It’s Not About the Plan

Business Corporate Management Planning Team ConceptAt the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)

Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?

It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.

Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.

The Seventh Day

Woman Resting In Hammock

“ . . . on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” — Genesis, 2:2.

In case any of you over-achiever types need a reminder, God rested on the seventh day. And He’s God! We . . . are not. How many days has it been since you rested?

Leaving work only to start on your 47-item to-do list at home does not count. Laundry, grocery shopping, changing the oil in the car, running the kids . . . these things are not resting. They may be a necessary part of your life, but resting they are not. Granted, resting looks different for different people. For some, it is settling in with a good book. For others rest and renewal comes from a walk through the woods, an afternoon spent with family and friends, losing yourself in a hobby, time spent in reflection, or actually taking a nap!

In her book Thrive Arianna Huffington noted that what we highlight in someone’s eulogy is very different than what we as a society define as success. It’s no wonder that burnout is reaching epic proportions. Too many people are giving up those things that are most meaningful, restful and renewing to them, to reach higher and work harder on the road to some modern version of success. Maybe the best antidote to burnout is a seventh day.

In actuality, a “seventh day” doesn’t have to be a whole day . . . and you certainly don’t have to wait a week to benefit from it! A ten-minute walk outside can do wonders for your sense of energy and peace of mind. Close your eyes and savor a piece of dark chocolate. Stop to enjoy a sunset. Turn off the computer, the phone, the TV and take a few moments to connect . . . to rest.

Don’t think you have time? (After all, a leader’s work is never done, right?) Let’s take a moment to consider the return on investment for a seventh day. Better decisions, more creativity, increased patience, and the simple fact that you get to enjoy life more . . . hmmm . . . seems like a worthwhile investment to me! Yes, I know, when you are in the midst of the tempest it is sometimes difficult a) to recognize how much you need a seventh day, and b) to find a way to work it into the rush and whirl of your life. But hey, you’re a leader . . . you can figure this one out!

As Ms. Huffington notes, maybe a first step is to start each day by asking yourself not what you have to do that day, but rather what kind of life do you want to live. Sort of shakes up the priorities a bit, huh? And I’d be willing to bet, in the life you want to live, you’ll find the time for a seventh day.

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.

Your #1 Job

A boy in white t-shirt stares into the camera, he is surprised.

When my youngest son was little, at some point I told him taking care of my boys was my number one job. While I don’t remember the specific conversation, he never forgot it. At various times through his growing up years, when he felt like he wasn’t getting enough attention, he would stop me — sometimes even putting his hands on either side of my face so I would look him in the eye — and ask “Who’s your number one job?” Point taken.

What about you? As a leader, are you clear on your number one job at any given point in time? It usually isn’t the thing screaming the loudest among all the urgent things coming at you each day. Those “clanging cymbals” may be someone else’s number one job, but not necessarily yours. What would happen to your productivity if you started every day by asking, “What is my number one job today?” Simple question, and I’m guessing most days it would not be that hard to answer, if only we would ask.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get swallowed up by the 47 things on our to-do list, and the 12 interruptions along the way. When someone says something is urgent and has to be dealt with right away, do you just take that at face value and respond, or compare its importance with your number one job? It’s amazing how prioritization can fall into place with that one simple question.

Now on any given day, your number one job may change. (I’m talking priorities here, not big picture focus) For a season, your priority may be on developing your team. At another time, it may be on building community collaborations, or getting a new program off the ground. You know, the kinds of things that are really important in the long run, that are critical for meeting your long-term goals, but aren’t going to scream their way to the top of your list. Yeah, those things.

And unless you have someone who will look you in the eye and challenge you on your priorities, it will probably be up to you to boil all the “stuff” before you down to one simple question.

Today, right now, what is your number one job? So quit reading, and get after it!

Oxygen Masks

Air Hostess At Work

Anyone who has flown has heard the standard airline speech prior to take-off, which includes the part about “if there is a loss of air pressure, oxygen masks will drop down . . . and if you are traveling with someone who needs assistance, put your oxygen mask on first before trying to help them.” We yawn, or continue flipping through our magazine, rarely giving the instructions more than a passing thought . . . even though they are right.

I jokingly share a similar sentiment with my senior staff, when I am concerned they are taking on too much or spreading themselves too thin, by pointing out “You know, you are no good to me dead.” In effect, put on your oxygen mask so you stay strong enough to carry out your most important tasks. Full disclosure . . . on more than one occasion my staff has also (accurately) highlighted the fact that my making such a statement is a good example of the pot calling the kettle black.

Failing to put on your own oxygen mask first is, by my observation, a pretty common challenge for leaders. We have a long list of competing demands, and there are so many people counting on us to meet their needs and move projects forward. Just a little bit longer and then we will take time to catch our breath . . . At least that is our intention until, right before we were planning to re-charge a bit, the next big opportunity/crisis/critical project comes along. So we push our oxygen mask to the side on trudge on, convincing our selves we have no choice.

