Teaching Your Team to Play Chess

Playing chess game. defeating the Queen.I have written before about the importance of knowing how to play chess — mastering the art of placing organizational “chess pieces” in pivotal positions in preparation for future impact. In today’s ever more complex world (yes, it really does feel like you are now playing against three different opponents at once), it is not enough to have a single leader master this long-term game of skill and strategy. Now more than ever, you need to teach other organizational leaders to play chess as well.

According to a recent article in strategy+business, in a study of 6,000 senior leaders only 8% of those individuals rated as strategic leaders. Eight percent! Yes, that would appear to mean the odds are stacked against having more than one strategic leader in a single organization. However, all hope is not lost! There are steps you can take to build a strategic culture within your organization. Think of it as chess lessons. Not everyone will enjoy it or become an expert, but at least they will understand the rules of the game.

Lesson #1: Everyone needs to know the end goal. When you are transparent about where you are going, your people can do a better job of helping you get there. In the military, the concept is known as “commanders intent.” It came about because in combat (or in today’s challenging environment) things rarely go exactly according to plan. If squad leaders don’t know the ultimate goal, they might make a decision that makes perfect sense given their limited information, but could ultimately undermine the larger intent. Let your people help you be successful by making sure they are clear on the end goal.

Lesson #2: Encourage new solutions. As a general statement, those closest to the “front line” can often see solutions that may not be considered by those with a different vantage point. Is such input encouraged, or is it squashed by those with more experience or expertise? Discounting input because of who is offering it closes the door on a potential strategic advantage under the mistaken assumption that those who have done something longer can see it more clearly. Fresh eyes can observe a lot of things that those who see something every day overlook.

Lesson #3: “Failure” needs to be seen as part of the process. No one wins at chess without losing a few pieces along the way, and your team will never try to play the game if they get penalized for what, in effect, is part of the process. Make it safe to try something, tweak it as needed, and try again. The only way that is a failure is if you stop the first time something doesn’t work as planned. Make adjustments an expected part of the process and you will foster creative problem solving among your team.

Teaching chess takes time, but the fundamental steps above are a good place to start.

Leading with a Full Head of Hair

Have you ever had one of those weeks (or months) that made you want to pull your hair out? You know, those times when the aggravation of wrestling with a critical issue weighs you down like a wet blanket . . . when you think you’re doing all the right things and yet the solution remains just beyond your grasp. Yep, me too. It’s one of the shadow sides of leadership that rarely gets discussed, but — and here’s the good part — I think is actually an indication of a strong leader rather than an inept one.

For those of you wondering what exactly would lead me to make such a claim, let me offer a few examples.

  • The best leaders not only cast a clear vision, they are also committed to helping their people get there. Aligning a diverse mix of people to move collectively toward a common goal can at times feel a bit like herding cats. It’s never as quick or easy as it looks on paper. You might have to repeat the same thing fourteen times. You respond to what people heard, which is could be quite different from what you said. People may, consciously or not, behave in ways that undermine your efforts. And so you ask, you listen, you respond, you take a deep breath and repeat. The fact that there will be days your hair is at risk does not change the long-term positive impact of taking this approach.
  • The best leaders value diverse perspectives, and are open to looking at challenges from multiple angles. Vigorous, respectful discussion is often critical to arriving at the best decision. If a leader feels strongly about a direction/solution/project, it can be difficult to hear skepticism, or outright opposition, to that path (enter urge for hair-pulling). The willingness to hear such concerns, however, almost always results in greater buy-in from the team, and better results for the organization.
  • The best leaders understand the need to balance urgency and patience. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. Spending more time on the front end will often allow you to move more quickly on the back end. Understanding and respecting this concept, however, does not mean there won’t still be days where the scale tilts toward urgency and the leader finds her hand drifting toward her scalp.

No one ever said that leadership would be easy. And somehow, knowing that frustration is part of the process — rather than some failure or character flaw on the part of the leader — makes it easier to move through the tough parts to get to the solution on the other side, full head of hair still intact.

