You’ve Got This!

Panorama Of Empty Baseball Field At Night From Behind Home PateI have been hearing “industry experts” report that we are facing “unprecedented levels of change” for more than a quarter-century. Such pronouncements can cause a great deal of stress, and likely more than a few sleepless nights, for conscientious leaders committed to helping their organizations succeed. But . . . what if the experts are looking at it all wrong?

I lead a 165-year-old organization, and as I look back over our history it appears that significant amounts of change have been going on ever since 1853. Unprecedented means, “never done or known before.” People, we have done change! Yes, the circumstances are different, the speed at which occurs may be faster, but change is not an unprecedented thing . . . and when we act like it is, all we accomplish is to increase our angst, foster uncertainty in our staff and undermine our ability to respond most effectively.

Change is a process and there are specific steps you can take to increase your likelihood of achieving your desired outcome (I recommend John Kotter’s work as a good starting point). Here is what the industry experts don’t tell you — effectively managing change is far more about you than it is about any external factors that may be “unprecedented.”

Consider it through the lens of baseball. When you step up to the plate to bat, you may face all kinds of pitchers. Some throw right-handed, some left. Some pitch at speeds you may have never seen before, others have a change-up that can catch you off guard. The strike zone may be a moving target depending on the umpire, the sun might be in your eyes or the wind blowing dust in your face. The catcher may crowd you and the spectators may be creating distracting levels of noise. And even with all of these variables — some of which you may not have encountered before — your batting average is largely a result of what you do and not the uncontrollable factors swirling around you. Don’t allow yourself to get psyched out by the spectator (who may even see himself as an expert) shouting, “swing batter swing,” or by the reputation of the pitcher, or a host of other variables. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.

Change becomes overwhelming when we focus more of our attention on what we can’t control instead of what we can. Yes, pay attention to what is going on around you, adapt if you need to, and then bring your focus back to what you can impact . . . the specific steps you can take. What you focus on grows. Focus on what you know and what you can control.

Unprecedented? Not so much. You’ve got this!

The Squeaks and Squawks of Success

Boy playing trumpet with classmates covering earsThe world is constantly changing. Logically, as leaders, we know we need to ensure our organizations are always changing too. Practically, however, once we find a successful path, there are also a host of reasons to stay on course. Efficiency, effectiveness, solid results . . . it’s working . . . right up until it isn’t. The irony is, the more successful an organization is on one path, the harder it can be to change to another . . . unless squeaks and squawks have been built into the system.

If you have ever had a child learn to play an instrument, you know that squeaks and squawks are part of the process. Young musicians are enthusiastic, they know where they want to get to . . . but their technique needs a bit of practice, trial and error, and refinement. They have to start with “Hot Crossed Buns” before they can master the concerto. You can’t hold them to the same precise standards of performance you have for someone who has been playing for years or you will squash their spirit and undermine their potential.

As a leader, you have to continually refine the concerto of your current success, while also encouraging the squeaks and squawks of the next big thing. Squeaks and squawks aren’t efficient. They don’t follow a well-laid path. At times they sound a bit hopeless. They take patience and practice . . . and they are the path to your future. The challenge is, in our lean, metric-driven, instant results world, we expect a level of performance — right now — that would judge our budding musician as a failure.

We cannot apply the same expectations we have for the professional musician — our fully developed, successful product or service line — to the work in progress that may be our next big thing. And we can’t be so afraid of hitting a wrong note, that we that we discourage even trying. Developing something new is all about hitting a few wrong notes on the way to learning the right tune.

Successful leaders have to work from two different scores — apply two different strategies — at the same time. Refine, improve, align and expect a high level of achievement from your skilled performers — your current core programs and services — and play that song as long as you can. Just don’t neglect to nurture the notes of your future success . . . squawks and all.

Periods and Commas

Period Comma

Change is a constant (or at least should be) for those in positions of leadership. It can be hard and exciting, draining and energizing, scary and exciting, all at the same time. Which of these emotions your staff focuses on will be determined, at least in part, by whether you as the leader approach change with a period or with a comma.

Periods are about ending . . . a thought, a program, something people have invested in and valued. A “period approach” to change often makes the process harder for people, and slows the entire process, because the focus is stopping — and who wants to stop something that was important to them? Even if it seems obvious to you that the ending is inevitable and you think “everyone” knows it needs to happen, trying to end it with a period on it will make the process harder.