There’s always a choice. And it’s not selfishness, or weakness, or a lack of commitment that prompts someone to put his or her own oxygen mask on first (even though there will be people who want you to believe all these things). It is discipline, and taking the long view, and understanding that you can’t bring your best when you are on your last breath. And your organization deserves your very best.

So find those things that are important enough to you that you will take the time to get away from your leadership responsibilities and recharge. For me, family is one of those things. While I might be less likely to take time off for myself, I will make time for my family. And I have a couple great friends with whom I get together for an hour or two every few weeks so we can all decompress a bit. Are there still times when I find myself “gasping for breath” because I have ignored my oxygen mask for too long? Yep. This is sort of one of those “do what I say, and don’t look too closely at what I do” blogs . . . but I’m working on it.

Three meetings to go, and then I’m off in search of that oxygen mask!

Big Rocks

Transparent Jar With Different StonesMany of us have heard variations of the “Big Rocks” story . . . you know, the one where when you start by putting the little rocks in the container, the big rocks will never fit in, but if you start by placing the big rocks in the container, it is amazing how many little rocks will fit in and around the big rocks, and done this way the container will ultimately hold far more than you might have imagined.

Clearly, the container is our time, and the big rocks are our priorities, which far too often get pushed to the side because we have filled our day up with little rocks . . . those “urgent” matters that peck away at our best intentions until our day is full, and our big rocks sit outside the box. We know this, right?!? Unfortunately, knowing it and doing it are not the same thing. And proudly checking little rocks off our to-do list, while perhaps momentarily satisfying, does nothing to get our big rocks into the container.

What to do? I recently ran across a quote from Stephen Covey, which said, “The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Really? Could it be that simple? Ahh, but as we’ve touched on in this blog before, simple and easy are not the same thing. Yes, it is simple . . . just block out time in your schedule for your priorities. Simple, but oh so hard . . .

After all, big rocks are so . . .well . . . big. They can be intimidating. And they’re important, so you want to make sure you do it right. Maybe you’d better think about it a bit longer . . . It’s an easy trap to fall into, and one that results with filling your container with little rocks.

If the key is to put the big rocks in first, then why not start each day by considering what you’re going to do that day related to your priorities? How can you move things forward, even a little bit, on those projects you have identified as most important? Then do that thing, regardless of what else does or doesn’t get done that day (although, as noted above, you’d be surprise what you can fit in when you take tasks in the right order). I’d be willing to bet when you start with your priorities, regardless of what else you accomplish in a day, you will feel far more productive than if you checked off 27 less meaningful items from your list.

Feel free to keep a copy of this blog next to your to-do list as a reminder of what should be at the top of the list . . . or, if that’s too easy to ignore, you could do what I do and literally keep a bowl of rocks on your desk — it may not be subtle, but you’d be amazed at what we accomplish around here!

A Roadmap for How . . .

Vintage compass


Today as I was going through a file related to our organizational strategy, I ran across a document from more than seven years ago related to my expectations for senior staff. I think this document is as relevant today as it was when it was written because it focuses more on the “how” than the “what.” Unfortunately, in our fast-paced world, the “what” changes not only from day to day, but often from hour to hour. For that very reason, the clearer you can be on your “how”, the more your staff will have a roadmap to guide their actions and allow them to respond to situations quickly and with confidence. I share these expectations not because I think they will be a fit for every individual or organization — they won’t be — but to challenge you to consider what you would include in a “roadmap for how” for your organization. In my experience, you can get to your destination much faster when you have a map.


DDR Expectations of Senior Leadership Staff

The quick and dirty . . .

  • Treat others as you would like to be treated
  • Always take the high road
  • No surprises
  • We have to be the grown-ups

Probably more what you had in mind . . .

  • I expect they are fully committed to the mission and vision of the organization and that they exemplify agency values in their interactions with individuals, both internal and external to the organization.
  • I expect they have the baseline knowledge necessary to fully carry out their job, or have developed a plan for acquiring baseline knowledge.
  • I expect the driving factor in decision-making is what is in the best interest of the agency as a whole, not personal or departmental priorities.
  • I expect the work within their area is consistent with, and supports the fulfillment of, Chaddock’s strategic and operational plans.
  • I expect when they come to me with a challenge, they will also come with potential solutions for consideration. My job is to offer guidance and feedback, not “solve their problems”.
  • I expect them to balance short-term urgency with long-term importance.
  • I expect them to be accountable to their team, including me, in carrying out their job responsibilities, and recognize that the decisions of one team member impacts the rest of the team.
  • I expect communication among the team, and with me, to be proactive rather than reactive, identifying upcoming decisions/activities before they occur rather than reporting afterwards.
  • I expect them to make the hard decisions in a thoughtful, caring and timely manner. I also expect them to understand that I’ll do the same, and although they may not always agree with my decisions I expect them to support them.
  • I expect them to look out for their team members, and raise concerns or observations in a supportive manner when appropriate. I also expect that they are receptive to the feedback from their team.
  • I expect them to model transparency in their actions, and foster two-way communications throughout the organization. Hierarchy is not a hideout.