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Some “What If?” Questions You Should Be Asking Right Now

7 hours 28 min ago

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that made the case that we’re all at the beginning of Phase 2 in our response to the global pandemic. To recap, Phase 1 lasted for about 8 weeks, depending on where in the world you live and, for large organizations at least, was about quickly reinventing how work was going to get done with many people working from home. We’ve figured that out for the most part at this point and are now moving into the reimagination work of Phase 2. It’s not the “new normal” yet; it’s reimagining what the future could be and how we’ll do work in the new normal.

In this post, I want to take a deeper dive on one of the points I made in the Phase 2 post – the need to shift some of our agendas from the reactive “to-do” agendas that are set to deal with the urgencies of a particular week to the proactive “What if?” agendas that can help us reimagine the future for our ourselves, our customers and our organizations.

Before we get to some questions you can build your “What if?” agendas around, I want to talk briefly about the benefits of having these kinds of conversations in the first place. I can think of at least three:

Challenging assumptions – It’s interesting how, even in the midst of a global health and economic crisis, it’s hard to let go of our long-held assumptions about how the world works and will work. Taking time to get your team engaged in some challenging “What if?” questions can challenge those assumptions and perhaps point out some blind spots that need to be addressed as you shape your “new normal.”

Preparation – It’s hard to prepare for something you haven’t lived through yet, but considering the range of possible responses to what the future may present can help you be more effective when it arrives. About nine years ago, I had the opportunity to spend the weekend on a Coast Guard cutter off the Florida Straits. As I wrote about back then, my biggest and most valuable takeaway from that trip was being able to see how much time and effort the leadership and crew spent in preparing for things that could happen. When one of those big events actually did happen, the crew handled it flawlessly because they had spent several hours preparing for the possibility. Getting your team engaged in “What if?” conversations and preparation could do the same for you.

Innovation – The late, great Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was famous for coming up with and exploring the idea of disruptive innovation – the impact a small upstart company can have on an industry when it disrupts the competitive landscape by doing something radically new that works. Right now, we’re all in the place of dealing with a disruptive innovator called Mother Nature. “What if?” conversations can help us come up with new and innovative approaches to dealing with something we’ve never dealt with before. 

So, with those benefits stated, here are some “What If?” questions along with some follow-ups you could pose for yourself and your team to work through:

  • What if we have to remain socially distant for another couple of years, how would we do business? What else could we do to flex? What changes would we have to make or could we make to sustain and grow our business in a socially distant operating environment?
  • What if we stopped doing 50% of the things that we’ve always done? What would they be? Why would we pick them? What would we do instead of those things that seem like a better use of time, attention and resources?
  • What if we were designing our organization from scratch today? What would we change? What do we know about the current environment that leads to those conclusions? What trends do we already see that, if they continue, would have a big impact on the way we design for the future?
  • What if we came out of this phase better and stronger than we were? What would have made that possible? If we assume our industry is going to still exist in the new normal, what changes will the winners have made to be the winners?
  • What if we want to be one of the winners? What will we need to do to be one? Who will we need to reach and serve? What will they want in the future?

These questions and others like them are best considered, in dedicated conversations. I’ve been facilitating some of those for clients over the past couple of weeks and have been struck by how the answers to one set of questions can shape and influence the answers to other sets of questions. It’s really a process of unlocking assumptions to the point where creative thinking about different possible scenarios can truly begin.

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Categories: Blogs

When Leadership, Ingenuity and Humanity Won the Day

Tue, 05/19/2020 - 05:00

A few weeks ago, I received a nice comment on LinkedIn about one of my blog posts from David Hoey who shared that he’s been a regular reader since 2010 when I wrote about the leadership lessons offered by the Chilean mine rescue. I appreciated David’s note for both the kindness he showed and for bringing the memory of the rescue back to mind.

In case you’ve forgotten, from late August and into early October 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped a half mile underground for 70 days when a collapse sealed off their exit route. They went 17 days without any contact from the outside world and then, after they sent proof of life via a note attached to a drilling tube sent down from a rescue team above, spent another 53 days taking care of each other until an amazing rescue process was engineered and executed. I wrote two posts during that period, one before the rescue and one just after it was completed.

During our current period of challenge and uncertainty, we can take hope and sustenance from episodes in history when leadership, ingenuity and humanity won the day. The Chilean mine rescue is one of those. I went back and reviewed my two posts from 10 years ago and pulled the following lessons from back then that I think clearly apply today:

Leaders keep the whole person in mind – One of the most remarkable things about the time the miners spent trapped underground was the way their leaders organized the group to take care of each other. They drew on their skills and life experiences to attend to each other’s needs in all dimensions of life – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

Leaders know when to go all in – When there still appeared to be very little basis to expect the miners to get out alive, the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, made a decision to go all in with the rescue effort. He was highly visible throughout the response and organized resources and expertise from around the world to rescue the miners. There were no guarantees at all that any of that would work, but Pinera went all in and stayed there until the last miner was brought up to the surface via the rescue capsule.

Leaders accept help – There is very little that leaders can accomplish by themselves. The best ones ask for help from people with the expertise to deliver it. Pinera and other leaders in Chile asked for and deployed help from experts from around the world including NASA to get all of the miners out alive.

