Chocolate Covered Cherries

Three Cordial CherriesMy Grandma Duncan loved chocolate covered cherries. To say I did not would be a sizeable understatement. Every holiday, as she opened the dreaded candy box and urged me to have one, I just knew that ball of syrupy sweetness was going to get bigger and bigger in my mouth as I chewed, threatening to totally gag me. Looking back, I’m fairly certain the fretting beforehand was much worse than the candies (although my throat still tightens at the mere mention of them). Call it the “chocolate covered cherry effect” . . . the anticipation — and angst — of a looming challenge has caused many a leader to choke.

We’ve all been there. Expert predictions/trends/new rules foretell of significant disruptions to the way your organization functions . . . and stewing about the looming shadow of uncertainty only causes it to grow in your mind. Chocolate covered cherry effect. The more you chew on it, the bigger it becomes.

Certainly, you should identify and carefully consider the challenges before you. The key is how you approach it. The chocolate covered cherry effect happens when you get stuck on what the challenge is going to do to you. A much more effective, and energizing, leadership strategy is to identify what you will do to move past the challenge, and maximize the resulting opportunities.

The thing you focus on grows. Do you want to focus on the challenge — the chocolate covered cherry — or do you want to focus on what you can accomplish when you move past it? A few tips for those interested keeping their challenges in perspective:

1) Thoughtfully consider the challenge, gather input from multiple viewpoints, and then make a decision. You will rarely have all the information you would like. Get enough and then decide. The longer you chew on it, the bigger the challenge feels.

2) Remember, you know how to do this. I have eaten a number of chocolate covered cherries in my life, and none of them killed me. You have faced, and conquered, challenges before. Recognize that you have the skills to move through it.

3) Take it a bite at a time. Part of what can make challenges seem so overwhelming is that you often can’t see how you’ll get all the way through at the outset. That’s okay. Start eating away at the challenge. The path will become clearer as you go.

4) It’s worth the effort. In the grand scheme of things, the chocolate covered cherries were a small price to pay compared to the joys of holidays with my grandparents. I would have missed so much if I couldn’t see past that challenge to possibilities that came with it.

The thing you focus on grows. And I certainly don’t want that to be the chocolate covered cherries. What about you?

“Experts” Need Not Apply

ExpertHave you noticed how many “experts” there are out there today? No matter what the problem/challenge/opportunity before you, there is an expert who has an answer. That might seem like a great thing, and it can be in some cases. I’m just not at all sure that “experts” make the best leaders. Let me explain.

Experts know a lot about the thing they know about. In fact, I have run into many an expert who thinks they have THE answer about their area of focus. And that is exactly the problem. When you become an expert, when you have THE solution, you quit gathering new information, considering additional possibilities, or calculating the impact of changing variables. You have devoted years of effort to create an amazing hammer . . . and as a result, everything starts to look like a nail.

If an expert doesn’t make the best leader, who does? A life-long learner. It is fine to be a life-long learner with a lot of experience — in fact, that is highly desirable. So what is the difference between an expert and a life-long learner with a lot of experience? The former thinks they have found the answer, the latter is continually looking a better solution. The best leaders are seekers — not in terms of the “what” of their mission, but certainly in terms of the “how”.

Even when it appears they are at the top of their game, a leader committed to learning is always looking for ways to improve, to extend their reach, to have a greater impact. How?

  • They listen. To those who receive their services, those who provide their services, the “experts” who are happy to offer solutions, and others in the field . . . all of whom can contribute to a greater understanding of the issue at hand.


  • They challenge. Even when their organization enjoys great success, and it would be easy to sit on their laurels or pat themselves on the back, they are looking for a better way — either through small tweaks or bringing an entirely new approach to their efforts.


  • They don’t put limits on their thinking. It doesn’t matter if a concept comes from a different industry, from someone with no experience, or if it seems “impossible” given the current environment. “Why not?” and “What if” are regular parts of their conversations.

The best leaders continually expand their understanding. They can have a great deal of expertise, but always consider their efforts a work in progress. “Making it,” being an “expert” is a stopping point. Learners don’t stop. Who do you think is most likely to move your organization forward?

No Ceilings

Inside the castle of Cesky KrumlovAs leaders, our perspective has a significant influence not only on our approach, but also the efforts of those around us. When we run into a daunting challenge, do we look for ways to minimize our risk or maximize our gain? A power point I ran across this week put it this way: “There’s a floor to cost reduction but no ceiling to value creation.”