Creative Focus

This week, I dove into in Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” issue. I always find this annual round-up motivating because the snippets on each honoree’s accomplishments open one’s mind to possibilities, and to looking at seemingly intractable challenges in new ways. Seriously, if a researcher can find what appears to be a cure for ebola by infecting tobacco plants with the virus, or another company can find a way to eliminate nuclear waste with “molten salt”, surely I can take another look at some of the persistent challenges that face my own industry and organization.

I happened to be reading these stories right after meeting with a number of colleagues about impending changes in how we do business, and so was especially struck by how hard it can be to look past how we have always done things to see the possibilities of the future. When entire organizations are built around doing things a certain way, having someone suggest going in a totally different direction can be a bit jolting ( . . . unless of course you are the one proposing the new path!) And yet, if “the way we have always done things” is not resulting in significant progress toward solving the problem at hand, don’t we want someone to find a better way?!?

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the answer to that question is yes. So if the goal is to find a better solution, how do these “most creative people” do it? Creative focus. That’s my takeaway from reviewing this year’s list, and those from the past 10 years. And while it might seem natural to start with the creative part, I’m guessing the people on Fast Company’s list start by finding their focus.

How focused are you on the real challenge before you? So often we direct our attention to the wrong thing . . . we work diligently to build the best product or program, and that becomes the goal, rather finding new ways to look at the problem. Sometimes, we have to stop trying to build a better buggy and instead consider that maybe there is a better way to get from point A to point B. One of your key jobs as a leader is to define the focus for your organization — and that’s actually much harder than you might think. Are you a residential program or a child and family-serving organization? The options before you will be quite different depending how you see yourself.

Then, once you have your focus, you need to support your staff in exploring creative solutions. Do you give them permission to pursue the “what ifs” and consider solutions from an entirely different perspective? Again, sounds good in theory, but not so easy in practice. What if they come up with a solution that makes your current approach obsolete? Are you really prepared to go back to the drawing board after you have made significant investments in doing things one particular way? If you feel a bit shaky on the answer to that one, please refer back to step one.

Creative focus is not for the faint of heart . . . and neither is leadership. But, as the editor’s at Fast Company can tell you, for those who have the courage and determination to take that leap, the list of possibilities is endless.

The State of Your Cup

Water Glasses

I’ve seen a variety statistics that indicate somewhere between 40% and 85% (depending whose numbers you believe) of the things we worry about never actually happen. Studies have shown there are ‘promoters’ who try to make good things happen, and ‘preventers’ who try to keep bad things from happening (http://www.heidigranthalvorson.com/books/focus). There are glasses that are half full, half empty and — in a nod to my oldest son the engineer — ones that are twice the size they need to be.

So what does that mean for leaders? From my perspective, it means that context is everything. In actuality, the glass that is half full and the glass that is half empty have exactly the same amount of water in them . . . it’s all about what direction you think the water is going — up or down — and whether you believe you can impact the state of your cup. Because if you believe you can impact the state of your cup, you will take proactive steps to do just that. If you see your cup as half empty, and fixate on all the ways your water supply can be further depleted, you can become paralyzed with worry and ultimately create a glass-draining, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let me give you a real life example of what I am talking about. Recently, we asked our staff to complete a SWOT analysis. We ask for this feedback on a regular basis, and report back to all staff their cumulative top five responses in each quadrant. This year, under the Opportunities quadrant (the “O” in SWOT) one of our staff’s top five responses was “changes in government.” I was thrilled! Why? Our state government is in total chaos. (No, that’s not why I was thrilled.) The fact that our staff could see this as an opportunity means they understand that they can impact the state of our cup! Yes, they also listed “changes in government” as a threat, but think about how their approach will be different if they can see the current volatile environment as an opportunity . . . something they can positively influence . . . a chance for them to help fill our cup. With that perspective, our staff will look for creative ways they can position the agency for impact. They will be seeking new solutions, while their glass-is-half-empty colleagues will be hunkering down for the next blow. Our staff and their colleagues in other agencies are facing the exact same external circumstances, but unlike some organizations, our staff believes they can impact the state of our cup . . . and so they will.