Leaders under promise and over deliver – Once it looked like there was some hope that the miners could be rescued, the leadership in Chile set the expectation that it would be months – probably not before Christmas – until the miners could be brought home. When the final phase of the rescue began on an evening in October, the expectation was set that it would likely take two full days to bring all the miners up from the cave. Twenty-four hours later, all 33 were back on the surface. Over promising and under delivering leads to disappointment and disengagement. Smart leaders do the opposite.

Leaders put themselves in other people’s shoes – During the 70 days of the rescue effort, Chilean leaders did a remarkable job of considering the full range of needs of the miners and their families. They organized resources and expertise to support the nutritional, physical and psychological needs of the miners and dedicated a lot of time and attention to keeping their families informed and supported. It was as if the leaders put themselves in the shoes of the miners by asking themselves, “What I would need or want if I were in this situation myself?” and then did their very best to deliver on those answers.

The whole world was watching the mine rescue 10 years ago and Chilean leaders delivered. It’s often been said, though, that character is what you do when no one is watching. Sadly, it’s been widely reported and well documented that the miners and their families have not done so well in the years following their rescue. They don’t feel well supported in dealing with the long-term effects of their trauma and the surreal experience of suddenly becoming global celebrities for a brief moment in time. Perhaps that’s one more leadership lesson we can all draw from their story. The greatest leaders are in it for the long haul and keep up the work even when no one is watching. That feels like a good goal for all of us in leadership roles in the months and years to come.

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Categories: Blogs

Leaders, Welcome to the Beginning of Phase 2

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 07:01

From my vantage point of speaking with around a dozen leaders from different industries every week since the pandemic began, I’ve concluded that we’re at the end of Phase 1 and the beginning of Phase 2 of what it means to live and work in this new world.

Phase 1 has been the “reinvention” phase where leaders have been focused on figuring out new ways to keep their businesses running at some basic level. On the home front, many of us have been getting used to being on video conferences for a good part of the day while dealing with barking dogs and competing for bandwidth with our spouse and kids. Phase 2 is just beginning as many of the leaders I’m talking with are starting to think about what I’d call the “emergence” phase. As in, we’re emerging from the initial shock of all the change we’ve experienced and are now beginning to ask, “OK, how are we going to do this for months on end?”

Phase 3, aka “the new normal”, will eventually get here, but we’re still a long way from that. Right now, we’re dealing with the beginning of Phase 2 which is what the late, great change management guru, William Bridges, described as “the neutral zone.” In his classic book, Managing Transitions, Bridges pointed out that there are three phases of major change – the ending, the neutral zone, and the beginning. That order may seem out of sequence, but it’s intentional. Bridges’ point was that before anything new can begin, something else has to end, but you don’t just flip from the end of the old state to the beginning of the new. The neutral zone is that space of time in between the end and the beginning where the new rules aren’t yet clear and we’re feeling our way forward.

Sound familiar? That’s because you’re now living and working in the neutral zone, otherwise known as Phase 2. An era very clearly ended when many of us started working from home two months ago and we’ve just spent the last eight weeks acknowledging that ending and keeping things going while we did. That was Phase 1. We still don’t have nearly enough information to fully visualize Phase 3, which is OK because we’re not even close to being there anyway. That leaves us in Phase 2 – the neutral zone. What is the work of leadership in this phase?

I’d argue that you could sum up a big part of the Phase 2 work as reimagination. The neutral zone is the phase of the change curve when we should be thinking about what’s next and not just what’s now.

Here are three things you can do to lead that shift:

Move your Agendas from “To Do” to “What If?” – The urgency of the reinvention phase that we’re ending now has naturally led to a lot of agendas that are filled with “to do’s.” There’s just been a ton of stuff to get done in order to keep things going. The emergence work of Phase 2 will require more “What if?” agendas to give everyone the mental space needed to reimagine the why’s, what’s and how’s of the work. The questions posed in “What if” meetings should probably include ones like:

  • What if we were starting this over from scratch, how would we do it?
  • What if we stopped doing that, what could happen?
  • What if we had to do this for a couple of years, what would we change?

Cast a Broader Net – Questions like those I just raised probably highlight the fact that no one leader or small group of leaders is going to have all the answers. That’s why it’s vitally important to start casting a broader net as you start the Phase 2 of reimagining what the future will look like. You can consult customers, partners and experts from outside if that’s helpful, but you should most definitely engage the people in your organization who are closer to the customers and the day to day work. Tap into their perspective, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit by creating processes that solicit and incorporate their input.

Gather Data and Run Small Tests – A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how to take tangible action in the midst of a VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – environment. The starting points on dealing with uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are to gather data and information, identify some subset opportunities and then run some small tests that you can learn from. That is perfect for the neutral zone Phase 2 work of reimagination. Collecting lessons learned and getting your team (however large or small) involved in that process will bring the beginning of Phase 3 – the beginning of the new normal – into focus a little faster and with more clarity.

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Categories: Blogs

Leaders, Share Yourselves

Tue, 05/05/2020 - 12:08

One of the bright spots for me of this life-changing era we’re all living through is the stories of human connection that I hear from the executives I speak with every week. Again and again, they share moments or emails that demonstrate how tough times can bring out the best in leaders and their teams. I’m struck by how the moments that matter most are the ones in which leaders share themselves as human beings and encourage their team members to do the same.

