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.

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.

Check the Expiration Date

Bottle Of Milk

People have grown accustomed to checking the expiration date on things like meat or milk, to make sure they haven’t gone bad or soured. Far fewer people check the expiration date on their projects or new initiatives, however, these, too, can lose their freshness and impact if you wait too long to use them. What may have been a great idea at one point in time may become bland, or even leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth, if you wait too long to use it.

How does one check the expiration date on an idea or project?

  • How long have you talked about it? This isn’t an automatic rule-out. Sometimes you can be incubating an idea for a long time. One factor to consider is whether the idea has evolved and changed over time, or if you are still talking about it in general, nonspecific terms, retreading the same ground time and again. Which leads me to the second test of an expiration date . . .

 

  • Do you use the word “should” when describing the idea — as in “we really should be doing this.” Fresh ideas aren’t something you should do. Fresh ideas light up the room, they feel like something you have to do, not because someone is telling you to, but because you feel in your gut that the idea can in some way be a game changer that will help extend your mission reach.

 

  • Is everyone else already doing it? That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do it, but it’s a little bit like buying something that has been reduced for quick sale. The impact is likely to be far less that if you had implemented the idea when it was first available.

 

  • Has it “gone bad in the frig?” These are the ideas that you have said you want to pursue — you “bought” it — however, your process of getting to implementation takes so long that the expiration date may have passed, but people feel they have no choice but to continue on because so much work went into the preparation.

As the leader, it is your job to check the expiration date on ideas or projects. That can be harder than it sounds because perhaps you pushed for an idea at one point in time — you could clearly see the potential — but you now realize the window of opportunity has closed. The expiration date has passed. When that happens (and it will), you can watch wistfully as someone else enjoys the benefits of the once fresh idea, or you can focus your energy on looking forward and preparing to tackle the next new opportunity . . . before it expires.

Periods and Commas

Period Comma

Change is a constant (or at least should be) for those in positions of leadership. It can be hard and exciting, draining and energizing, scary and exciting, all at the same time. Which of these emotions your staff focuses on will be determined, at least in part, by whether you as the leader approach change with a period or with a comma.

Periods are about ending . . . a thought, a program, something people have invested in and valued. A “period approach” to change often makes the process harder for people, and slows the entire process, because the focus is stopping — and who wants to stop something that was important to them? Even if it seems obvious to you that the ending is inevitable and you think “everyone” knows it needs to happen, trying to end it with a period on it will make the process harder.

Commas, on the other hand, connect what came before and what will come after. They provide a pause but also link two separate but related thoughts. Commas aren’t about ending, they are about continuing — perhaps in a different direction, but carrying on nonetheless. Continuing is easier. It keeps what came before the comma attached to the new direction, which signifies its value and worth.

How do you approach change with a comma rather than a period? Acknowledge the importance of the program/approach/product in bringing your organization to the place it is today. (No one wants to think that something they dedicated significant time and effort to was not effective or is no longer relevant.) Clearly articulate how what was done in the past sets the stage for the new opportunity. If your organization has a long history, perhaps point out that the organization could not have survived without the ability to adapt and change in the pursuit of its mission. Let your people know how their efforts have contributed to your organization’s success. Honor past contributions, and let them know the role they will play going forward.

Acknowledging what came before, and articulating how it connects to what comes after, does not automatically make the change process easy. It does, however, chart a path for your team to follow. It provides a balance point for the range of emotions related to the change effort. It sets a destination to keep moving towards rather than consuming unnecessary time and energy in the process of stopping one thing and then starting another.

It might seem like a little thing, but a well-placed comma can make a huge difference. You’re the leader. It’s up to you. How will you punctuate your next change effort?

Spring Rains

spring white flower in the rainHave you ever noticed that in the Springtime, entire landscapes can change in a day? One well-timed rain shower can make entire hillsides come to life, blooming with energy and possibilities. Of course, that only happens if the seeds for that growth were already there. Sure, they may have been dormant during the stark cold winter, but they were in the right place, just waiting for the Spring rains.

Nature is patient. We leaders . . . sometimes not so much. We want to plant seeds — in terms of our people, our plans, our vision — and then have them immediately germinate and bloom. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works. You have to plant bulbs in the fall, before the frost and gray skies of Winter, if you want them to flower in the Spring . . . or cultivate seeds in the Spring to reap the harvest in late summer or fall. But it is Springtime, after the brown and sometimes frigid Winter, that the transformation is most obvious.

What does a “Spring rain” look like in your organization? Perhaps a major opportunity comes your way that you are positioned to take advantage of because you have been preparing your people and organization for just such a situation. Some (i.e. those who didn’t plan ahead) will label such opportunities as a lucky break. Seneca described that kind of luck as a situation where “preparation meets opportunity”. The Spring rains bring the opportunity. You as the leader are responsible for the preparation part.

