Seeing It First

Businessman with binoculars spying on competitors.As leaders, we have the rare privilege and responsibility of peering through the fog to view the destination ahead. We have to see it first, and then help our teams embrace the path if we are to have maximum impact for our organizations. Of course, the way forward is rarely clearly marked or smoothly paved — if it were, there would be no need for a leader! How, then, does one go about clearly seeing the destination so you can bring it into focus for your team?

  • You won’t find your path by looking behind you. It is good to understand where you have been, and how that experience has shaped your team’s skills and potential. However, once you have identified these things, looking harder at the past does nothing to illuminate the way forward.
  • Use your mission as a compass. There is so much noise out there today, telling you that you “have to” go one way or another . . . here is the easy path . . . this route has the surest funding . . . “everyone” is going this way . . . Listen to what others are saying, but check your compass before you choose a trail.
  • Robert Frost had it right. Sometimes taking the road less traveled can make all the difference in extending your mission reach. There is some degree of risk in virtually every decision. If you understand your team’s unique gifts and graces, and you are clear on your mission, what may look like a risky option to others may actually be the most calculated and reasonable path forward.
  • Look up! You can’t see the mountaintop by looking at your feet. There is a time for checking your footing, but that time is not when you want to bring the destination into focus. You can be standing in one spot and see two totally different things depending on which direction you are looking. Look up.
  • Describe it, in detail. A leader can often see things from his or her vantage point that are not obvious to those on the front lines. It is our job, once we see the destination, to describe it in such a clear and compelling way that our staff members can see it too and are excited to make the trip with us.

Regardless of how foggy it may seem, an opportunity is out there. Before an organization can rally its efforts toward reaching the destination, however, a leader has to see it first.

Embrace The Cold

Woman with big mug of hot drink during cold day.

I was recently talking to a friend about the fact that one of my sons will be working in Rochester, MN for a second summer and how much he likes the community, and then I added, “of course he hasn’t been there in the winter.” My friend replied that the difference is, in Rochester, they embrace the cold. It’s true . . . in looking at promotional materials for the city, it is almost as if they eagerly anticipate winter for all activities that are unique to that time of year. Huh . . . interesting concept . . . instead of bemoaning their circumstances, which they really can’t change anyway, they embrace the opportunities available to them as a result.

A lot of us could learn a lesson to two from our friends in Rochester, and I’m sure many other northern cities. If you can’t change it, sometimes your best option is to embrace the cold. Think about it, does all the bemoaning of your unfortunate circumstances, the fanaticizing about a preferred situation, really make you feel any better? In my experience, if anything, this type of wallowing only makes you feel worse. And if you’re a leader, aren’t you charged with finding a path out of difficult situations? You may have a lot of company if you choose to burrow in and bellyache, but your job isn’t to rally the troops with another chorus of “ain’t it awful,” your job is to lead.

When you make a choice to embrace the cold, to look for the opportunities in the current circumstances, it’s a bit like putting on sunglasses to cut the blinding glare of the snow. Suddenly, you are able to see things you otherwise would have missed. Maybe you have the opportunity to collaborate in ways that would not happen in different circumstances. Or perhaps there is now an openness to totally reimagine a program or service, which wouldn’t have been pursued in warmer times. You know, the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters, one means danger and the other means opportunity. Pull in, or reach out — the “crisis” of a winter chill offers both options.

Cold weather is when we need leaders the most. Our followers are more easily motivated on warm sunny days, but when the temperature drops, it is our job to help them see the possibilities in skiing and sledding, the beauty in snow-covered vistas . . . and of course hot chocolate! Would anyone even have invented hot chocolate without a bit of a chill in the air? Your team is looking to you to see if they should hunker down or put on their parka and venture out.

My advice? Bundle up, grab a thermos of hot chocolate, and embrace the cold!

–This post was originally published in February of 2016.

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.

New Eyes for a New Year — Part Two

Snellen Eye Chart Test Box in front of brick wall. 3d RenderingLast week, we started the “New Eyes for a New Year” leadership vision test by assessing what business you are in — which impacts how you and your team see the world. Once you have clarity on the “what,” the next logical question is “where.” Where are you and your team headed in the coming year? This is an area where I think, for many leaders and their teams, the vision remains a bit fuzzy. Oh, we all think we can clearly see where we are going . . . that is until it is time to really read the letters on the wall.