A few weeks into the work from home period, a senior executive client of mine shared an email he sent to his team that came from his heart. Even though it had only been a week or so away from the office at that point, he wrote that he had realized something, “I miss you.” He talked about the importance of staying connected with each other during this period of virtual meetings and closed with, “Hang in there. These times will pass and brighter days are ahead.  Hug your loved ones.  Take care of your families.  We will have much to catch up on when we all return to the office.” While it wasn’t his intention in sending it out, he was flooded with replies, many of which said that his email had made the recipient shed a few tears of gratitude that they worked for a company where people matter so much.

The next level of connection comes when leaders don’t just share their own lives, they encourage their team to share with each other in fun and non-threatening ways. My favorite story on this front came from a CEO client of mine. His top leadership team of seven or eight people has been doing 60-minute day setter Zoom videos with a few times a week during the work from home period. A couple of Wednesdays ago, he asked his assistant to invite all the direct reports to the senior team to the Friday Zoom. She expressed concern that the broader group members wouldn’t have time to prepare for the meeting and my client said that no prep was necessary; it was just an opportunity to visit and that people who had pets should bring them to the Zoom. So, on Friday, a lot of folks introduced their cats and dogs to each other. The CEO noticed that one dog was sacked out on the couch in the background and asked the dog’s mom if everything was OK there. His mom/VP laughed and said, “Yeah, he’s fine. Watch this trick.” Then she said in a little louder voice, “OK, time to go to work,” and the dog immediately sat up and started HOWLING. I still laugh every time I think of that story and I imagine everyone on that extended leadership team does too.

My observation is that leaders are connecting at a personal level during the pandemic in ways that they never have before. Why is that? I think it’s because this situation has compelled all of us to shift down a bit on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A crisis like this makes everyone less concerned with the self-actualization and esteem at the top of the period and more focused on the basic needs for safety and love and belonging. The best leaders I know are instinctively tuned into this shift and are not afraid to authentically share themselves in response. Connection with our own humanity and other human beings is what’s going to get us through this challenge. If you’re a leader, please share yourself in ways that give people a little more insight into you as the whole person then take it further by creating opportunities for your team to share themselves. Little sparks of gratitude and laughter now will keep you all connected in deeper ways later.

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Categories: Blogs

Three Things to Stop Doing This Week

Tue, 04/28/2020 - 06:48

For many of us in the United States, week seven or so of the work from home (WFH) period is underway. And even as attention turns to how to get people back to the office, it’s pretty clear that we’re at the beginning of a pretty long haul of a lot more working from home than we ever thought we would. From my vantage point as a long-time work from homer and a coach to a lot of leaders and teams who are new to the scene, what I’m seeing is a slow realization that we’re in a marathon, not a sprint. And that means we’re going to have to adjust if we plan to finish the race on our feet.  About a month ago on the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, noted relationship counselor and therapist Esther Perel observed of the early days of WFH, “Never before have people worked so hard and gotten so little done.”

Inspired by Perel and what I’m seeing and hearing, here are three recommendations of things you need to stop doing this week if you want to work a little less hard and, in the process, actually get more done. If you’re in a leadership role, so much the better as whatever you stop doing will have a positive ripple effect for the people on your team.

Stop Sitting All Day – You probably never imagined you’d spend so much time at your kitchen table or that desk you set up in your extra bedroom. I have had way more than one client tell me that they’re sitting at their table in front of their screen for 10 or 12 hours a day without much of a break. I checked out some data from Fitbit today that showed the average step count for their users was down 12 percent the week of March 22 just as the WFH period was cranking up. I haven’t seen more recent data but am guessing the decline is now steeper and deeper. Sitting all day is bad for your health in general and bad for your brain in particular. You need fresh input to keep your neural network humming. Get up and out of your cave throughout the day. When you come back to the screen, you’ll feel better and think better.  

Stop Making Every Meeting a Zoom Call – When the WFH period started, all the cool kids moved to Zoom. The barriers to entry were low and the value of seeing colleagues’ faces was high. The value is still there, but several weeks in, it looks we’ve all overcorrected on the use of  Zoom and other video conferencing platforms. The new notice is the emerging trend of Zoom fatigue. My colleague Beth Schumaker shared this article from National Geographic that explains what it is and why it happens. Here’s the summary. You’ve never been on stage before like you are on Zoom. In the Brady Bunch screen share mode, everyone can see everyone else’s micro expressions and you’re aware you’re being watched as carefully as you’re watching others. You might even be watching yourself as you speak which is not something you ever did pre-pandemic. It’s exhausting and leaves you depleted with less frontal brain lobe capacity to think strategically and make sound decisions. Zoom is great until it isn’t. Mix up your communications modalities. Take some old-fashioned phone calls a few times a day instead of another Zoom.

Stop Holding on to Your Original Plan – Going back to work won’t mean going back to normal. You’re not going to pick right back up with the strategic plans you laid out before the pandemic; you’ll have to continue to reprioritize and reimagine based on new realities. In spite of everything that’s already changed and all that clearly will change from this point forward, I’m hearing from clients that a lot of their colleagues are still pushing and grinding away on their original business plans for the year. I get that at some level – there’s comfort in the familiar and in the belief that by following a plan we’re in control of our outcomes. Well, in the words of Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” If you’re tempted to stick with your plan, acknowledge that you and everyone else in the world has just taken the mother of all left hooks to the jaw. If you’re still holding on to the original plan, let go of it, step back and ask, “What’s most needed and most important now?”

So, that’s my short list of three things to stop doing this week. What’s on your list?

