The Choice is Yours

Concept of choice with crossroads spliting in two waysI have a tendency to get frustrated with people in positions of leadership who, when faced with a difficult situation, default to telling their team that, “We don’t have a choice.” You always have a choice. You may not like the choices before you. There may be a high cost for a choice, financial or otherwise. You may wish you weren’t the one who had to make the choice. But, you always have one.

You are the leader. People are looking to you to see how they should respond. Even when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, make the choice. Don’t default and let “them” make the decision for you. (You know, them . . . those people who are telling you that you “have to” do whatever it is you would rather not do.) There is a confidence, a sense of control, that comes when you consider all the options, good or bad, and pick one. No one is doing it “to you”. You are not a helpless bystander in someone else’s plan. The choice is yours.

Even when you find yourself in the midst of a situation, not of your making, you can still choose how you respond. You can wallow in the midst of it all, proclaiming that it is not your fault (which it very well may not be), or you can put one foot in front of the other and walk your way out of the situation. You’ll likely have a lot of company in “ain’t it awful land”, but people want their leaders to chart a course to a better place. And the best way forward is usually to decide to take a step . . . and then another. You can always course correct along the way if you need to, but momentum favors the person who is moving. Sometimes, the best solution comes three steps in, and you never would have seen it if you didn’t choose to move forward.

I am a big believer in plans, and yet sometimes perfecting the plan can become a way to avoid making a choice. “Oh, we will (fill in the blank) as soon as soon as we work out all the details.” So work them out. Make a decision, even a small one, that moves your effort forward. Leaders need to lead. That means choosing a destination, making the hard decisions if you need to, and then helping your people find a way forward. You are a leader. That’s what leaders do.

The choice is yours.

It’s Not About the Plan

Business Corporate Management Planning Team ConceptAt the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)

Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?

It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.

Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.

A Year of Growth

2018 calendar altered copyAs 2018 approaches, there is the typical talk of new opportunities, exciting plans, fresh starts . . . and yet, if you are a leader, in the coming year you will also encounter disappointments, efforts that didn’t go as planned, and projects with outcomes that fall short of the intended goal. And how you approach those situations, far more than the easy wins, will determine the impact of your leadership, in 2018 and beyond.

Do you see setbacks as “failures” or as part of the journey toward success? When things don’t go as planned, do you retreat to safer ground or ask “what can we learn from this?” Is hard work and growth rewarded in your organization, or does it take a clear win to be recognized?

Carol Dweck identifies these different perspectives as a fixed mindset (simply the way things are . . . he is smart, talented, a slacker etc.) or a growth mindset (skills/knowledge can be cultivated with passion, training, and perseverance). “Wins” are the source of validation for those with a fixed mindset. The bar is success or failure. If you are a fixed mindset leader you are more likely to go for the sure thing, the guaranteed success, the immediate win to “prove” your skill as a leader. Your team will follow suit, recognizing that experimenting or challenging what “is” is risky, and only sure things are rewarded.

Compare that perspective to a growth mindset leader, who sees setbacks as a motivator to work harder, believing that “failure” isn’t final but rather a chance to learn and develop on the way to a long-term goal. Growth mindset leaders need an innate sense of confidence because there is an impatient pressure in our instant-everything world for immediate success, guaranteed results, and continuous wins. If you always have to succeed, the chances of trying something new — something important, but where you don’t yet have all the answers — decrease dramatically.

Everyone has a mix of both growth and fixed mindsets, and one may appear more prominent in certain areas of our lives — i.e. I am terrible at sports (fixed mindset) but I can develop my strategic abilities (growth mindset). As a leader, however, if you want to develop your people and achieve stretch goals, cultivating and rewarding learning and development — a growth mindset — offers the best chance of long-term success.

As you look toward a new year I wish you leadership success, yes, but also enough bumps in the road to keep you striving, and stretching toward the very best for your organization. Here’s hoping 2018 will be a year of growth.

