RefuelHow are you feeling . . . right now? Are you energized and ready to take on the world? If so, wouldn’t it be nice to know how to maintain that full tank of motivation over the long term? And if you are not feeling so great about your own energy level, or that of your team, perhaps a few tips on how to refuel and get your passion back on track are in order.

Tony Schwartz has written extensively on fueling an organization’s potential, and has identified four basic energy needs that, when met, lead to higher performance: renewal (physical); value (emotional); focus (mental); and purpose (spiritual). That seems pretty self-evident, right? When we are well rested, appreciated, and can focus on things that we are passionate about, both our energy level and our performance are likely to improve. You might be surprised, however, at how much of an impact these factors actually have on fueling performance.

Schwartz, together with Christine Porath, conducted a survey with the Harvard Business Review which demonstrated that when even one of an employee’s basic energy needs has been met (that is, their tank is ¼ full), there is a 30% increase in their ability to focus and a nearly 50% increase in their level of engagement. If all four needs are met — when their tank is full — the engagement levels increase to 125%! In addition, the study indicated that when all four energy needs are met, there is a 72% drop in employees’ stress levels.

Addressing your employees’ basic energy needs isn’t costly. It doesn’t require implementing a complex new program or require a huge allocation of time.

  • Encourage your staff (and model the behavior yourself!) to take 10 – 15-minute breaks at regular intervals where they physically step away from their desk or other work environments.
  • Express your appreciation to others — in detailed, specific ways. Get creative in letting others know you value their efforts.
  • Take steps to reduce interruptions when working on a project. Encourage your staff to put the phone down and ignore the ping of email to increase their focus.
  • Find ways for staff to spend time doing the things that they do best, or find enjoyable, or that make a positive difference.

Renew. Value. Focus. Purpose.

Physical. Emotional. Mental. Spiritual.

Where is your energy level running? How about that of your staff? If the tank is running a bit low, maybe it’s time to step away from the computer and take a few minutes to refuel.

A Daily Dose of Why

Why Pills2

Most of us don’t pursue leadership for the “what” of our jobs . . . meetings, reports, negotiations, meetings, programs, bureaucracy, meetings . . . you get the picture. We pursue leadership for the “why” . . . to change the life of a child, to provide care and dignity to an older adult, to help a family become self-sufficient . . .

If “why” is the thing that drives and energizes us — if it’s the thing that we can’t not do, that draws people to join our team — then it seems reasonable that a big part of our job as leaders is to keep the focus on the “why.” Reasonable . . . yes. Easy . . . well, maybe not so much.

As a general rule, “what” screams much more loudly than “why.” There are rules and expectations, deadlines and competition, best practice and benchmarks. If you’re not careful, your whole focus can get sucked into to the “what,” because that’s what is measured and rewarded (by funders, customers, regulating bodies . . . we even do it to ourselves.) Far too often I’ve seen the “what” — be it a program, an outcome, a system — become the driving factor for an organization, which ultimately boxes them in and limits their potential. Think about it . . . if you were a wagon maker at the turn of the 20th Century, even if you were the #1 wagon maker in the country, your future looked pretty dim. But if your “why” was finding efficient ways to move people from one point to another, the sky was the limit!

Frankly, another reason focusing on the “why” can be difficult for leaders is because it seems so simple. Shouldn’t someone with a leader’s skill and experience be focusing on complex systems, comparative metrics, and competitive value propositions? Talking about the vision and mission, focusing on values and operating principles . . . is that feel-good stuff really the best use of a leader’s time? If you are truly committed to making an impact on your “why” (as opposed to meeting some external force’s picture of success) then the answer is unequivocally yes.

“What-focused” organizations tend to be about incrementally improving the status quo. “Why-focused” organizations challenge themselves to consider entirely new approaches to increase their mission impact. Yes, “what” tasks are included among a leader’s responsibilities. But consider how the focus given to those tasks might change if you started each morning with a daily dose of “why.”