Commas, on the other hand, connect what came before and what will come after. They provide a pause but also link two separate but related thoughts. Commas aren’t about ending, they are about continuing — perhaps in a different direction, but carrying on nonetheless. Continuing is easier. It keeps what came before the comma attached to the new direction, which signifies its value and worth.

How do you approach change with a comma rather than a period? Acknowledge the importance of the program/approach/product in bringing your organization to the place it is today. (No one wants to think that something they dedicated significant time and effort to was not effective or is no longer relevant.) Clearly articulate how what was done in the past sets the stage for the new opportunity. If your organization has a long history, perhaps point out that the organization could not have survived without the ability to adapt and change in the pursuit of its mission. Let your people know how their efforts have contributed to your organization’s success. Honor past contributions, and let them know the role they will play going forward.

Acknowledging what came before, and articulating how it connects to what comes after, does not automatically make the change process easy. It does, however, chart a path for your team to follow. It provides a balance point for the range of emotions related to the change effort. It sets a destination to keep moving towards rather than consuming unnecessary time and energy in the process of stopping one thing and then starting another.

It might seem like a little thing, but a well-placed comma can make a huge difference. You’re the leader. It’s up to you. How will you punctuate your next change effort?

Not Yet . . .

Not YetChanging external/bureaucratic/or even organizational systems is not a task for the faint of heart. It is a process that often happens in fits and starts, and rarely if ever follows a predictable path. As an encouragement to my team in the midst of such journeys, I have often reminded them, “No doesn’t mean no, it means not yet.” (Of course, I have warned them that no one is allowed to repeat that to my sons . . . but that is a topic for another day.)

No doesn’t mean no, it means not yet. That has long been my philosophy, the way I’m wired as a leader. So you can imagine how pleased I was to run across Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk highlighting her research on the power of “not yet.” She contends that “not yet” is part of a growth mindset that gives an individual confidence that there is a path forward, as opposed to someone having a fixed mindset that is more of a pass/fail perspective.

According to Dweck, not yet provides a source of encouragement that “we can do this!” as opposed to “we tried that and it didn’t work.” It is a reason to keep going rather than an excuse to stop. Very few of us hit a home run on our first at-bat, which is not the same as assuming we will never hit a home run. Unfortunately, today it seems far too many people want a guarantee of success before they will even step into the batter’s box.

Leadership doesn’t come with guarantees. It is about sticking with a worthy endeavor, even if it is hard, and frustrating, and isn’t working out the way you hoped. Leadership is about the long view. Sometimes today’s answer is not yet, and then tomorrow is a chance to pick up where you left off and try a different path. Sure we all get tired, and it is tempting to just walk away. Not yet. Rest if you need to. Recharge. And then reframe that no into a not yet.

Not yet is not a new idea. Thomas Edison, got it. When trying to create the light bulb he noted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And oh aren’t we happy that he hung on for number 10,001. Sure, not every task is worth that kind of effort, but as a leader shouldn’t you be focusing your energies on those that are?

My challenge to you is to be the kind of leader who fosters a growth mindset in your organization. Sure, that means there will be good days and bad days. But at least you’ll know that no is not permanent. And when someone tosses a no your way, you can smile knowingly and correct them with a simple “not yet.”

Letting Go

Keep Calm and Let Go

Tis the season of kids heading back to school, starting college and embarking on new beginnings. My heart goes out to friends who are sending a child off to live on their own for the first time. Even though it is an exciting time, and you want this experience for them, the fear of the unknown and the sadness of closing a chapter can lead to quite an emotional stew in the hearts of parents.

Letting go is hard. And not just with our children. It is no less difficult for organizations to let go of their “babies” . . . programs and services for which they have such fond memories. The difference is, those programs and the people in them usually aren’t clamoring to move on to the next phase like our children are. No, in organizations it’s the leader’s responsibility to decide it is time to embark on a new chapter. And that emotional stew I mentioned parents experiencing . . . yep, leaders get it in spades. Unfortunately, in some cases, leaders never take that step toward new possibilities because of how painful it is to move beyond what they have known, and their organizations suffer as a result.

