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.

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.

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.

Chocolate Covered Cherries

Three Cordial CherriesMy Grandma Duncan loved chocolate covered cherries. To say I did not would be a sizeable understatement. Every holiday, as she opened the dreaded candy box and urged me to have one, I just knew that ball of syrupy sweetness was going to get bigger and bigger in my mouth as I chewed, threatening to totally gag me. Looking back, I’m fairly certain the fretting beforehand was much worse than the candies (although my throat still tightens at the mere mention of them). Call it the “chocolate covered cherry effect” . . . the anticipation — and angst — of a looming challenge has caused many a leader to choke.

We’ve all been there. Expert predictions/trends/new rules foretell of significant disruptions to the way your organization functions . . . and stewing about the looming shadow of uncertainty only causes it to grow in your mind. Chocolate covered cherry effect. The more you chew on it, the bigger it becomes.

Certainly, you should identify and carefully consider the challenges before you. The key is how you approach it. The chocolate covered cherry effect happens when you get stuck on what the challenge is going to do to you. A much more effective, and energizing, leadership strategy is to identify what you will do to move past the challenge, and maximize the resulting opportunities.

The thing you focus on grows. Do you want to focus on the challenge — the chocolate covered cherry — or do you want to focus on what you can accomplish when you move past it? A few tips for those interested keeping their challenges in perspective:

1) Thoughtfully consider the challenge, gather input from multiple viewpoints, and then make a decision. You will rarely have all the information you would like. Get enough and then decide. The longer you chew on it, the bigger the challenge feels.

2) Remember, you know how to do this. I have eaten a number of chocolate covered cherries in my life, and none of them killed me. You have faced, and conquered, challenges before. Recognize that you have the skills to move through it.

3) Take it a bite at a time. Part of what can make challenges seem so overwhelming is that you often can’t see how you’ll get all the way through at the outset. That’s okay. Start eating away at the challenge. The path will become clearer as you go.

4) It’s worth the effort. In the grand scheme of things, the chocolate covered cherries were a small price to pay compared to the joys of holidays with my grandparents. I would have missed so much if I couldn’t see past that challenge to possibilities that came with it.

The thing you focus on grows. And I certainly don’t want that to be the chocolate covered cherries. What about you?

Side Roads

Winter road into forestAhhh, best laid plans. They really are amazing, aren’t they? Such a shame that they rarely work out the way we intend. And when that happens (because it will happen . . . maybe not every time, but it will happen), the leader’s response reverberates throughout the entire organization. Do you slam on the brakes and wring your hands over the roadblocks before you, or do you merely take your foot off the accelerator long enough to find the nearest side road to get you where you’re going?

It all depends on whether your focus is on the route or on the destination. Theoretically, it is easy to say we need to focus on the destination, but oh how we love our routes. The plans that we spend months creating, convincing ourselves that we have considered every option and have selected the best course. We have developed the metrics, the timelines, the budget, and even a few scenic overlooks along the way. With so much investment in the route, it seems foolhardy to abandon all that effort, even if you encounter a few red flags or flashing signs along the way . . . right?

I have two words for you. Side roads. I’m not saying you shouldn’t identify a route up front. Fast and easy is always lovely if you can make it work. I am saying that you also have to remain nimble enough to shift gears and take some gravel roads if that’s what it takes to reach your destination. Sure you may have to take a few deep breaths, you can even have a momentary pity party for the demise of your beautiful pre-planned route, but then you need to scan the horizon, consider alternate paths to reach the end goal and then pick one and go.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Side roads can be filled with hidden gems and opportunities. They may even turn out to be a shorter and faster than the well-paved road you originally identified. Side roads are easy to miss you unless you’re looking for them, but if you listen to your people, it is likely one of them has an idea of where they are located. However, they are only going to speak up if they know that the route truly is secondary to the destination . . . when they know that changing course isn’t seen as “failure” but rather doing what it takes to get the job done. Do your people know that?

I like a good plan as much as (and at times maybe even more than) the average leader, but I’ve also driven enough miles to know that sometimes the side road is the best path of all. So the next time your best laid plan is going up in smoke, take a deep breath and a hard look at where you’re trying to get to . . . and then I’ll see you on the side road.