Standing on Their Shoulders

Old And Young Hands

My staff may get tired of hearing me say, “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” but I absolutely believe it. Our organization would not be where it is today without the values, the passion, and the can-do spirit that have fueled our 160-year heritage.

And, I also recognize that no organization survives for more than 160 years without being willing to change. It is important to point out that I put an “and” between those two statements, not a “but.” Far too often I have seen staff feel like a major organizational change means we are saying there was something “wrong” with the way they were doing things before. In fact, the old way may have been exactly the right response for the circumstances at the time, but we live in a fluid environment . . . variables change, opportunities present themselves, new information becomes available and we have to respond accordingly if we are going to continue to extend our mission reach.

In such times of change, when you are asking staff to stop doing something they believe had a valuable impact, and start doing something that often (at least at first) feels risky/frustrating/bureaucratic/misguided/or a myriad of other things, the right kind of communication is critical. So what is the right kind? I believe a leader needs to not only clearly communicate where the organization is going, but also how the decisions made in the past uniquely prepared them to take this next step. With credit to my predecessor and mentor, in our organization we often refer to this as “God’s arithmetic.”

Undoubtedly, there have been decisions made, people hired, experience gained that, while perhaps seemingly unrelated at the time, work together to guide your decision making in this moment. Connect those dots for your staff. Help them see it is because of what has been done in the past that you are now able to take this step forward. Honor and value the hard work and commitment of those whose actions brought you to the place where you can respond to the opportunities before you. Creating a narrative that demonstrates how the foundation laid in the past will give you solid footing going forward helps staff see change as a continuation of your good work rather than a course correction for something that wasn’t done right in the past.

Does such a narrative make change painless? Of course not. But I do believe this perspective helps staff see change as a part of who we are, and how we do things, rather than a criticism of what has been done in the past. It helps them see that the organization is about more than a single decision or situation (or leader). It is about building on our past and continually reaching for greater heights on behalf of those we serve.

Climb on up. The view from here is pretty incredible.

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

The Roots of Leadership

CornLast night, three generations of my family gathered to “work the sweet corn”. For the uninformed among you, that means picking, shucking, silking, cutting, cooking, and packaging ridiculous amounts of corn for freezing. As I was elbow deep in this family ritual, with my sister taking the annual picture of the crew at the shucking table, I couldn’t help but think about a Harvard Business Review article on Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. (Call me weird, it’s just the way my brain works, but if you stick with me there really is a connection!)

In the article ( Bill George and his co-authors noted that more than 1,000 studies have failed to produce a clear profile of the ideal leader. Rather, in their review of the studies, the authors identified the consistent thread among successful leaders was that “their leadership emerged from their life stories. Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core . . . the journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life.”

Successful leaders can be shaped by positive and/or difficult situations, but the common theme is that they use their life experiences to give them meaning and discover their passion. So what does that mean for you and me? Well for one thing, it means that you can’t lead just like someone else. You might be able to model some aspects of your leadership on an individual you admire, but you can’t “wear” their exact style, and if you try, you will never reach your full potential as a leader.

I am the product of a close-knit rural family. Next week, you will find me at the county fair, where I will forever be one of the “Duncan Girls”, even though my last name has been Reed for nearly 30 years. Those things, along with a host of other experiences, have shaped who I am and how I lead. As noted previously in this post, in my first professional job after college I tried to be a Debra. I can’t pull it off. That level of formality is simply not authentic to who I am. I have great respect for people who are genuinely more formal, it’s just not me.

The good news is, according to the research there is no one “right way” to lead, so you might as well do it your way. Yes, you still need to learn and grow and stretch yourself, but the next time you read a leadership book, make note of the things that resonate with you, and give yourself permission to discard the pieces that don’t feel like a fit.

I make a conscious effort to stay connected to the people and values that helped shape me, and I believe I’m a better leader because of it. Not only that . . . I know how to make some killer freezer corn!