Maybe it’s time to reframe this whole letting go thing. Maybe rather than mourn the loss of what has been, we need to celebrate the journey that has brought us to the point that we are ready to take the next step. Closing the door on a chapter doesn’t mean it wasn’t important or valuable in shaping the organization and moving it forward. It simply means the organization has grown to the point that it is ready to take the next step, and that’s a good thing.

I serve an organization that has been around since 1853. Rest assured, we look quite different today than we did 163 years ago, but the values this organization was built on are still alive and well in our work today. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and honor what they accomplished, not by never changing but by taking advantage of the amazing opportunities that have resulted from their efforts.

As a parent, we’re a bit sad when our kids spread their wings and fly, but that’s what kids are supposed to do. That’s what organizations are supposed to do too. Even amid the challenges and chaos and uncertainty of the world today, opportunities abound for your organization. You can’t reach for the future when you are clutching to the past . . . maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and let go.

Humble and Kind

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 11.07.32 AM

Tim McGraw has a new song out titled Humble and Kind. If you haven’t heard it, I encourage you to do so. Simple lyrics, powerful message.

The message isn’t new. Gandhi challenged us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Jim Collins writes about Level 5 Leaders who demonstrate personal humility and professional will. The Golden Rule drawn from scripture tells us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Kids get it. The rest of us … somehow we seem to convince ourselves that it can’t be that easy, that there are extenuating circumstances, that the world is complicated. All true. And yet …

Pick any news headline. How might the story have read differently if the players had decided to be humble and kind? Differences of opinion would not go away, but we just might be able to build on common ground and consider another perspective. Covey challenges us to make a habit of “seek first to understand.” Do we? Do we really want to hear the back story, or the rest of the story? Changing headlines seems overwhelming, and we’re already a bit overwhelmed. It’s hard to imagine how to even start.

Maybe you can start in your own organization. Are there ways and places to be a bit more humble and kind? It all starts with the tone set by the leader. I’m not suggesting that you lower your standards or don’t hold people accountable, in fact having clear expectations makes the path forward easier. Humble and kind is more about the how than the what. How do you hold people accountable? Do you support them or set them up to fail? Do you offer a measure of grace or are you judgmental and sarcastic? Do you build on people’s strengths or focus on their weaknesses. Do you shine a light on your team’s accomplishments, or claim the credit and pat yourself on the back?

Or maybe we need to bring it in a bit closer and ask if you as a leader, as a person, are humble and kind to yourself. That just might be the easiest, and hardest, place to start. Can you be humble enough to recognize that you are not a superhero, and probably the only one who expects you to be one is you? Can you ask for help and support when you need it? Can you be kind enough to yourself to take a break, catch your breath, and find joy in the moment . . . laugh with a friend . . . savor an ice cream cone . . . be amazed by the world around you? Do you think maybe, just maybe, something so small could cause a ripple that would reach all the way to the headlines?

You’ll never know until you try. Come on, give it a shot. Always be humble and kind.

Turning the Screen


The daughter of a friend of mine got me hooked on one of those mind(less) teaser games for your computer/iPad/phone. The object of the game, which is called Flow, is to connect pairs of colored dots while filling every square on a grid and not crossing the path used to connect any other dots. It starts out pretty easy when you only have five sets of colored dots, but as you get up to seven, eight or nine sets of dots, things suddenly become more complicated. At times it feels like you are tying your brain in knots trying to find a way to connect every color and fill every box. Then one day, quite by accident, in the throws of “stupid game aggravation”, I realized that if you simply move the screen a quarter turn, a path to victory may become clear.

How crazy is that? None of the variables of the game changed. The only thing that was different was my perspective. Simply by looking at the challenge from a new angle, the way forward was evident. Maybe, just maybe, the same concept holds true in the “game” of leadership (a brain teaser if ever there was one!) Leaders today have to deal with connecting an increasing number of dots . . . Sure, this path would work to connect these two dots, but that also boxes in another dot, closing off the path to ultimate success . . . The more “dots” you have to factor into the equation, the more complicated it becomes to find a way forward. And those gnawing empty boxes/unresolved details . . . don’t even get me started on those!

Close your eyes, turn the screen, and try again. Walk away, take a break, and come back with fresh eyes. Erase all the connections you thought were going to work and start from scratch. Yes, I know, you were “that close” to getting it figured out . . . or at least you thought you were. Two “unresolved” boxes still leaves you short of a win. It can be frustrating, all-consuming and really hard to press on toward success, especially after heading down yet another promising path only to run into a wall. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, you haven’t failed, you simply found one additional path that won’t work.