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Categories: Blogs

A Framework for Leadership Action in the VUCA of the Pandemic

Tue, 04/21/2020 - 05:00

If you’re an organizational leader it’s likely that you’ve heard of VUCA somewhere along the way. First developed by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus and popularized by the U.S. Army War College at the end of the Cold War, VUCA is a framework that leaders can use to think about how to respond in environments that are:

  • Volatile,
  • Uncertain,
  • Complex, and
  • Ambiguous

Up until now, the period following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 – 2009 financial crisis have been among the most often cited examples of VUCA environments. I’ve been a little surprised that, thus far, I haven’t seen a lot of VUCA references to describe the emerging environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. If there has ever been a VUCA situation, it’s this one. Perhaps it’s easier to make the VUCA call with a little bit of hindsight. We are definitely in the early days of this one.

One of my challenges with the VUCA acronym over the years has been that I think it’s easy to be a little glib in saying, “You’re living in a VUCA world,” without offering some practical ideas for how to lead when the world is that way. Honestly, a lot of the advice and recommendations I’ve seen on how to lead in a VUCA environment loop back on themselves so much that pretty soon the leaders who try to use them find themselves a little lost in their thought process.

I like to keep things simple because I think it’s easy to get started on a productive path when thinking and action frameworks err more towards simplicity than complexity. As a starting point, simpler frameworks make it easy to focus a conversation and align people around a goal. Sure, there’s a risk of over simplifying things but, as a starting point, I’d rather err on that end of the spectrum than over complexify things to the point where people are frozen into inaction from a lack of clarity or option overload.

With that in mind, here’s a simple framework for getting started with VUCA leadership that I came up with last year when I was working with a group of global general managers. Now that we’re all definitely in the early days of the most VUCA situation we’ve ever had since the term was invented, I want to share it with you in the hope that it can help you identify some next steps. Let’s break it down letter by letter, V-U-C-A, starting with Volatility:

Volatility – Volatile environments are disrupted ones in which things change rapidly and usually for the worse. Those are the perfect conditions to trigger a fight-or-flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. That’s why the first step in my simple VUCA action framework is for leaders to focus first on creating space for themselves and their teams to think. This could be as simple as reminding yourself and others to literally take a couple of steps back, take three deep breaths and then ask, “What do we think we’re dealing with and what are the most important things we need to focus on in the short-run?” Creating space gives you the opportunity to calm yourself and focus your efforts.

Uncertainty – Uncertain environments are typically ones where there aren’t a lot of historical precedents to draw on for comparison and guidance. The second step in the action framework, therefore, is to do what you can to reduce uncertainty by gathering data and insights. The data gathering is a focused effort on learning what you can from reliable sources. Insights can come from conversations with internal and external partners who feel comfortable sharing the truth of what they’re seeing from their perspective. In uncertain situations, insights can also come from examining past experiences that, while they weren’t the same as what you’re experiencing now, at least offer some analogs that you can draw on to help determine what’s needed next in this situation.

Complexity – Complex environments have lots and lots of variables that interact with and impact each other in potentially unpredictable ways. Combined with uncertainty, complexity can lead to option overload and analysis paralysis. To counteract that dynamic, the third step in the framework is to identify discrete, manageable chunks of action that could make a positive difference. You’re not trying to solve for 100 percent on any given day, you’re trying to solve for the five percent or so that will move you closer to bigger solutions. A series of successful five percent solutions usually work a lot better than delaying action in favor of fully baking a 100 percent solution. You usually don’t get to 100 percent anyway, and, even when you do, the situation will have changed so much by the time you implement that the solution isn’t as effective as you originally hoped it would be.

Ambiguity – Ambiguous environments are ones in which outcomes and endpoints aren’t clear. The world in pandemic certainly meets that definition. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop of thinking, “This will be over by (fill in your favorite date or arbitrary milestone here).” That can lead to a lack of meaningful action. The fourth step in the framework, then, is to counteract that dynamic by running small tests and sharing what’s learned from them. This test and learn approach builds on the previous step of identifying manageable chunks of action and keeps people engaged in a meaningful action loop in which short-term goals and dates are clear even as the longer-term endpoints aren’t. In addition to improving the current state of reality, engaging people in a test and learn approach gives them reason to hope and keep going.

Which, leads to one final step in this framework for VUCA leadership – rinse and repeat. The first four steps aren’t just sequential; they’re also iterative. To get everyone else through this crisis, leaders will have to keep creating space, gathering data and insights, identifying manageable chunks of action, running small tests and then leading the whole process over again and again.

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Categories: Blogs

Why You Need Spring Break (and Other Breaks) Now More Than Ever

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 05:31

As I write this, most of us in the United States are marking one month of stay at home and work from home orders to mitigate the public health impacts of the coronavirus. Those of us who are working from home recognize it’s a privilege to do so and have enormous gratitude and admiration for the health care workers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, first responders and so many others who are going to work so the rest of us can stay home.

That said, staying home and working from home can present some unexpected challenges. The biggest one that I’m noticing in talking with my clients and observing myself is that many of us are actually putting in more hours working from home than we did pre-pandemic. That’s not at all what I expected when we started this new phase a month ago. In the early days of WFH, my expectation for my clients was since their commuting time was going to shrink from “home to office” to “bedroom to den,” they would suddenly have way more time available to them during the day than they did at the end of February.

