RefuelHow are you feeling . . . right now? Are you energized and ready to take on the world? If so, wouldn’t it be nice to know how to maintain that full tank of motivation over the long term? And if you are not feeling so great about your own energy level, or that of your team, perhaps a few tips on how to refuel and get your passion back on track are in order.

Tony Schwartz has written extensively on fueling an organization’s potential, and has identified four basic energy needs that, when met, lead to higher performance: renewal (physical); value (emotional); focus (mental); and purpose (spiritual). That seems pretty self-evident, right? When we are well rested, appreciated, and can focus on things that we are passionate about, both our energy level and our performance are likely to improve. You might be surprised, however, at how much of an impact these factors actually have on fueling performance.

Schwartz, together with Christine Porath, conducted a survey with the Harvard Business Review which demonstrated that when even one of an employee’s basic energy needs has been met (that is, their tank is ¼ full), there is a 30% increase in their ability to focus and a nearly 50% increase in their level of engagement. If all four needs are met — when their tank is full — the engagement levels increase to 125%! In addition, the study indicated that when all four energy needs are met, there is a 72% drop in employees’ stress levels.

Addressing your employees’ basic energy needs isn’t costly. It doesn’t require implementing a complex new program or require a huge allocation of time.

  • Encourage your staff (and model the behavior yourself!) to take 10 – 15-minute breaks at regular intervals where they physically step away from their desk or other work environments.
  • Express your appreciation to others — in detailed, specific ways. Get creative in letting others know you value their efforts.
  • Take steps to reduce interruptions when working on a project. Encourage your staff to put the phone down and ignore the ping of email to increase their focus.
  • Find ways for staff to spend time doing the things that they do best, or find enjoyable, or that make a positive difference.

Renew. Value. Focus. Purpose.

Physical. Emotional. Mental. Spiritual.

Where is your energy level running? How about that of your staff? If the tank is running a bit low, maybe it’s time to step away from the computer and take a few minutes to refuel.

Simply Effective

business woman standing with her staff in background at modern bThe hard truth is, a large number of people in positions of leadership really aren’t all that effective. Of course, “effectiveness” is hard to quantify. A quick internet search provides a dizzying number of articles on characteristics needed for effective leadership. I know many people in positions of leadership who have worked to embody such characteristics. They are, for example, smart, personable, have a positive attitude and are deeply committed to their organizations. Shouldn’t these things make them effective? Perhaps it is not so much individual characteristics as a simple set of behaviors that draw on those traits that lead to effectiveness.

A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted the 10-year CEO Genome Project, which identified four behaviors demonstrated by high performing leaders: deciding with speed and conviction, engaging for impact, adapting proactively, and delivering reliably.

In terms of decisiveness, the study did not say that effective leaders’ decisions were always the right ones. Missteps are often easier to recover from  than making no decision, or a half-hearted one where one is merely trying to hedge his or her bets. Thus, rather than waiting for all the information, the simple act of making a decision can be a core attribute in leadership success.

Understanding who needs to be engaged, and how best to gain buy-in, is another core factor in effective leadership. Different stakeholders may have different motivations. Effective leaders understand this and seek out ways to align multiple “wins” for greatest impact. More than a matter of strong communication skills, engaging for impact is about first developing a strategic roadmap to know what to communicate to whom to find the fastest route to the ultimate destination.

When a leader moves into uncharted territory, the ability to adapt and respond proactively is a core trait that will separate high performing leaders from the also-rans. That sometimes means taking two steps forward and one step back. Success is rarely a linear process. Effective leaders know this, and expect that at times they will have to adjust their efforts to reach the final destination.

Setting realistic expectations, and then reliably delivering wins, might seem like an obvious attribute for effective leaders. In fact, all four of the behaviors identified in the study seem pretty self-evident. Leaders sometimes get so mired down in long lists of desirable leadership characteristics, that we miss the forest for the trees.

Maybe instead, we need to focus on four simple behaviors, which research has shown are key factors in overall leadership effectiveness. Simply effective . . . sounds like a winning plan!