Putting Logic in a Box

Wooden box on the dark stone tableSometimes, you have to put logic in a box.

Those I work with have heard me say this on many an occasion. Whether it is an externally imposed bureaucratic rule that makes no sense from a practical standpoint or a crazy-sounding idea about how an organization can dramatically increase its impact, there are times when relying on a logical assessment only leads to frustration and/or limits forward progress.

If it is an illogical externally imposed rule, trying to use logic to explain it to others is akin to one of those wind-up toys that continue to run into the wall again and again and again. Is that really the best use of your energy? As long as the rule is simply illogical and frustrating, (i.e. not irreparably harmful) then the best course of action may be to simply to acknowledge to your staff, “You’re right. It makes no sense from where we are sitting. And it is a step we have to take to accomplish our ultimate goal.” And then move on. Sure, you can try to change the external regulation if you are compelled to do so. You simply need to ask if that is the best use of your time or that of one of your staff members. Sometimes the answer will be yes. But if the answer is no, then quit banging into the wall. Put logic in a box, pivot right or left and move on.

Then there are those crazy-sounding ideas. Love those. The problem with logic in these situations is that imposing it too early and too rigidly in the process is like throwing a bucket of cold water on kindling that is just starting to take off. You can logically plan your way to incremental improvements. Breakthrough ideas are the result of aspirational (one might even say illogical) goals and the messy process of trial and error, the what-ifs and what-abouts, the rabbit trails and side roads. Please don’t hear me say that logic does not have a role to play in such efforts. It is critical that any aspirational strategy ultimately pass the logic test . . . but crazy ideas will never have the chance to if you don’t put logic in a box at the outset.

Managing that creative tension — the paradox between experimentation and performance, improvisation, and structure, between possibility and logic — is the job of the leader. Because most leaders are wired, and rewarded, for results, sometimes the best way to make sure we don’t settle for less than we could achieve is to, at least for a bit, put logic in a box.

A Servant and a Debtor

Card you envelope thank nobody copy paperAccording to Max DePree, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

Most leaders understand that part of their job is to define reality for their organizations and, at least as we approach Thanksgiving, will pause to say thanks to their staff. However, many of us in positions of leadership would do well to consider how we could redouble our efforts in the middle — by focusing on being a servant and a debtor in our organizations.

If the first thought that popped into your head after reading that last sentence was that you are too busy for all that warm and fuzzy stuff . . . that it might sound good but you need to make sure there is a clear return on investment for your efforts . . . I would simply point out that you might be surprised at how small actions on your part can have a significant impact on the culture of your organization, and its ultimate success. What exactly do I mean by small actions?

Ask your people for their opinion, and then really listen to what they have to say. So often as leaders, we listen to respond, to make a case for our position, rather than to hear what our people are thinking. You might be surprised at what you learn when you listen to hear. As an added bonus, your staff can tell the difference, and they feel valued when you truly seek their opinion.

Make it your priority to help your staff, rather than just expecting them to help you. When you help your staff — whether by removing barriers, helping them tackle a problem, or finding ways to make their job easier — you create reciprocal energy that ultimately moves the organization forward. Really . . . it is not all about you and your goals.

Take a few minutes each day —not just at Thanksgiving — to say thanks. It won’t take a lot of time, I promise. Noticing and acknowledging a person’s effort virtually guarantees you will see more of that behavior. Even better, take two minutes and send a hand-written note. Such simple yet uncommon actions leave a lasting impression. (Ever saved a note that you received?)

Those suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Help clean up after an event . . . call or text someone to let them know you have their back . . . laugh with people . . . model organizational values . . . you get the idea. Long term, your people probably won’t remember this quarter’s goals. They will remember how you supported their efforts . . . as a debtor and a servant. And you will have even more reasons to give thanks.