Initially, I thought, “Great, everyone will have more time to sleep and work out.” What’s happening instead for most people I talk with is that they’re spending that found time on more Zoom meetings. Then things get compounded by the fact that a day of Zoom after Zoom means you’re sitting at your desk even more than usual. Before you know it, it’s dinner time and you haven’t done anything in terms of physical, mental, relational or spiritual routines that help you be at your best for yourself, your family, team, colleagues, customers, etc. You’re sitting more than you’re used to because all of your meetings are in front of a screen and there’s no conference room down the hall that you have to get up and walk to. You’re not going out for lunch or coffee since you’re doing your meet-ups virtually from home. As one client pointed out to me last week, your brain is becoming rewired from the lack of fresh visual input when you drive back and forth to work. The days run together because they all feel exactly the same. As I wrote to a client in an email this morning, “Happy Monday – second verse, same as the first.”

So, what can we all do about this? As it happens, this is also the period that in normal times a lot of people would be taking Spring Break trips with their families. One of my CEO clients reminded me of that when we talked last week. He, his leadership team and everyone else in their financial services company have been working overtime these past four weeks to take care of their customers and each other. He told me that he asked his leaders to pick a weekday or two in the next couple of weeks to go offline for a mini, stay-at-home Spring Break to renew and refresh the health and well-being of themselves and their families.

That’s good advice for all of us. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you don’t need a little Spring Break time away from the WFH routine. And, when you’re working that routine, make sure to schedule little breaks throughout the day that get you out of your seat and away from the screen.

In following my own advice, I took an extended nature walk today and found the guy in the accompanying photo along the way. It brings me a small sense of peace to consider that this bird has no idea there’s a pandemic going on. It’s just another day in the pond for him.

So, this would normally be the point in the post where I’d give you a little list of things to do to take a break. I’m not going to do that this time. You know what to do. Please do it. Take care of yourself and stay healthy – physically, mentally, relationally and spiritually.

Please share what you’re doing to take care of yourself during the pandemic. We’ll all benefit from the collective wisdom.

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Categories: Blogs

The 360 Degrees of Crisis Communications

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 05:00

We all know by now that leaders must communicate in a crisis. It’s approaching the point of cliché because it’s true. The benchmarks for effective communications from top leaders are honesty, transparency, frequency, facts and empathy. Judging by the acclaim and appreciation he’s been receiving the past couple of weeks, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has been providing a great example of how an effective leader checks all of those communications boxes.

In times of crisis, it’s almost a societal default to look to the people in charge to transmit what they know when they know it while painting a picture of how we’ll get through this together. Its why Napoleon Bonaparte observed 200-plus years ago that leaders have a two-part job: the first is to define reality; the second is to offer hope.

So, yes, top-down communications that originates from both the head and the heart is vitally important to successful crisis management. There has been so much emphasis on top-down communications over the past month or so, though, that it can be easy to overlook other aspects of crisis communications that are at least as important.  The best crisis leaders understand that they need to be not just top-down transmitters of information but also facilitators of side-to-side communications and receivers of bottom-up communications. They run a 360-degree communications approach that incorporates these three elements: top-down, side-to-side and bottom-up.

We’ve already touched on what great top-down communications looks like; here are some ideas on how to bring side-to-side and bottom-up communications into your 360-degree crisis communications plan:

Side-to-side: When crisis leaders focus on facilitating in addition to transmitting and receiving, they help their teammates create connections that solve short-term problems while building long-term cohesion. Facilitation can look like something as urgent as bringing the right people together to develop a unified plan to allocate, distribute and share scarce resources during the crisis. Or, facilitation can look like the not urgent but highly important task of making it easy for colleagues working remotely in different locations and circumstances to share their stories and needs in ways that build empathy, connection and collaboration.

Bottom-up: Recognizing that it can be all too easy to get cut off from what’s really happening on the ground, the best crisis leaders take time away from transmitting and facilitating to make sure they’re also receiving bottom-up information and perspective from the folks on the front-lines who are dealing with the day-to-day impact of the crisis. It’s a well-observed phenomenon in history that top leaders are all too often sheltered from what’s really going on by staffers who, for whatever reason, are afraid to share the whole truth. So, the best leaders cultivate relationships with people closer to the action who will tell them what’s going on. Often, the very best leaders will visit the battlefield, as Lincoln literally did on numerous occasions, to listen and see for themselves. What leaders learn from those bottom-up communications channels enables them to make better-informed decisions during a crisis.

Top-down, side-to-side and bottoms-up. When practiced together, they form a 360-degree approach to crisis communications. Which one could use bit more of your time and attention right now?

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Categories: Blogs

Calm the Conflict with FaceTime and a Beer

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 05:00

In times of crisis, complex decisions often have to be made and implemented quickly. It can be challenging to coordinate and obtain buy-in on those big decisions even when the stakeholders can get in a room together to hash it all out. In the new “Work from Home” (WFH) era sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, being in the same room isn’t an option. That can lead to some predictable conflict-management problems that you can avoid with a little foresight and creativity.

Think back to that distant time of February 2020 and earlier. There were probably times when you found yourself in the middle of an email flame war. You remember how those went. One or more participants poured gas on the fire by sharing crazy assumptions or accusations without having all the facts. If you’re like the best leaders I’ve coached, you calmed the conflict by pulling the parties together to talk things out. Just the act of bringing the players into the same room made things better because once people are together, they connect more as human beings and not as faceless combatants sitting at their keyboards.