No ceiling to value creation . . . what a great lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities before us! How often do we respond to the roadblocks we encounter by immediately slamming on the brakes? Cut, reduce, minimize our losses and avoid future risk. Yes, as leaders we have to be good stewards and fiscally responsible, but do we stop to consider that there may be multiple ways to manage the bottom line while also expanding the top line?

What if our first question when we collide with a roadblock was to ask how to raise the ceiling on our value proposition? Isn’t that what Lean Principles are all about? Creating more value and, yes, eliminating waste . . . but maximizing value for your efforts is at the heart of Lean. How many leaders never even consider a path to value creation because they have a scarcity mentality? They instinctively reduce and withdraw, and in so doing eliminate the very path that could have led to greater value and financial sustainability.

How does a leader eliminate the ceiling on value creation? Certainly it is important to explore opportunities for efficiencies and economies of scale. However, just as there are limits to cost reduction, there are limits on how efficient you can become at a specific task. The question then becomes, is there a better task on which to focus your efforts? And the answer to that question is . . . Yes! Focus your efforts on innovation!

If a leader truly wants no ceiling on value creation you have to not only allow but encourage sky-is-the-limit, “in a perfect world” thinking (no ceilings, right). So often, right out of the gate, we frame our thinking with barriers . . . “They would never” . . . “It’s not practical, but” . . . “It would be cost prohibitive, however . . .” Feel that floor looming?

What if, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we identify the most amazing, creative way to add value and then focus on figuring out a way to do that? I’m not suggesting you disregard your budget, or that you will automatically get there overnight. I am saying that when people are passionate about value creation . . . when innovative thinking is encouraged . . . they find a way.

Where do you start? No ceilings.


Recipe Car SMaCs

In the fast-changing environment in which our agency works, there are some things that will stay the same and will serve to anchor the organization in chaotic times. These constitute our unique “SMaC Recipe”.  As identified in the book Great by Choice, by Jim Collins,“SMaC stands for specific, methodical and consistent. The more uncertain, fast-changing, and unforgiving your environment, the more SMaC you need to be.”

The SMaC recipe is different from goals or values. The list includes operating practices that provide guidance regarding what to do and not to do. Regardless of how our strategic goals may change over time, or how uncontrollable industry or economic variables affect our work, our SMaCs should remain largely unchanged.

Developing a SMaC recipe was initially a challenging concept for our leadership team to wrap their brain around. But after we waded through a lot of complexity, we eventually came to realize that these were simply the ground rules by which we function. I’m not sure our SMaCs exactly follow what Collins had in mind when he identified the concept through his research; but whether they are nor not, grappling with the list, and then using it along with our mission/vision/values and our strategic framework to guide our decision making, has been helpful for our team.

And the real litmus test . . . when I shared the final list with staff and asked if it sounded like us (SMaCs are real time, not aspirational), I have consistently heard a resounding “yes!” At Chaddock, we have identified the ten points below as our SMaC recipe:

  1.  The client is the family system.
  2.  Chaddock models our faith-based culture by living “the golden rule” in all our interactions.
  3.  Recognizing employees and their contributions is important.
  4.  Every new program opportunity is considered through our trauma and attachment lens.
  5.  We maintain a diversified funding stream.
  6.  We seek and integrate innovative ideas, from inside and outside the human services field, to improve our effectiveness.
  7.  We use measurable data to inform our treatment, track the outcomes of our efforts and to adapt and strengthen our programs and services.
  8.  We respectfully ask and address the hard questions, and make decisions in a transparent manner.
  9.  A culture of excellence is fostered with the infusion of new knowledge through training and reflection, and communication of and support for clear goals and expectations.
  10.  We initiate and maintain strategic partnerships with other recognized leaders to maximize knowledge generation in the field of trauma and attachment.

Maybe that list doesn’t seem that earth-shattering to you, but I have found that often times the most powerful things seem pretty basic once you distill them down. One other thing . . . this list won’t work for you. The value of a SMaC Recipe lies in the fact that it highlights those things that are unique to your organization. In the same way that your strategic goals don’t (I hope!) look just like another organization’s, your “way of doing business” should be identifiable as your own as well.

SMaCing your organization isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.