Focusing in on the New Year


Photo Credit:

Jack Palance (as Curly in City Slickers) knew it. There are multiple best selling books that promote it. A jewelry entrepreneur has made sure you can wear it. Devotionals and guides for spiritual growth are built around it. What is it? That’s for you to decide. It could be lots of things. To have maximum impact, however, you have to choose. One word . . . one focus . . . one “thing.”

That might sound easy enough, but it is actually really, really hard. We live in a world with hundreds of channels, thousands of social media friends, untold experts telling you to go in every imaginable direction. We have come to expect our lives will offer an instantaneous smorgasbord of options and opportunities . . . and it often does. It’s exhausting. When we are constantly scanning the horizon, moving in this direction and then that to make sure we don’t miss anything . . . when our attention is spread a mile wide and an inch deep . . . it doesn’t take much of a gust of wind to knock us off balance. How will your staff know if they are moving in the right direction when they see you moving in three or four? After all, as Lewis Carroll noted, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Identifying your, or your organization’s, one thing is not something that should be taken lightly. It will mean saying no to things that other people, experts even, think you should pursue. It will shape your decisions and actions in ways that may not make sense to others. I’ll let you in on a little secret . . . that’s okay! It’s your thing, not theirs. And when you settle in on your one thing, amazing things start to happen. For organizations, it can be incredibly energizing. People get excited when they know where they are headed . . . clearly, succinctly, not in a 47 page document but in a single phrase. And when your staff know where they are going, they can help you identify additional ways to get there. Rather than limiting your options, when you focus on one thing you just might be amazed at the opportunities that present themselves.

As you look toward a new year, do you (and your people!) know where your organization is headed? I’m not talking about specific projects. I mean strategically . . . culturally . . . down into the DNA of your organization. Yeah, there. Fundamentally, at your core, do you have a clear path? Do you know your focus, your one thing? If you don’t, it’s a sure bet no one else in your organization does either. Find it, and . . . well, to paraphrase Curly, “you stick to that, and the rest doesn’t mean a thing.” Happy New Year!

A Method to the Mess

Messy Desk

My desk is a mess. I don’t mean at this moment in time, I’m making a general statement. My desk is a mess 90+% of the time. I have quit apologizing for the way it looks because frankly, after all these years, it seems unlikely that I’m going to change my way of functioning. While many areas of my life are neat and tidy, I think my desk is probably a reflection of how my brain works best — nestled between fluid piles of information that I can adapt and respond to at a moment’s notice. You’d be amazed at the opportunities for innovation that surround me every day as I sit at my desk . . .

Because here’s the thing . . . innovation is messy . . . and I happen to believe that fostering a culture of innovation is part of a leader’s job. Think about it. No matter how many detailed, well-thought-out plans you may put together related to a new opportunity (and we put together a lot!), it’s never going to go exactly as you planned. Even the military — which I consider to be very planful and orderly — has something known as “commander’s intent” to let personnel know what success looks like, so when things don’t go as planned they can find alternate routes to achieve the end goal. Commander’s intent is a clear acknowledgement that things get messy, and leaders need to have a comfort level maneuvering through unexpected detours and roadblocks if they hope to have a successful outcome.

Admittedly, every organization beyond a small start-up also needs individuals who ensure that systems and processes are implemented . . . there a many people in our organization with desktops that don’t have a paper clip out of place. I value and admire these people, I just don’t happen to be one of them. My assistant is, bless her soul, which frees me to build a culture of innovation with the confidence that our infrastructure remains solid.

Maybe you can be a role model for the messiness of exploring unique possibilities and still have a pristine desktop. Good for you! (You were probably one of those kids who could pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time, too.) My point is, the nice neat rules and processes that got us to this point are not likely to spur the breakthrough thinking that will be needed to prepare for and respond to a totally new set of variables. And as a leader, part of your job is to create an environment where it is safe to try new things, change course, and if necessary start again to reach the desired end goal.

One final point for the tidy types out there . . . a messy desk is not necessarily the same as a disorganized one. You would be amazed at how quickly I can find a specific document buried in one of my piles. I can often get my hands on it more quickly than if it was neatly filed away. In the same way, while you’re in the midst of it, innovation may sometimes look like a bunch of disconnected piles of activity. It’s only when you take the long view that you realize, there really was a method to the mess.