Now that we’re all WFH, leaders need to be super intentional and proactive about creating virtual spaces for human connection. For instance, let’s say you’re finding yourself at odds with a colleague about how your teams should coordinate and work together during the crisis. One option is to send emails back and forth (and maybe CC’ing a few people in the process) so the two of you can argue about who’s right and who’s wrong. That’s not good for anybody – your customers, your teams or either of you.

If you were in the pre-WFH days what would you do? I asked that question of an executive coaching client a few days ago who was in the middle of one of those virtual conflict loops. He immediately answered, “I’d walk down to his office and say, ‘Let’s go get a beer and talk things over.’” We concluded that that was still a good move, it would just have to be executed a little differently. Later that day, he set up a FaceTime call with his colleague and they each had a beer while they talked things over. The next day, they co-led an online meeting of both of their teams so everyone was working from the same playbook. The show of leadership unity that was engineered over a virtual happy hour was a crucial component of getting things back on track. (Thanks to my client for giving me the OK to share his story with you.)

We don’t realize how much our effectiveness as leaders and colleagues depends on the little things like picking up on facial expressions and body language while we’re relaxing together until our usual ways of doing that are no longer available. Until they are again, we’re all going to have to be more mindful of creating and calling for virtual alternatives. Our ability to make complex decisions and get good things done without a lot of needless friction depends on it.

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Categories: Blogs

Resetting Your Operating Rhythm for the “New Normal”

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 06:00

Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious. There is no new normal yet. The COVID-19 crisis brings another “new normal” every day. The situation is too fast-moving, fluid and unprecedented for any of us to settle in for whatever the long haul is and keep on truckin’ with the same operating rhythm we’ve used up until now.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t take a step back to assess our operating rhythm as leaders and professionals who still need to get stuff done. For years, I’ve been a big proponent of identifying and following through on your optimal operating rhythm. Until about two weeks ago, I thought I had mine nailed then two things happened. First, we moved to a new house and, second, a global pandemic started.

You may not have moved to a new house recently but you’re definitely experiencing the global pandemic. The two of those happening at once totally blew up my operating rhythm happy place. I’m writing this post on the morning of Monday, March 23 and to be very honest with you, last Thursday was the first day since all of this really started that I felt anything like normal in terms of my usual focus and productivity. The difference on Thursday was I found a few ways to reset my operating rhythm for whatever passes for the new normal that we’re in.

The point of this post is not to tell you what should be in your reset operating rhythm, it’s to share a few things to consider and observe that helped me reset mine and may help you reset yours. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Remember What You Need – Last week, I wrote about the impact of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on leaders and the led in times like this. Many people have been taken a few notches down the pyramid from concerns with Self-Actualization and Self-Esteem to the needs of Love and Belonging, Safety and Physiology. You have to take care of yourself to be of any use to anyone else so identify what you need from those last three levels of needs. The list for most people probably includes a safe place to live and work (which for many of us is now one in the same), healthy food, exercise and human connection. Your old operating rhythm likely incorporated a lot of those needs that were so automatic you didn’t notice them anymore. Mine, at least, was like that. When everything is disrupted, you notice. It’s disorienting at first like “I know I’m missing things but I’m not even sure what they are.” If you’re feeling that way, that’s a good sign that you could benefit from taking a little quiet time to step back, remember what you need and then make a list of those things.

Identify Your Old Forcing Functions – One of the things I realized last week was that my old operating rhythm was driven by a lot of external forcing functions. For instance, the calendar reminded me that I had two day-long leadership development sessions to deliver in St. Louis the first week of April. So, that would have triggered a lot of things on my part – prepping for the sessions, making travel arrangements, final base-touch calls with the client, etc. The night before the trip would focus on packing, double checking the business backpack, etc. The morning of would be an early alarm to get to LAX because the flight was leaving at the scheduled time whether I was on it or not.  You get the point. A simpler but no less important example for me was the daily yoga class I’d go to at 4:00 pm when I was in town. Class was starting on time whether I was there or not so it was out the door no later than 3:40 pm to make sure I was in the room. A bunch of those professional and personal forcing functions I relied on for years went out the window with the pandemic. Yours probably did as well.

Create Some New Forcing Functions – So, blinding flash of the obvious, with some excellent coaching from my wife, Diane, I realized I had to create some new forcing functions to reestablish a productive operating rhythm for myself. Coaching calls with clients have been an easy one because, honestly, that’s not a lot different than it was pre-pandemic. The conversational topics have definitely changed but the rhythm hasn’t. Talking with my clients provided an insight that I needed to start getting other things I need in my life back on my calendar even though the external forcing functions like speaking events, flights and class times weren’t there. I’m scheduling specific appointments with myself to do specific things in specific blocks of time for the professional and personal things I need in my operating rhythm even though I have more open time than I used to. And, then, I’m sticking to the schedule.

Find Alternatives and Schedule Them – For many of us, I think it’s been a little stunning and highly encouraging how we’re adapting to doing work online. It’s highly likely that you’ve joined a group video conference or even a virtual happy hour in the past week. Maybe, like mine have, your favorite fitness instructors have almost seamlessly pivoted to providing their classes online on a live stream and you can even keep their income up by paying your class fee via Venmo or some other cash app. New alternatives to our preferred professional and personal routines are developing daily. Take advantage of those and, where you see gaps, take the initiative to close them.

