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

The Other 93%

Unhappy Discontent Woman And Man Look With Disgusting ExpressionWhether or not you believe Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s oft-quoted research that 55% of communication happens through nonverbals, 38% through vocal elements, and only 7% through the words we use, most people will concede that nonverbals play a major role in communications. So why is it that so many leaders seem to focus only on words and ignore the other 93%?

For starters, open two-way communication gets harder when people are placed in positions of leadership. Most people who report to you will be good students. Good students give the teacher the answer he or she wants to hear, whether or not they actually believe it’s true. After all, giving the “right” answer is the way you get good grades, right? So most people’s words tend to reinforce what the leader is already thinking . . . thus giving a 7% confirmation that everyone is on the same page regarding the best course of action.

But aren’t words more “concrete” than all subjective, nonverbal stuff? In a word, no. When words and nonverbals are in conflict trust the nonverbals, which are often unconscious and reflect true feelings or intentions. (Anyone who has raised a teenager can vouch for the truth of this concept.) People may say what they think they are supposed to, but for the leader who takes the time to “listen” to the nonverbals, there can be a whole host of information being communicated that isn’t being “said.” Whether it is a lack of eye contact, gestures or physical movement (such as someone tapping their foot, drumming their fingers or crossing their arms), how a person positions themselves in the room, or “the look on their face”, your people can say a lot without saying a word.

What can a leader do to make sure you are hearing the full message? Focus on the complete “conversation” taking place, not just the words being shared — by you or someone else. If you are thinking about what you are going to say next, you can miss subtle nonverbal cues that are communicating loud and clear if only you are attentive enough to notice. If a person’s words and nonverbals are inconsistent, ask for clarification — not in an accusing way, but in a spirit of seeking to understand . . . “Joe, you seem uncomfortable/unconvinced/skeptical . . . do you see the matter differently?” And then give Joe the opportunity to share his perspective.

When you consistently loop back with your people in this way, a) they will start to believe that you really do want to know what they are thinking, b) they will feel seen and valued because you noticed something that they may not have even been aware of conveying, and c) you will gain the value of the full message your people are communicating — through words they share . . . and the other 93%.

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.

Listen up!

bigstock--Listen upIt seems that listening is becoming a bit of a lost art, to everyone’s detriment. Without the ability to listen, we doom ourselves to never moving beyond the limits of our current thinking — and such thinking is limiting, regardless of how we might like to convince ourselves otherwise.

Listening is different than hearing. According to Merriam Webster, hearing is “the process, function, or power of perceiving sound.” This definition made me think of Charlie Brown’s teacher . . . waa wa waa wa wa. Yes, in today’s 24/7 environment, there is more sound out there to perceive than ever before. But are we listening, or do we simply see people’s mouths moving and filter what they are saying as good or bad . . . as supporting our position or challenging it?

Webster defines listening as “to pay attention to sound, to hear something with thoughtful attention, give consideration.” Giving consideration is a very different thing from perceiving sound. Which do you do most often?

Giving consideration isn’t about being “wishy washy,” or politically correct, or not having a strength of your convictions. To the contrary, the willingness to listen — really listen — requires a great deal of confidence. Are you confident enough to give thoughtful attention to a different perspective, and perhaps adjust your thinking a bit as a result? Are you confident enough to strive for the “best” in a situation rather than being “right”? (Best is about others, right is about you). Best comes from considering multiple perspectives . . . from listening . . . before you make a decision.

Leaders who don’t listen — who filter out input from anyone who doesn’t see the world as they do — often end up on an island of their own making, cut off from a large expanse of perspectives, insight, and potential. Islands can be cozy places, but they limit how far you can go. As a leader, if you find yourself on such an island (which happens more easily than you might think), what can you do? Listen.

Listening builds bridges. If all you are hearing is people who agree with you, then you need to ask for diverse perspectives. Seek to understand. Listening is not about waiting your turn to tell someone why he or she is wrong. It is about giving consideration, walking a mile in their shoes. Ultimately, you may not agree with the person or perspective, but by listening you start to build a bridge off that island. You expand your possibilities for future success. You lead.

Maybe it’s time to listen up.

Your County Fair

The Clark County Fair And RodeoThis coming week is fair week in my county. That may not mean anything to you, but for me, the fair has helped shape who I am as a person and a leader. My experiences with 4-H (my own, with my children and from serving as a 4-H leader), volunteering for various fair activities and events, cheering on and building memories with family and friends . . . The fair helps remind me “where I came from” in the best of ways. Many of the people I interact with at the fair couldn’t care less what my title is, or even what I do for a living . . . it’s enough for them to know that I am “one of the Duncan girls,” and they would have no problem calling me out if they thought I was “getting too big for my britches.” Every leader needs a county fair.

Your “county fair” may be a special family tradition, an annual outing or event, or a regularly scheduled gathering of long-time friends. It’s a place where people know your story, where your ideas or input don’t carry any more weight than anyone else’s, and where people have no problem calling you a dork if you are being a dork (usually with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye). Other people may not understand the appeal, but “county fairs” tend to bring a sense of peace and renewal in the midst of a leader’s overflowing schedule. Ironically, it is those tightly booked schedules and ever-growing to-do lists that may prompt a leader to consider skipping their county fair. Don’t do it.