It’s not about the Roar

Lion roaring, sitting, Panthera Leo, 10 years old, isolated on whiteI have a plaque hanging over my desk that reads, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quite voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’. “

I have lost count of the number of times that sentiment has given me comfort at the end of a particularly challenging day. Sometimes, leadership is about two steps forward and one step back. It’s about continuing to push on the fly-wheel, even when you don’t see any progress, because you know it is cumulative efforts that get things rolling. It’s about persisting in putting one foot in front of the other, even when the path is covered in fog. Courageous is not usually the word we think of to describe ourselves in such situations, but maybe it should be ….

How many opportunities are lost because we don’t have the perseverance, the courage, to push on through the difficulties, setbacks and disappointments? Or the courage to step out into the unknown, even though such a move could advance your mission? How many times is it dogged (courageous) determination, rather than singular pronouncements, the make the difference in achieving the win.

In some respects, roaring courage is “easier”. That courage we call on at a moment of crisis, or when we draw a line in the sand. Those moments when we have to act — when people look to us to roar — do take courage, but in many cases, the situation is forcing our hand. Not so with quiet courage. Quiet courage is about making the hard decisions even when it is likely that no one will notice. Quiet courage is about continuing through the challenges in your pursuit of a goal because it is too important to stop short. Quiet courage comes from that small, still voice inside that won’t settle for less.

Most leaders will have to display roaring courage from time to time, but it is episodic. You make a roaringly courageous decision, and then do your best to get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Quiet courage is more of a characteristic, it’s how you approach your leadership responsibilities — or at least try to — day in and day out.

Quiet courage may be overlooked or mislabeled, but make no mistake, it is courage …

… After all, it’s not about the roar.

Dual Exhausts Increase Performance

Exhaust PipeIt’s true, they really do (just ask my son the car nut), but I’m not talking about cars here. The same concept works for organizations, too. Let me give you a bit of context . . .

When it comes to leadership development, John Kotter is one of a small handful of authors I consistently recommend because he is able to distill the fundamentals of leadership, management and organizational change down to very digestible concepts.  I was recently reading an article he wrote for the Leader to Leader Journal entitled “Capturing the Opportunities and Avoiding the Threats of Rapid Change.” It was one of those head-slapping moments where he clearly articulated something we do in this organization that a) I thought was rather unconventional, but worked for us, and b) gave a convincing rationale for a strategy that, quite frankly, we implemented instinctually. His concept had to do with maximizing impact by using dual operating systems — in effect, dual exhausts.

Kotter’s observation is that many organizations start as flat interconnected networks, which maximize speed and flexibility. As the organization grows over time, hierarchies necessarily begin to develop and the network approach tends to shrink until ultimately, in many organizations, there is an evolution to a pure hierarchy model. His assertion is that, to respond to the volatility of today’s market, organizations need to strive for dual operating systems that capture both the speed and agility of the network, and the efficiency and reliability of the hierarchy.

I absolutely agree. As someone who leads an organization committed to dual operating systems (even though I couldn’t have put that name to it until I read Kotter’s article), I would also add that the balance point between network and hierarchy is a moving target, and while ultimately effective, “dual exhausts” can be rather messy. Why? Because you do not have two separate operating systems that function side by side in a silo. Rather, the fast, agile network system pulls in people from all points in the formal hierarchy who have the unique skills, energy and commitment for the project at hand. Managers whose job it is to ensure the reliability of the hierarchy have to be on board with this, and allow at least some of their people to function with a foot in both worlds.

Why would your staff subject themselves to living with two sets of rules and expectations (those of the network, and those of the hierarchy)? In a word . . . passion. These people are so excited about the chance to do something extraordinary, that they are not only willing, but eager to take on an additional role to have a hand in creating something new and meaningful. And when you give them a target and let them run, amazing things can happen.

I’m told the advantages of a dual exhaust system include more horsepower, better gas mileage, better sound, cooler look . . . yep, sounds about right. Thanks, Mr. Kotter