Bird Dogging Strategy

hunting dog -man hunter and curly coated retriever isolated on white backgroundWhen I was growing up, my dad always had a bird dog. When the dogs were little, Dad would work with them, fine-tuning their natural instincts until all he had to do was send them off in the right direction and let them follow their sense of sight, smell, their inner compass and quick reflexes to flush out the best opportunities (which in this case was probably a covey of quail).

Oh, if organizations could be so nimble when it comes to strategy. Well actually, they can be, but most aren’t. Somehow, far too many organizations have connected strategy with such rigidly quantifiable plans that they rarely consider, much less capitalize on, unexpected opportunities that maybe rustling around in the grass right next to them. Think about it . . . is it really realistic to know, in specific detail, what you should be doing three years down the road?

Let me be clear, I think a solid strategy is critical for organizational success, however I believe a strategic framework that provides direction, rather than a highly detailed strategic plan that dictates specific action, is much more conducive to optimizing impact in an ever-changing environment. What exactly does that mean? For example, a strategic framework might reflect the goal of collaborating with another organization or organizations related to integrated health, or developing new community-based programming, or geographic expansion, or revenue growth. All of these provide a direction, and you can measure whether you accomplished these things, but they also encourage on-going scanning of the environment regarding the best opportunities in these strategic directions.

I’m not alone in my skepticism related to “traditional” strategic planning. In his article “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” (Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2014), Roger Martin contends that developing a detailed plan maybe a great way to cope with fear of the unknown, but it’s a terrible way to make strategy. Discomfort and the unknown, and I would add nimbleness and instinct are part of the strategic process. In other words, sometimes on the journey to an intended goal, you end up following an entirely different path than you might have intended . . . and you’ll only find that path if you have the flexibility to follow an unexpected trail or two along the way.

Which brings me back to Dad’s bird dog. As the “governing body” of the enterprise, Dad made sure the dog didn’t get too far afield, but he also encouraged the pup to sniff out possibilities before focusing in on point. The process wasn’t always neat and tidy, but it certainly was effective . . .

… Maybe more of us should consider bird-dogging strategy.

Maybe the Plan is the Problem


I have been doing a lot of thinking of late about strategy and innovation, and how to use these tools to extend our organizations’s mission reach. Both concepts have been widely explored, and yet in some experts’ attempts to create step by step guides for how “do” strategy and innovation, the intuitive/explorative part of the journey gets lost in the quest to quantify.

I am a big believer in detailed plans … at the right place and time. I just don’t happen to believe strategy or innovation are the right place or time. As I mentioned in a previous post , our strategic framework (not plan, framework) fits on one page, and our most innovative efforts have taken us down paths we didn’t expect at the outset. If we had over planned in either of these areas, we would have set targets far short of what we actually accomplished.

You don’t have to take my word for it. In “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” (Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 2014) author Roger L. Martin outlines why over planning is terrible for strategy. He contends that plans are how organizations cope with fear, but fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy (whew, that’s good to know!). If fact, he says, if you are totally comfortable with your strategy, it probably isn’t very good.

Likewise, in terms of innovation, the authors in the newly released book Collective Genius note that innovative groups act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. You can’t move systematically toward a new concept, it is a journey of trial and error, gut instincts and new discoveries. How can you definitively plan for that?

While detailed plans for strategy and innovation may be counterproductive, you still need goals and parameters to keep everyone moving in the same direction. For example at the time we identified a strategic goal of extending our mission reach internationally, the intent — the what — was clear. However, if we had made a specific plan for “how”, we probably would have identified a single country to target, and called the plan a success if we met that target. Rather, by leaving the goal open-ended, and intuitively pursuing a variety of paths that presented themselves, we have trained professionals from five continents.

Our philosophy around innovation is that the specifics are going to change along the way anyway, so we start with concepts and prototypes rather than a comprehensive plan, and tweak it all along the way as we learn what works and what doesn’t. Patient persistence, rather than a perfect plan, is what has led to our most impactful innovations.