Stop Judging Yourself – The other thing I’ve found encouraging in the past week is that we’re all giving each other a little more grace. When you’re broadcasting on Zoom from an extra bedroom and everyone else is more or less doing the same thing, it’s a reminder that we’re all human and have lives that are much richer than our professional personas. I think this crisis is prompting us to not take ourselves so damn seriously. The work and the people we serve are important for sure, but the facades that we relied on to make us feel important in normal times seem pretty silly now, don’t they? So, please join me, as we all stop judging ourselves. These new operating rhythms we’re finding aren’t going to be seamless and it’s likely we’re going to be sharing our messiness more than we’re used to. It’s ok. The messiness doesn’t matter.

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Categories: Blogs

My Crisis Leadership Playbook

Thu, 03/19/2020 - 15:11

Along with testing our public health and economic systems in unprecedented ways, the COVID-19 pandemic will test leaders at all levels in all organizations as never before. When I talk about the ideas in my book, The Next Level, one of the first things I usually say is that the next level is any leadership situation which requires different results. Since different results require different actions, leaders need to make adjustments of picking up new behaviors and mindsets while letting go of others to create the results that are expected or hoped for. Well, here we are. The apple cart has been turned completely upside down and leaders everywhere are going to need to make some big changes to restore health and well-being for the people in their organizations, their communities, their nations and our planet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how what I already know about leadership applies and what else needs to be in the mix for all of us in leadership roles now that the world has changed so dramatically. The ideas I’m sharing in this post are the basics of a crisis leadership playbook that is something of a work in progress. I’ll update my thoughts as I learn more but wanted to go ahead and share what I have now in the hope that there is something in here that may be helpful to you and the people you love and lead.

The first thing I’m sure of is that effective leadership in this new era begins with effective self-management. When I was writing the 3rd edition of The Next Level in 2018, I summarized a lot of what I’d learned in the 6 years since writing the 2nd edition with three leadership imperatives:

  • Manage Yourself
  • Leverage Your Team
  • Engage Your Colleagues

You can think of these three as forming a pyramid with managing yourself at the base. Nothing else works as well as it could or should if leaders don’t manage themselves effectively.

So, what does it mean to do that well? Back in the old days (February 2020 and before), I focused on four domains of routines – physical, mental, relational and spiritual – that are the building blocks of effective self-management. I practice what I preach with those routines but, like everyone who is reading this, have had to learn over the past couple of weeks how to adapt those routines to the new realities of social distancing and life and business operating rhythms that are radically different than what they were pre-pandemic. I’ve always talked about optimal routines and “good enough for today” routines. For example, my optimal physical routine is a 75-minute hot yoga class in a room with 60 other people and a great instructor. That’s not happening now so, like a lot of you, I’m using online yoga and fitness classes. Not my old optimal but good enough for today and it’s helping me be at my best.

What I haven’t spent as much time thinking about over the years that I am definitely thinking about now is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There’s about a 100 percent chance you’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t looked at it lately, Google it and give yourself a refresh. The base of Maslow’s hierarchy is Physiological needs like air, water, food, shelter, sleep and clothing. (If Maslow were alive today, I imagine he’d add toilet paper to that list.) The next level of his pyramid covers Safety needs like personal security, employment, resources and health. The pandemic strikes right at the heart of this level of needs. The third level of the hierarchy is Love and Belonging with characteristics like friendship, intimacy, family and a sense of connection. Have you noticed how many FaceTime or Zoom calls you’ve been on the past couple of weeks to check in with family and friends? That’s because, even in the age of social distancing, you have a need for love and belonging. The top two levels of Maslow’s pyramid are Self-Esteem and Self-Actualization. My sense is a lot of high achieving leaders are not as immediately concerned about these two as they were a month ago. Other, more basic, needs have taken priority.

And that brings me to a new way that I’m thinking about leadership in these early days of the pandemic. As the accompanying picture illustrates, it’s about the way great leadership radiates across concentric circles.

  • The center and smallest circle, but a very important one, is You. To be any good for anyone else, you have to take care of yourself and manage yourself effectively. Your personal routines may need to be modified but you still need ones that will help you be at your best.
  • The next circle is occupied by your Family and Friends. You want to meet their physiological, safety and relational needs because you love them and care for them. When you do that at whatever level you can, you then free up mental and emotional bandwidth that you need to serve and lead your Team.
  • Your Team is where your leverage is. When you lead and serve them well, you can do great things together. The first task is to do whatever you can to help them meet their own basic needs. The second is to role model the approach you want them to take. Remember, as a leader, you control the weather. However you show up is completely predictive of how your team shows up.
  • From there, your work is about how you engage with your Colleagues, your Partners and other Stakeholders and, ultimately, the Customers and Citizens that rely on your organization.

I’ll wrap up for now with some basic building blocks that, along with self-care and caring for others, are essential for leading effectively in a time of crisis:

Establish Clear Short-term Priorities: Long-term visibility is impossible to come by right now, so focus yourself, your team, colleagues and other stakeholders on what you’re trying to solve for in the next 90 days. What, then, do you collectively need to do in the next 30 days to create that 90-day picture? What can you and your team do this week to support the 30-day agenda?

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: The old cliché has never been more true than it is now – you can’t over communicate (Doing it virtually as much as possible of course). As you organize and execute on your communications strategy, consider using William Bridges’ Four P’s checklist:

  • Purpose – what are we trying to do, why are we doing it and who are we doing it for?
  • Picture – what will success look like in the timeframe we can envision?
  • Plan – what’s our plan for doing that?
  • Part to Play – what are the roles and responsibilities of everyone on the team? Where are the interconnects and who has accountability for what?