Preparing for the Spring rains means you can’t just focus on this week’s weather forecast. Yes, you have to be aware of it for other reasons, but this week’s weather has little to do with what the next season holds. As a leader, you have to adapt to the current storms, but ultimately you also have to plant the seeds for the subsequent season. And then you have to wait. That’s the catch, isn’t it? We are so accustomed to instant gratification, immediate return on investment, focusing the next quarter’s outcomes, that investing in the long term can seem like a quaint but unrealistic concept. Maybe the unrealistic part is not the concept, but our expectations as leaders.

The Spring rains will come. Perhaps not exactly when you want them to, and sometimes to a greater or lesser degree than you would ideally like, but they will come. The question is whether you have prepared your organizational landscape to blossom and burst with new life when the time comes. For those leaders who recognize their critical role as a patient cultivator . . . who have experienced Spring’s beauty . . . nothing is more satisfying than sitting back and watching it rain!

Cannon Fire

Down the BarrelI was texting a colleague today who was on her second day back from vacation and already felt like she was being shot out of a cannon. So much for the afterglow of a sunny respite. Sure, we all have seasons that launch us with such speed and/or force that we can’t do much more than hang on for dear life. For those of us who want to lead for the long-term, however, we need to take pro-active steps to make sure such chaotic times are indeed a season, and don’t expand to become our life.

Leaders have a special responsibility to limit the casualties from cannon fire, because we set the expectation — as much by our actions as by our words. Regardless of how much we talk about balance, if we are running around like our hair is on fire all the time, staff who want to succeed are likely to emulate that behavior . . . our words to the contrary drifting away like the smoke from a cannon.

Yes, I know, easier said that done. And there will be those days . . . The goal here isn’t to totally eliminate such days (although I’m open to suggestions!), the goal is simply to reduce the frequency and duration of the cannon fire. How?

Priorities and the ability to say no . . . or at least not now. Because here’s the deal . . . your best people (and I’m including you, dear reader, in that category) will have lots of opportunities to do really cool things that could forward your mission. And those same people will want to pursue a number of them, because who knows which opportunity could be the one to launch you closer to achieving your mission. True enough. You as the leader also have to realize that some of those opportunities/cannons may fail to launch and lead your best and brightest to burn out.

So before you ignite the fuse on another new project, ask yourself where it ranks on your organization’s list of priorities. If it doesn’t hit the top two or three, what do you lose by saying no, or not now? Maybe the more important question is, what is the cost of saying yes? When everything is a priority, nothing is. Line up the cannons.

Can you name your organization’s top two our three priorities? Can your staff? Even two or three priorities can lead to periods of chaos. Thankfully, at the end of such seasons most people are willing to take a deep breath, dust of their singed edges and carry on.

Just remember, the same energy that can spark a launch can also cause people to flame out. Cannon fire is most effective when selectively, and sparingly, used.

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 a 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 happened 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!

Giving Up Your Security Blanket

Linus-300x295
There comes a time in every toddler’s life when it’s time to give up the security blanket, or the binky, or whatever it is that calms the child in stressful situations.

There comes a time in a leader’s life, too.

Okay, so maybe I haven’t witnessed too many leaders literally dragging around a tattered, faded scrap of fabric, but figuratively . . . oh my! How many times do we clutch on to systems, or programs, or markets that are worn and full of holes simply because of the predictability and comfort of knowing what to expect, and the warm memory of past glory. Security blanket, indeed.

A recent issue of the magazine Fast Company (www.fastcompany.com, February 2015) included an interview with Katie Couric who, when asked about her decision to become Yahoo’s global news anchor, said, “When you’re a part of an established entity, there’s so much incentive to maintain the status quo. A lot of times, the people who are leading are at the end of their careers, so they don’t want to throw everything up and see where it lands.”

Giving up the security blanket — throwing everything up to see where it lands — can leave you vulnerable . . . no doubt about it. When you forfeit the comfort of what you know, those first few steps might feel a bit shaky. What if you trip and fall? In most cases, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, I’ve found there’s a confidence in those who have “given up the blanket” that usually results in pulling themselves up, brushing off their back side, and stepping forward in a new direction . . . toward a new market, or solution, or opportunity.

I’m not suggesting you have to take crazy risks. I’m merely challenging you to consider if perhaps you have outgrown some of the approaches or perspectives being used within your organization. There’s nothing wrong with comfortable, per se . . . as long as it doesn’t hold you back from an opportunity that could extend your mission reach or market share. Unfortunately, the more you are snugged in with your blanket, the less likely you are to notice those opportunities.

When you as the leader hold tight to “what has always worked”, chances are your staff will too. The new ideas, the “what ifs,” will quickly get smothered by blanket-toting lieutenants who are following your lead, thinking you’re guiding them along a safe route . . . right up to the point they discover it is actually a dead end.

Look around. Be brave. Take the first step. Lead. Before you know it, you’ll find out you really didn’t need that old blanket after all.