Strategy and innovation are never sure bets, there is always risk involved. A detailed plan, in effect, means you are choosing a single path and ruling out other variables and options — in many regards actually increasing your risk of missing the mark. As Martin notes, the goal of strategy (and I would add, innovation) is not to eliminate risk, but to increase the odds of success.

Not getting the success you hoped for in your strategy or innovation efforts? Maybe the problem is in your plan.

The Roots of Leadership

CornLast night, three generations of my family gathered to “work the sweet corn”. For the uninformed among you, that means picking, shucking, silking, cutting, cooking, and packaging ridiculous amounts of corn for freezing. As I was elbow deep in this family ritual, with my sister taking the annual picture of the crew at the shucking table, I couldn’t help but think about a Harvard Business Review article on Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. (Call me weird, it’s just the way my brain works, but if you stick with me there really is a connection!)

In the article ( Bill George and his co-authors noted that more than 1,000 studies have failed to produce a clear profile of the ideal leader. Rather, in their review of the studies, the authors identified the consistent thread among successful leaders was that “their leadership emerged from their life stories. Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core . . . the journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life.”

Successful leaders can be shaped by positive and/or difficult situations, but the common theme is that they use their life experiences to give them meaning and discover their passion. So what does that mean for you and me? Well for one thing, it means that you can’t lead just like someone else. You might be able to model some aspects of your leadership on an individual you admire, but you can’t “wear” their exact style, and if you try, you will never reach your full potential as a leader.

I am the product of a close-knit rural family. Next week, you will find me at the county fair, where I will forever be one of the “Duncan Girls”, even though my last name has been Reed for nearly 30 years. Those things, along with a host of other experiences, have shaped who I am and how I lead. As noted previously in this post, in my first professional job after college I tried to be a Debra. I can’t pull it off. That level of formality is simply not authentic to who I am. I have great respect for people who are genuinely more formal, it’s just not me.

The good news is, according to the research there is no one “right way” to lead, so you might as well do it your way. Yes, you still need to learn and grow and stretch yourself, but the next time you read a leadership book, make note of the things that resonate with you, and give yourself permission to discard the pieces that don’t feel like a fit.

I make a conscious effort to stay connected to the people and values that helped shape me, and I believe I’m a better leader because of it. Not only that . . . I know how to make some killer freezer corn!

It’s Not What You Know . . .


Image from cartoonist Hugh MacLeod

. . . It’s what you do with what you know! I’m not sure who said this, but I think the graphic above by cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captures the concept perfectly. In my experience, leadership, innovation and ultimately, organizational success, is a result of seeing connections where others may not. That is why I encourage my staff to read widely outside our field, and to add the wisdom of their own unique experiences to the discussion of how to carry out our mission and ministry.

There have been a number of times where something I read in Fast Company, totally unrelated to human services, spurred an idea for how to extend our mission reach . . . or an article in Harvard Business Review caused me to look at a situation differently. I’ve had fiction books I was reading for pleasure spark an idea related to some work issue I had been grappling with, and walks through nature open my eyes to new connections. And if my entire leadership team is doing the same, we have exponentially expanded our ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas in new and powerful ways. Think about it, if the only place you are getting information is from within your industry, from people who basically have the same perspective and professional experience you do, how much harder is it going to be to see things with new eyes and find an innovative solution?

Consciously seeking ways to “connect the dots” is a skill we need to teach our staff as well. We provide thousands of employee training hours each year. In effect, we invest a lot into filling our people with dots . . . and yet if we stop there, we have wasted our investment. We also have to give them intentional experiences that encourage them to find the connection points between the informational nuggets they have gained. We need to give our staff the latitude to find that aha moment that can help them tackle a specific situation, or maybe inform the entire way we do something. Giving a staff member latitude is not the same as tossing them into the wind. There need to be parameters, but supervisors also need to have a tolerance level to allow staff to bring ideas together in a new way that, in our case, might help a child when nothing else has.

I know a number of people who are incredibly smart, and yet if they do nothing more than accumulate disparate facts … if they don’t make the leap to connect the dots … they’ll make a great team member in a trivia contest, but may not be the best person to give your organization an innovative edge. What you know is a start, but what you do with it makes all the difference.

It’s time to make a difference.