For example . . . imagine you and your team are sitting on a mountaintop in Colorado discussing your vision. For a host of thoroughly researched reasons, after listening to the industry “experts” and looking closely at the landscape throughout the country, you determine that Illinois is the destination you are working toward. Ummm . . . okay . . . would that be Chicago (third largest city in the US), Loraine (a town of 300 on the Western border of the state) or Marion (the southern-most town with a chain hotel)? Because while “Illinois” might seem like a specific enough target to keep your organization moving in the same direction, without a clearer vision your team might ultimately be moving in different directions. Your people are all in Illinois, yes, but that “clear vision” is a state that is 390 miles long and 210 miles wide so the ultimate destination could take many forms.

Translate that example to your organization. Is your vision for the future specific enough that your organization will remain aligned in its efforts throughout the journey? Is your focus clear enough that everyone sees the same fine print at the bottom of the chart? Yes, you want to maintain enough flexibility to respond to emerging information. That is different from part of your team working their hardest to move in one direction, which is slightly different than other team members understood the direction to be and so, in fact, your team ends up pulling the organization in multiple directions.

How do you fix that type of “fuzzy vision?” Quit using the biggest letter at the top of the chart — the broadest possible vision — to guide your action. To check your sight, the Optometrist starts by asking you to identify the smallest letters you can see clearly at the bottom of the chart. Thinking your organization has a clear vision if everyone can identify the big E at the top of the chart is the same as telling your people to go to Illinois and thinking they will all end up at the same spot.

Want new eyes for a new year? Sometimes it takes a stronger, clearer lens to see the fine print.

Shades of Gray

White Painted Textured Background With Brush StrokesIt seems far too common these days to find headlines that reflect an apparent lack of ethics in leadership. How does this happen? What has led to what some might consider to be an ethics crisis among leaders? Is it power? . . . ego? . . . a lack of morals? Undoubtedly in some cases, it is one or all of these things. In other cases, however, the issue is not so black and white.

Choices between right and wrong are fairly easy. It’s making choices between two “right” answers that gets a bit trickier . . . where each possible choice reflects a core value of the organization, and a decision has to be made regarding which value should take precedence in a given situation. Suddenly, a leader may be faced with a whole lot of gray.

Should decisions be made in the best interest of . . .

. . . the individual or the organization?

. . . short-term or long-term impact?

. . . responsibility or loyalty?

. . . duty, rights, virtue or relationships?

It all depends on where you are standing, the perspective you choose, as you weigh the options.

When external rules or expectations would direct an organization to take a course of action that would not be in the best interest of a specific individual, what is an organization to do? Look out for the individual and risk some degree of sanction for the organization? Perhaps . . . if you used an individual lens. What if such sanction would impact the organization’s ability to serve other individuals in the future, would that change the decision? Does the degree of harm — to the individual or the organization — factor into the decision? So many shades of gray.

Leaders have to deal, often on a daily basis, with the messy reality of competing demands, pressures, expectations and values. Courses of action that may seem clear in hindsight are often mired in a gray fog at the point a leader must choose a path forward. That is simply the reality of leadership. So how does one make the “best” ethical decision?

  • Clearly articulate organizational values and the predominant perspective the organization will use to guide decision-making. For example, “we will act in ways that sustain the organization for the long term.”
  • Engage in transparent dialog to gain a variety of perspectives. At times, a leader may not even recognize there could be other perspectives to consider. Voicing the dilemma, encouraging feedback, and discussing options can help clarify the path forward.
  • Step back from the issue at hand. When you look at any decision too narrowly it can keep you from considering the full implications of a decision. Ethics can be a slippery slope when you look at individual decisions in isolation.

Know your values and priorities, openly discuss the tough decisions, and look at the big picture. The answer still may not be black and white, but taking these steps can help a leader reduce the shades of gray.

Explore!

Traveler Exploring Map With Compass In Sunny Forest In The MountPerhaps one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to think they have the answers . . . that they are experts . . . because then they quit trying to figure out what they don’t know. That is when leaders get blindsided by the “unknown unknowns”  — unexpected developments that never occurred to the leader, and that can totally change an organization’s reality. Basically, to quote a wise colleague, “Once you think you’re an expert, you’re sunk.”