Paint Swatches

Paint ChipsI can view a paint swatch and have a pretty good idea of what it will look like in a room. My husband is somewhat baffled by how I can look at a 2 inch square of color and know if it will work in a 12 x 14-foot space. Practice . . . lots of practice. Oh, maybe not always with paint, but isn’t that what we leaders do every time we consider a new opportunity?

Most opportunities don’t come to us fully formed. Rather we notice possibilities, like little squares of color, and it is up to a leader to extrapolate what the opportunities could look like if they were to be expanded to a larger scale. Unfortunately, some people in positions of leadership struggle to know what that spark of color can look like when it is infused throughout the organization, so they simply spin their wheels and expend their energy going back and forth between several options but never actually making a decision. Others will dip their toes in and buy a little bit of several colors to try on the wall. This is helpful for some leaders, but for others dabbling in multiple possibilities, it only confuses the matter more.

The only way to maximize an opportunity is to get it on the wall . . . to make a choice and start painting. For those who still struggle to decide which color will give the best overall result, I have a few pointers.

  • Know what you’re going for. Why are you looking at paint swatches in the first place? Is your current space too monotone and you’re looking for a bit diversification, are things getting a bit dated and you want to respond to emerging trends, do you need to perk up or calm down the environment? Maybe you just like to be on the leading edge of the next big thing. Always know the intent of the effort.
  • Consider the furnishings in the room. If you view an opportunity in isolation, the “color” may look good by itself but may clash with everything else in the room. A great idea that detracts from all the things that are currently working in your organization really isn’t such a great idea, no matter how cool the color chip may look by itself.
  • Make a decision. Thinking about a new color, considering the nuances of one shade over another is all well and good . . . but if you want something to change, ultimately you have to make a decision and start painting. It is only paint. You can change the color down the road if you need to, but in all my years, I have never seen a wall spontaneously paint itself. The leader has to decide and then act.

There are a rainbow of opportunities before every organization. Pick a swatch and start painting.

Get Out of the Way

No More ConceptSometimes as a leader, we create barriers to our own progress, and if we — and our organizations — are to maximize our potential, we first need to get out of our own way. Yes, I’m sure that you can easily think of a leader whose confidence appears to outpace his or her ability. Let’s just work with the assumption that those individuals are not likely to invest time in reading this leadership blog . . . and so for those who are reading, it seems quite plausible that you may at times underestimate your unique capabilities. Still unconvinced? Ask yourself . . .

  • Have you ever gone to a conference session and thought I (or my people) know all that and more/have more hands-on experience/could do that in my/our sleep?

 

  • Have you ever become aware of an organization that implemented a program you had considered but never acted on, that is being lauded as “ground-breaking”?

 

  • Have you ever believed a course of action could be really impactful, but after a few “no’s” you convinced yourself it would never happen?

 

  • Have you ever read a book or article that articulates something you have known for years but thought it sounded too simplistic so you never shared it?

 

  • Have you ever ignored what your gut was telling you because some “expert” recommended you move in another direction?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then chances are that you are selling yourself and your organization short, and you might want to consider getting out of your own way.

I am not suggesting you should adopt a self-congratulatory style or take on undue risk. I am suggesting you strive for what Jim Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership — personal humility coupled with professional will. Many leaders have one or the other. If you are heavy on the humility side (in many ways an admirable trait), that may at times keep you from shining a light on your organization’s unique capabilities and expertise. In other cases, there may be a tendency to think that others know what you know (not true) or assume that because something seems basic/logical/self-evident to you that others recognize it as well (also not true). If any of these things have a ring of truth to you, maybe it’s time to get out of your own way.

How? Start small. Share what you are thinking. It doesn’t have to be complex or perfect or groundbreaking (although it might be). Don’t try to be all things to all people. Get clear on your vision and then go all in — as only you can. Don’t let the fear of standing out, or being criticized hold you back. Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to our organization reaching its full potential is closer than we realize.

Get out of the way.