of uncontrollable variables. For those leaders who like to be in control at all times (know any of those?!?), this can be extremely challenging. Add to this the fact that your staff will be watching how you respond to give them an indication of how they should respond. Remember, calm begets calm . . . even if you have to fake it till you make it!

So how do you steep the strongest leadership out of a hot water situation?

First, realize that no matter the situation, there are things you can control. You can choose to take a deep breath, which will help move you out of the reactive, fight/flight/freeze part of your brain and into the part of your brain where you can think rationally. This is the first step toward responding in (what at least appears to be) a thoughtful, decisive manner. In most cases, there aren’t nearly as many things that you “have to” do as some external source might want you to think. You might “have to” do them to get the response the external source is seeking, but it may or may not produce the outcome you want. In fact, your calm consideration is usually the best antidote to an external frenzy.  

Stonewalling, acting like everything is okay, going “underground”, or looking for a scapegoat is much the same as ripping a hole in your tea bag. All your power seeps out, and in the end you will often end up having to swallow the bitter dregs . . . and deal with the lingering aftertaste for a long time to come.

It is also good to remember that a bit of hot water every now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hot water mixed with a good tea bag can wake you up, keep you on your toes, and hone your focus on what is most important (. . . that would be your mission, your people, your long-term viability . . .)

As a tea drinker, I like my morning mug steaming, strong, and filled to the brim. Two or three of those, a deep breath for good measure, and I’m ready to face whatever comes my way.

What Are You Feeding

You may have heard the Indian legend of a grandfather talking to his grandson about the battle that goes on inside people . . . a battle of two wolves. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. After thinking about this a moment, the grandson asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather simply replied, “The one that you feed.”

Perhaps there is no better example of that legend than social media. The documentary Social Dilemma highlights how the types of things you view on social media multiply on your feed because built-in algorithms steer you to more of the same, making it easy to lose sight of the fact that there are perspectives that differ from those you are seeing. Beyond social media, in our increasingly polarized society, there seems to be daily pressure to pick a side . . . stake out a position . . . feed a wolf.

On your leadership journey, how can you tilt the odds in favor of the good wolf?

Feed curiosity. What additional perspectives are out there? What experiences have people had that prompt them to see a situation differently? “Help me understand . . .” can be one of the most powerful questions a leader can ask. When a person moves up the organizational chart, they often begin to lose their curiosity, and become more convinced that they have the answers. Bonus benefit . . . curiosity also helps build buy-in from your team members, who feel heard and valued.

Feed optimism. I’m not talking about being a Pollyanna here. I am suggesting you assume positive intent. First, it taps into curiosity . . . why would someone, who also wants the best in this situation, see things differently than I do? Feeding optimism also prompts you to focus the the positives, the strengths, of both your people and a given situation. Research from Gallop indicates that a strengths-based approach builds employee engagement, which is increasingly critical for organizational success. And for those thinking optimism sounds nice but you have a business to run, research also shows that optimists are significantly more likely than pessimists to experience financial health.

Feed Joy. Joy is about gratitude. It is about an energizing sense of purpose. Unlike happiness, joy is not dependent on the circumstances. Joy comes from knowing you can impact a situation. It comes from connecting with people, acknowledging contributions, and cheering each other on. Feeding joy is about celebrating. It is an antidote to stress. Joy is about being in the moment. It sparks creativity, improves your mood, and often changes how you see a situation. Joy is a choice. And joy begets joy — when your people see you expressing joy, it gives them permission to do the same.

Curiosity, optimism and joy grow the good wolf. What are you feeding?