If you are in a position of leadership, there will be plenty of people who will treat you as if you are an expert. They will ask your opinion, turn to you for solutions, and move forward based on what you tell them. In a situation like this, it is easy to start believing that your job is to provide the answers. It’s not. Your job is to ask the right questions . . . to be an explorer, not an expert.

Explorers seek out the unknown, forge new paths, find new connections, and ask “what if” and “why not.” Experts were convinced the world was flat and so quit looking for other possibilities.

Explorers can certainly have expertise — they just recognize that it is something they have, not someone they are. Explorers use what they know as stepping-stones. Their experience is a gateway to new discoveries, not a box to live in. When you are an expert, new information can challenge your credibility. When you are an explorer, new information is simply another piece of the puzzle.

If the expert chair suddenly feels a bit confining, how does one become an explorer? For starters, get out of the chair and try the following:

  • Identify your organization’s assumptions and reframe them as one possible reality — then look for others.
  • Ask staff throughout the organization what you should be thinking about.
  • Talk to a range of people outside your industry, listen to what they are thinking about, and consider how those ideas translate to your organization.
  • Think bigger than is reasonable. (i.e., ask someone to name something that is not possible, but would be really cool if it was — that kind of bigger).
  • Ask open-ended questions with no pre-conceived notions of the answer.
  • Don’t answer/respond/qualify. Just listen, reflect, inquire, and listen some more.
  • Repeat.

Finally, remember, exploration is a continuous journey. It is not a destination, which once attained provides a comfortable perch from which to dispense expert wisdom. It has ever-changing terrain and new vistas around each bend. It’s about discovery and insight, and yes sometimes stumbling or veering a bit off course. And it’s the only way to get from what we know today to what is possible tomorrow.

The world has plenty of experts. Be an explorer.

Drink Up!

Water splash poured into a glass, blue background, refreshing, fLast week, I had the opportunity to spend two days absorbing nuggets of leadership wisdom from top experts at the Global Leadership Summit. Simulcast to hundreds of sites throughout the world, this annual showcase of leadership thought leaders provided a fire hose of insight and encouragement for the leaders in attendance. One fellow attendee, who follows this blog, commented that she couldn’t wait to see what I wrote about this week. Clearly, there was much rich content to chose from, but my biggest take away was not what any one speaker said, but what I felt during the event.

I felt thirsty. Well, actually, I didn’t realize I was thirsty until I started to drink in the suggestions, support and insight offered by those who took the stage. It’s not that I, and probably many of you, don’t have a full awareness of the need to drink in new knowledge and refresh one’s thinking. It’s just that we are so busy with the day-to-day tasks of leadership — of supporting others, striving toward important goals, and positioning our organizations to respond to the challenges before us — that it is easy for leaders to unwittingly go extended periods without replenishing themselves, and building up their reserves.

So how do leaders make sure that they stay “well hydrated” in terms of their own growth and development?

First and foremost, they need to give themselves permission. This sounds simple, but many leaders are wired to meet the needs of others first — taking a “leaders eat last” perspective — and it feels less urgent and/or selfish to prioritize time for growth and reflection for themselves. It’s not. There’s a reason that airlines advise parents to put on their oxygen masks first

Secondly, it needs to be a regularly scheduled — and guarded — time on your calendar. It is one thing to pencil it in, but if you approach your own development as an optional appointment that can be bumped at the first sign of a conflicting demand, it simply won’t happen. You will always be too busy.

Also, it is important to shake things up from time to time. I do a lot of reading and reflection on leadership topics. It is less common for me to listen to podcasts or attend seminars. Perhaps that is why the summit was so impactful for me last week — it was like using a different muscle, and so the information stuck with me in a different way.

Finally, I think the answers we are searching for as leaders shift along with our circumstances. As Heraclitus noted, you never step in the same river twice. The opportunities and challenges before us change from day to day, and so we become thirsty in new and different ways. Thankfully, there are lots of ways that we as leaders can stay hydrated. We just have to recognize the importance of staying hydrated . . . and then drink up.

