Days Like This

CalenderThere will be days like this.

Your schedule was booked to the brim with meetings . . . on top of the project that had to be completed by the end of the day . . . and that was before three other things popped up that required your attention. It feels like distractions are undermining your ability to do your job. Except, if you’re a leader, the distractions are your job. What is being undermined is your well- laid plan that tied all of your leadership goals into a nice neat package.

More often than not, leadership doesn’t happen in a predictable, orderly fashion. It happens in the mess of drive-by comments, unexpected challenges and surprising opportunities. Sure, the planned things still have to happen, but if your goal is to eliminate distractions from your schedule you are going to be one frustrated leader. Embrace the unpredictability. Allow yourself to find the joy and potential in the unexpected. If you are too busy stressing over the fact that your plans have been derailed, you might totally miss the chance to have a significant impact on an individual or situation.

On days like this, your attitude can make all the difference. Will you focus on what didn’t get done or the people you were able to help? Will you let the interruptions ruin your day or find a way for them to add to it? You have the choice. You’re the leader. What kind of example will you set for those who look to you for how to handle life’s unexpected twists and turns?

What if, on days like this, you made a conscious decision to look on each distraction as an opportunity . . . to view the unexpected occurrence through the lens of possibility? At the very least, it will make the day less frustrating, and at best it can lead to a path far beyond what you might have achieved had you stuck with your original plan.

You may not always get to choose how your day unfolds, but do you do get to choose your perspective. Sometimes the greatest leadership opportunities start out as days like this.

Loosen the Reins

Riding a horse on a rural road. View from the horseIn the many years, I have watched my son work with horses, I have often heard him advise young riders to “loosen up on the reins,” to “give the horse his head.” For some young riders, there is the sense that the best way to maintain control of the horse is to hold the reins tight. While that may be appropriate in some situations, most of the time you will get a better result if you allow a bit of slack in the line — still hanging on, still guiding progress, but also allowing enough freedom for the horse to perform at its peak.

Too often, leaders seem to approach their task like that young rider. Keep the lines tight. No looking around, no veering off the straight line of some pre-determined course. Unfortunately, in the same way, a horse will toss its head and fight against reins that are held too tightly, a team or organization will push back against being unnecessarily constrained and thus unable to move forward most effectively.

The authors of Collective Genius put it this way: “The lesson for those hoping to lead innovation is clear. If you want to produce something truly new and useful, you cannot know — by definition — exactly where to go. That’s why leading innovation is not — cannot be — about being visionary.” Now I recognize that for some leaders, not knowing exactly where to go feels a bit like allowing slack in the reins while sitting on top of a 1,000-pound animal — scary, and not very safe. And it is your job to be visionary . . . right?!?

It is a leader’s job to achieve maximum long-term impact. Yes, that means providing direction and keeping our hands on the reins, but heaven help us if we as leaders are expected to have all the good ideas! If we hold the lines too tightly, we don’t allow the unique wisdom of individuals on our team to benefit the organization. Just as a horse will adjust course to avoid a hazard the person holding the reins might not see, we need our teams to have the latitude to bring their instincts, insight, and best thinking to the task at hand.

A leader should provide a clear destination and basic ground rules, and yet keep a light grip on the specific path forward. Yes, there will occasionally be missteps and things will need to be pulled back in a bit. That task is much easier if you haven’t made a habit of tugging on your people unnecessarily. Counter-intuitive as it may be, sometimes the best way to accomplish your goals is to take a deep breath and loosen the reins.

Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.

Gold Medal Leadership

bigstock--Gold MedalLike so many throughout the world, I have been watching the Winter Olympics and having discussions with my family about the kind of dedication it takes to spend your life working toward a goal that is dependent on a single performance. If you come up short, you have to wait four years for another shot at the prize. Upset stomach, headache, annoyance over some situation, nerves out of control … doesn’t matter … one shot … one chance to bring your very best (well okay, maybe you get three runs in some sports, but still only one day to make your mark.) If your leadership was judged based on your performance on a single day, would you approach the effort differently?

If the leadership gold medal was on the line, would you …

  • Bring your full focus to the task at hand, ignoring the ping of emails, thoughts of looming deadlines, conversations going on around you, or other random distractions?
  • Take extra care in monitoring the external conditions and making adjustments as necessary?
  • Replay the ultimate goal in your head so specifically that you know exactly what success looks and feels like?
  • Step forward boldly, confident in your abilities and your preparation for this moment?