All of us as leaders need to find ways to stay grounded, authentic and humble. Far too many leaders spend so much time trying to be who they think they are supposed to be, or who someone says they should be, that they forget who they really are. “Who you are” brought you to this point. Don’t lose that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t grow, expand your skills, and at times change your perspective — you should do all those things. I’m talking about who you are at your core . . . your values, your experiences, your innate wisdom. Those are the things that bring depth to your leadership, and those are the things that get nourished at your county fair.

As rewarding as your leadership role may be, it is still hard work. If we are to bring our best efforts to those we serve, we also have to carve out time to make sure we stay grounded. One way to do that is by connecting regularly with those who know us outside the titles or positions we currently hold.

See you at the fair.

Strong Backs

a determined strong businessman carrying an elephant on his back“Don’t ask for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”

I’ve seen this quote, and variations thereof, credited to Phillips Brooks, a Jewish Proverb, and St. Augustine. The fact that so many want to lay claim to these words should be some indication of their truth. Leadership is at times a very heavy load. The weight of the responsibility . . . the impact of decisions . . . the lack of a clear path forward . . . can be overwhelming.

Oh what we would give for a lighter load. Sorry, not happening. Not if you are a leader. Far better, instead, to go for a stronger back. How does one build a stronger back? A few suggestions:

  • Rest. Everything is harder when you are tired — physically, mentally or emotionally. And the times you think you can least afford rest are when you need it the most. Have you ever stressed yourself into a knot, only to wake up the next morning with an entirely different perspective? That, my friend, is the curative, back-strengthening power of rest.

 

  • Talk it out. No one ever said leadership had to happen in isolation. Somehow, challenges seem to grow when they are confined to your head. Have you ever taken a bite of something you didn’t like, and it seemed to get bigger and bigger the more you chewed and you didn’t know how you were ever going to swallow it? Yeah, heavy loads can be like that when you roll them over and over in your mind and don’t share them with anyone. Don’t worry, the ultimate responsibility still lies with you, but sometimes talking it out can bring dilemmas down to size making their weight easier to bear.

 

  • Minimize distractions. Some people do this by getting outside and enjoying the beauty of the day. For others, prayer or meditation is key. Get away from your email, phone, and to-do list . . . if nothing else close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. The answer to the challenges before you will not out-shout all the other demands of your day. When you get quiet enough to hear that still small voice inside (your smartest and truest voice), you just might be surprised how often you find the peace to stand tall and move forward.

 

  • Keep at it. One doesn’t build a strong back overnight any more than you can lose weight by eating one healthy meal. It’s a start, yes, but the more you do it, the better the results. This leadership gig is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you want to be in it for the long haul you have to keep doing the things that lead to a stronger back.

The leadership load isn’t going to get any lighter. You can either continually stumble under its weight, or consciously decide to build a stronger back. The choice is yours.

No Ceilings

Inside the castle of Cesky KrumlovAs leaders, our perspective has a significant influence not only on our approach, but also the efforts of those around us. When we run into a daunting challenge, do we look for ways to minimize our risk or maximize our gain? A power point I ran across this week put it this way: “There’s a floor to cost reduction but no ceiling to value creation.”

No ceiling to value creation . . . what a great lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities before us! How often do we respond to the roadblocks we encounter by immediately slamming on the brakes? Cut, reduce, minimize our losses and avoid future risk. Yes, as leaders we have to be good stewards and fiscally responsible, but do we stop to consider that there may be multiple ways to manage the bottom line while also expanding the top line?

What if our first question when we collide with a roadblock was to ask how to raise the ceiling on our value proposition? Isn’t that what Lean Principles are all about? Creating more value and, yes, eliminating waste . . . but maximizing value for your efforts is at the heart of Lean. How many leaders never even consider a path to value creation because they have a scarcity mentality? They instinctively reduce and withdraw, and in so doing eliminate the very path that could have led to greater value and financial sustainability.

How does a leader eliminate the ceiling on value creation? Certainly it is important to explore opportunities for efficiencies and economies of scale. However, just as there are limits to cost reduction, there are limits on how efficient you can become at a specific task. The question then becomes, is there a better task on which to focus your efforts? And the answer to that question is . . . Yes! Focus your efforts on innovation!

If a leader truly wants no ceiling on value creation you have to not only allow but encourage sky-is-the-limit, “in a perfect world” thinking (no ceilings, right). So often, right out of the gate, we frame our thinking with barriers . . . “They would never” . . . “It’s not practical, but” . . . “It would be cost prohibitive, however . . .” Feel that floor looming?

What if, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we identify the most amazing, creative way to add value and then focus on figuring out a way to do that? I’m not suggesting you disregard your budget, or that you will automatically get there overnight. I am saying that when people are passionate about value creation . . . when innovative thinking is encouraged . . . they find a way.

Where do you start? No ceilings.