What is the context of your leadership? Do those who look to you for guidance see your organization’s cup filling up or inching lower? Are you fostering a can-do attitude or encouraging a defensive shield? The current water level isn’t the critical issue. The critical issue is the direction it’s headed.

What is the state of your cup?

Can You Hear Me Now?


One of the real challenges of leading, especially in today’s fast-paced 24/7 environment, is taking the time to “hear yourself think.” We listen to others, we read up on the latest trends, we review the numbers . . . we take in all kinds of data every day. And while understanding the data is important, it’s not enough. It is the layering of that information among and through our experience and context and perspective that yields the transformative ideas or innovative solutions. And to do that, you have to turn down the volume on everything else.

The trouble is, our picture of an effective leader rarely involves turning down the volume. It’s being available, and responding, and tackling the to do list … being productive! It’s similar to how some people can’t relax at home because they always see three more things that need to be done. To really relax, they have to be somewhere else. For me, to “turn down the volume,” I have to leave the office. Luckily (?) for me, our organization is located on the far edge of the state, so any statewide meetings I attend usually requires hours of travel time. No stacks to tend to, no interruptions, no meetings, usually not even a radio … Just me and the symphony of thoughts and ideas going on in my head.

Granted, a peaceful walk in the woods or relaxing next to a cracking fire might be a preferable way to listen to and sort through my thoughts, but hey, you take the breathing room wherever you can get it! Trust me, it’s worth the effort when the synapses start firing. Taking the time to sort through the tangle of “what ifs” in your head can reveal promising solutions that were sitting there all along, just waiting for you to come visit. But the ideas aren’t going to shout above the urgent crises of the day, and you can’t simply schedule 15 minutes for deep thinking (at least that’s never worked for me!) Nope, you have to intentionally carve out chunks of time … whether that’s on planes, trains and automobiles or, for the more disciplined among us, in a creative environment of your choosing.

The great ideas are in there, and if you slow down long enough to listen, you can almost hear them shouting, “Can you hear me now?” Maybe it’s time to listen up.

Breaking Away from the Herd


In today’s world, where best practice and evidence-based practice and the push to achieve specific performance measures are often heralded (and funded) as THE path to success, it seems we have lost sight of the fact that while these things may be effective in achieving one specific outcome, they are not the panacea for organizational impact or finding new ways to solve stubborn challenges.

I’m not saying there is no value in “best practice.” I think there is. We have trained our staff in six different evidence based practices, and I believe they are an important part of our success . . . but no more so than our willingness to also try new, untested, creative strategies for overcoming our biggest obstacles. When we stop looking in new directions because others have chosen to fund and build rules around following one single path we, in effect, give up on finding new, perhaps better, solutions. Are you willing to sacrifice that possibility for the comfort of following the herd?

As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan noted in their book The One Thing, “Anyone who dreams of an uncommon life eventually discovers there is no choice but to seek an uncommon approach to living it.” Translated into organizational language, if we want to have an uncommon (new/breakthrough/life-changing) impact on those we strive to serve, it is unlikely we will get there by simply following the “standardized” path. We have to break away from the herd and chart our own course. Granted, that sounds great in theory, but it can be much harder in actual practice. For example . . .

Our organization provides services to struggling children and their families. We are paid to provide services to kids. We believe the best way to have a lasting positive impact on a child is to serve the whole family — in fact, the first item on our list of “how we do things around here” says “The client is the family system.” We are paid to provide services to kids. So we have to make hard choices about investing in a new path, one that we believe will yield better results for our young people, even if the current rules and funding are a deterrent to forging that path.

If being successful were simply a matter of following the status quo, we wouldn’t need leaders, just obedient followers. The leader’s challenge is to determine when to follow the proven path and when you need to step out in a new direction — because to do any less would be to settle for stopping short of your mission.

Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and break away from the herd.