Turn the screen! Chances are everything you need to win is on the board before you.

Construction Projects

We are in the midst of a major construction project at work. Having been a part of several such projects, it always amazes me how long it takes for the “groundwork” — the grading, running underground lines, setting foundations — before any real visible progress can take place. I suppose it really shouldn’t be all that surprising, however, given the similarities with “constructing” a change effort within an organization.

Change — like watching a building go up — can be exciting, but also anxiety provoking. The key to successful change is to take the time necessary to do the groundwork on the front end . . . developing the plans, laying conduits for on-going communication, pouring strategic footings to anchor the change for the long term . . . All of these things take significant energy, and on the surface it might appear there is little progress to show for your effort. Trust me, it is worth putting in the time in on the front end, even if it feels like you are moving at a snail’s pace.

A weak foundation can jeopardize an otherwise carefully constructed project. Regardless of how bright and shiny something might look on the surface, if you rushed through the site preparation, the entire project could be compromised. For example, soil testing may seem like a waste of time and money . . . until you realize that it’s not so different from testing the opinions of your staff to see what they are really thinking, and whether the rock solid base you thought you had is still in place. Determining the depth of your water tables is similar to knowing where there are hot button topics that could bubble up, or in worst cases spew forth, to drown out your good intentions.

Plans developed by a single individual sitting in an office may look really pretty on paper, and may be a good starting place, but they virtually always need tweaking to accommodate the unique and unforeseen variables of individual situations. Which brings me to the other key similarity between building and constructing a change effort . . . flexibility! Unexpected cost increases, delayed schedules, key participants aren’t on the same page on a critical component . . . it’s not a matter of if something is going to challenge the plan, it is just a matter of when and how many. Likewise, I have yet to see a change effort that proceeded exactly according to plan — no matter how “perfect” you might have thought the plan was at the outset. What to do? Stand firm on the final outcome, and maybe one or two key variables along the way, and with everything else, realize there are multiple good and reasonable ways to reach your final goal.

Need to implement a change initiative of your own? Grab your hard hat and happy building!

The Seeds of Leadership

“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 you 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.

The Leadership Barometer

Change in the weather barometer macro detail.Merriam-Webster defines a barometer as 1) an instrument that is used to measure air pressure and predict changes in the weather, or 2) something that is used to indicate or predict something.

Like it or not, if you are in a leadership position, you will have staff members “checking your readings” as a barometer of what they can expect within the organization. Seriously. It is amazing how many people will notice if there is a change in your typical pattern of behavior (more/less meetings with leadership team, upbeat/looking stressed, out and about/holed up in your office . . . you get the picture), and their anxiety may go up or down depending on what they see.

This realization is rather disconcerting at first. After all, the fact that you may be dealing with some high-stress issues doesn’t necessarily mean the sky is falling; and even the most upbeat among us occasionally have bad days — sometimes several in a row — that may have nothing to do with the organization. What’s a leader supposed to do?

Well first, for those of you thinking “Don’t my staff have enough to do without keeping an eye on me?” . . . probably . . . but can you honestly say that you have never gauged someone’s mood by paying attention to how they entered a room? It’s instinctual. So being aggravated that people are monitoring your behavior is a waste of time. The real challenge is what are you going to do about it? It doesn’t feel authentic to “fake it” and act like everything is goodness and sunshine all the time. People know better, and over time will begin to either not trust you or think you are totally disconnected from the reality they experience. On the other hand, openly conveying every frustration or anxiety, “ain’t it awful” style, doesn’t seem like a good plan either.

So what is the best option? I recommend transparency with a positive long view. My staff knows I am going to share the good the bad and the ugly — in context with my absolute confidence in this organization. “Yes, the bureaucratic wrangling we are experiencing right now is ridiculous, and it’s not likely to get better for a while, AND, we will do what we need to do to move past this and carry out our mission.” Jim Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great, describing the ability to have unwavering faith while facing the brutal facts. “These are difficult times, no doubt about it. We have made it through a lot of challenges before, and I am confident we will again,” — honest, without being fatalistic.

That is a barometer people can trust. It indicates there are challenges, and predicts the organization will prevail. It gives your staff confidence to stick with you through the storms to reach the sun on the other side.

What is your barometer forecasting?