Two Corners

Curves Sign CroppedI had a colleague who was known for saying, “Leaders have to be able to see around two corners.” He was right, of course. Leaders are expected to anticipate what is coming around the bend and, more importantly, to have prepared their organizations for whatever they might encounter. Easier said than done, especially given that there are so many obstacles in front of you right now that can distract attention away from some unseen future risk or opportunity. But hey, if this leadership gig was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?!?

A starting point in developing the vision to see around two corners is to honestly look at how future-focused you are as a leader — not how future-focused you aspire to be, but what your actions actually indicate. Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, in their book “Getting Off the Treadmill: Competing for the Future” offer a rating scale to gauge your organization’s future focus. Think of each of these questions as a five-point continuum, and consider where you would rate your organization.

  • When considering the future, is your organization conventional and reactive or distinctive and far sighted?
  • Where do your senior leaders focus more of their attention, on reengineering core processes or regenerating core strategies?
  • Is your organization seen as a “rule taker” or a “rule maker”?
  • Are you better at improving operational efficiency or at developing new businesses?
  • How much of your effort focused on catching up with others versus building new advantages/opportunities?
  • Is your “transformation agenda” set by others or is it set by your organization’s own unique vision of the future?
  • Are you more of a maintenance engineer working on the present or an architect designing the future?
  • Within your organization, what is there a greater sense of anxiety or hope?

I’m not suggesting that no one in your organization should be focusing on the first item on each bullet above. But as a leader, if that is where you are spending the majority of your time you, and your organization, are likely to be caught off guard by whatever is lurking around the next corner, much less the second one.

The urgency of the here and now is always going to scream louder than the importance of the future. Also, there is a concreteness to tackling today’s problems. Considering the future is less definitive and may feel less productive, especially if you are a list-checker. All true. Yet, none of these things help you prepare for the future, and preparing for the future is your job as the leader. If you skew toward the here and now, how do you become more future focused? Pick one or two of the bullets above and identify specific steps you can take to move the dial toward the future. That may get you around the first corner. Pick a couple more. Push yourself. You never know what opportunity might be waiting . . . around the second corner.

Easy as Cake

bigstock--cake 159887675Many leaders talk about the need for innovation in their organizations, however, in far too many cases, true innovation seems elusive. In most instances, it is not a lack of desire or effort that that impedes results, but rather a lack of the right blend of organizational ingredients.

Think of it like baking a cake. You can get all the best ingredients, measured out in the right amounts and set them side-by-side (you have top quality HR, and quality assurance, and product development), but if that’s all you do, you will never have a cake. It is the mixing of ingredients, in specific amounts, . . . it’s the dicing, the blending, the baking . . . that yields a prize-winning cake.

In their book Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way your Company Innovates, Skarzynski and Gibson talk about innovation as “combinational chemistry.” In effect, innovation isn’t about a “new” idea so much as it is taking a group of existing ideas/concepts — maybe from totally different fields or experiences — and putting them together in unique ways to create an entirely new solution.

So, when an organization challenges its “creatives” with innovation but does not include task or systems-oriented colleagues, it’s a bit like leaving the baking powder out of a cake — the flavor may be there, but it will never rise to its potential. Or maybe you always expect your senior, most experienced, staff to have all the good ideas. You know, there are only so many ways to combine the same ingredients, and after a while, everything you make with them starts to taste the same.

It takes a range of ingredients to make the best cakes, but how often do we have a diverse enough set of perspectives, ways of thinking and experience bases (or lack thereof!) as part of the ingredient list? Do we let it bake long enough? (How many “half-baked” concepts have you thrown out, lacking the patience for the idea to fully develop?) It may seem risky to add a spice you have never used before, leave out a “key” ingredient, or to use a new technique that feels a bit awkward at first (flourless cake . . . how can that be?!?). If there is a challenge to be solved, however, someone will come up with an innovative response. The question is, will it be you?

Sure, you will have some flops along the way. And some of the attempts will yield unexpected and delicious results. The simple fact is, the more cakes you bake, the more comfortable you become experimenting and trying unique combinations. First-time innovators will probably be most comfortable following a recipe. That’s fine, there are plenty out there. With practice, however, you will learn how to combine things in such a way to yield an entirely new creation. And that, my friend, is when you get to have your cake . . . and eat it too!

“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?