Of course, the only way to make sure that you could do all of those things under pressure — at the moment of truth — is to practice them . . . day in and day out . . . until they become second nature. Sure, there will be days when you fall flat on your face, when you misjudge the environment around you, and when you get distracted from your goal. So you practice some more, improve your skills, and stretch for the next goal. Even gold medalists who continue to compete practice on a daily basis. They don’t get to sit on their laurels just because they had great success on a particular day — the gold medal performance from the last Olympics may not be enough to come out on top today because the bar is continually being raised.

Leadership is not a static skill that you either have or don’t have. It is a continual, competitive journey, and you never know which day is the day that you will be called to go for the gold on behalf of your organization. Of course practice, commitment, and hard work are no guarantee that you will achieve every goal, but without them, it is a pretty safe bet that you and your organization will come up short when you have the opportunity to go for the gold.

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 Three

2683_5078_largeIn the past two weeks, we have looked at the “what” and “where” of your leadership vision. In this final installment of “New Eyes for a New Year” it’s time to do a quick screening of the “how” of your vision. Consider it your depth-perception test . . . you know, that part of your eye exam where you look through 3-D glasses and identify which part of the picture stands out the most . . .

 

Your “depth perception” as a leader determines how you see what lies before you. Our biases, experiences and predispositions can make some aspects of the landscape stand out more than others. That is why two people can look at the same situation/challenge/opportunity and see very different things. Do you focus on definitive black and white observations, or shades of gray? Are you looking for similarities to build on or differences to distinguish? Do you expect to see a specific outcome, or are you open to being surprised?

Perhaps most importantly, do you believe/consider valid/judge as reasonable only what you “see” through your own unique perspective, or are you open to considering someone else’s point of view . . . to see the landscape before you with new eyes? Yes, as the leader, it is ultimately your responsibility to cast the vision and set the direction. The question is, do you want to make that decision based only on your own depth perception, or would your organization be better served by you viewing the situation based on the input from a range of people who might see things a bit differently? People who see the big picture and those who focus on the small details. People who strive to make good things happen and those committed to keeping bad things from happening. And yes, even that “disrupter” who can always be counted on see the world a bit differently than everyone else on your staff. In effect . . . would you rather make a decision based on a single piece of information (your own personal depth perception), or on a full range of data that a variety of perspectives can provide?

What you see as “real” in any particular situation may be based, at least in part, on your own depth perception. If you want to see the opportunities before you with new eyes in the New Year, how you go about doing that can make all the difference. Maybe it’s time to take out the 3-D glasses and check your focus.

 

Photo credit: Bernell Corporation

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.

New Eyes for a New Year

phoropterAs I write this, I am just returning from the optometrist. Each year I get my eyes checked during the first week of January — you know, start the New Year by making sure I am seeing clearly. And I have found that you often don’t realize how much your eyes have changed until you have the chance to look through a new lens. If you are a leader, the start of a new year is also a great time to check your vision . . . related to your organization. Are you seeing things clearly, or would a different lens give you an entirely different view? Consider the next few weeks of this blog your leadership “vision test” to help determine how clearly you are seeing the potential for your organization to increase its impact.

The first assessment in your vision test is for you to answer the question of “What business are we in?” That might seem like a silly question, but how you answer it can create a filter that either lets new ideas pass through, or screens them out like UV rays bouncing off a pair of sunglasses. For example, if you are in the train business, there is a tendency to screen out (often without consciously recognizing it) information that does not relate to trains. You will see opportunities and threats to the way you do business coming from other train companies, and those variables that impact rail transit. If, on the other hand, you see yourself as being in the transportation business . . . well, let’s just say the view is a little different.

According to Constantinos Markides, there are three different approaches to answering the question of “What business are we in.” You can define your business according to 1) the product or service you are selling; 2) the customer function you are trying to fulfill, or 3) your portfolio of core competencies. No one approach is right or wrong, but each is likely to impact what you see as opportunities going forward.

A “movie company” is going to work to perfect the craft of making movies. An entertainment and information company (as Disney defines itself) is going to consider a wider range of business opportunities . . . for example theme parks. One may go deep, the other wide. Think of it as near-sighted or far-sighted — you need a different lens depending on which is the best fit for your organization.

What business are you in? Would all the members of your leadership team come up with the same answer? If you are not sure, perhaps you need to test out several lenses — or as my optometrist would say, “Which is clearer . . . 1 or 2 . . . 3 or 4? The answer to that question is the first step in viewing the New Year with new eyes.

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.