Create Way More Connection and Touch Points Than Usual: As the leader, be super intentional about keeping everyone informed, encouraging and creating opportunities for support and celebrating the wins along the way. There will be wins to celebrate!

So, those are my current thoughts on running a crisis leadership playbook. What resonates with you? What would you add? What’s working for you? What else is on your mind?

Please let me know. I’m here to support you.

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Categories: Blogs

Staying Productive in the Age of the Corona Virus

Tue, 03/17/2020 - 18:59

As everything started to shut down this past weekend, I spent a good bit of time on Monday scrolling through my LinkedIn and Instagram feeds to see how some of the best-known people in my field of leadership development are handling this new reality. Brene Brown held a virtual church service on Sunday morning. Simon Sinek is filming short videos where he’s answering questions from readers.  Amy Cuddy shared a post where she talked about how she’s finding it hard to concentrate enough to write and asked if others were interested in joining her to commit to writing for at least one hour a day at the same time every day.

When I read Amy’s post, I was like, “Ah, ok I’m not the only one.”

Let’s be real. We’re living through an unprecedented time of a global public health crisis leading to what will likely be a global financial crisis. With all that’s going on, it can be really hard to be productive with our time and attention.

Five or six years ago I wrote a book called Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. Because of client meetings and speeches being postponed because of the virus, I’m not overworked at the moment, but I’ve definitely had my moments of feeling overwhelmed by all of the events of the past couple of weeks. Yesterday felt like I was stuck in the muck of uncertainty.

At some point last night and really while I was sleeping overnight, my brain started working through all of that. When I woke up early this morning, I realized that I needed to go back to what I wrote about in Overworked and Overwhelmed.

I wrote a lot in that book about the importance of mindfulness which I define as the combination of two words – awareness and intention. Ideally, awareness operates in two domains – external and internal. In our new age of corona virus there is a lot to be aware of externally. We’ve quickly reached the point of information overload with lots of speculation about how the corona virus situation will play out and how long it will take to do so. What I’ve become aware of internally is all of the external input is leading to a lot of anxiety for me about what might happen – with my family and friends, with my communities, with my business, with the markets and the economy, with the country, with the world. All of that thought about what might happen in the future can be enormously debilitating in the present.

That brings me to the second big word behind mindfulness – intention and the title of a classic book called Be Here Now. My intention when I woke up this morning was to do what I can do now to prepare for what may come. I can’t solve for 100 percent of any of that, but I can start taking lots of small steps that solve for 5 percent here and 5 percent there. Taking those consistent small steps will make things incrementally better for my family, friends and the community.

Here’s my short list of small steps I’m going to take starting now.

Checking in – I’m increasing the frequency of my calls to loved ones to see how they’re doing, offer help and increase my peace of mind.

Staying in – Staying home is the most important thing all of us can do to keep ourselves well and in the process help a lot of other people stay well.

Reaching out – As humans, we need connection with other humans to stay productive and healthy. I’m scheduling video chats and virtual coffees with people I work with and care about with no other purpose than supporting each other and staying connected. My friend and colleague Michael Bungay Stanier is one of my role models for how to do this well.

Working out – Fitness studios everywhere are going to be closed for a while but the good news is there’s a ton of video content available online that can help you stay true to your workout routine. Regular sustained movement is vital to maintaining not just your productivity but your health and well-being.

Giving to – My friend John Baldoni has done a lot of great writing and videos on the power of giving each other grace. My wife Diane and I are looking for opportunities to give grace through our words, actions and resources to the people who give to us. Two of my favorite yoga instructors, Allison Adams and Katie Keller are offering examples of how to do this through the live yoga class streams they’re providing online.

Working the list – The need for social distancing creates a ginormous change in all of our operating rhythms. It’s kind of awe-inspiring to think about what we might accomplish if we adjust our operating rhythm and use this time well. I’ve made a list of what I intend to accomplish and how to work it. For me, it includes writing a new book, launching a podcast, shooting videos for LinkedIn Learning, accelerating new virtual services for our clients and learning how to play rock guitar.

In Overworked and Overwhelmed, I wrote about the timeframes of mind – past, present and future. When we over index on the past, we become consumed with regret. Too much worry about the future creates crippling anxiety. So, the most productive thing we can do is to be here now. That’s important for all of us but it’s especially important for those of us who are leaders. I often say that leaders control the weather. However we show up is completely predictive of how the people around us will show up. That’s never been more true than it is today and will be in the months to come.

I’ll be honest with you, I wrote all this down and shot this video as a reminder for me of what I want to do and how I need to show up to do it to be productive in this age of corona virus. I got started by going back to the work I’ve written and shared in the past about research-based things any of us can do to live and lead at our best. Working on this has been helpful to me and I hope reading this post or watching this video has been helpful to you too. 

Stay well, stay home and keep washing your hands. And, if you’re one of those people whose essential work means you have to leave home to help the rest of us, special thanks and heartfelt wishes for your health and well-being.      

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Categories: Blogs

Move Beyond Conflict with Optimal Outcomes

Wed, 03/11/2020 - 17:00

Do you ever find yourself stuck in the same argument or stand-off with co-workers, family members and others? Most of us have experienced that.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, the author of a great new book, Optimal Outcomes: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home and in Life. As a professor at Columbia University, a counterterrorism research fellow for the Department of Homeland Security and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, Jennifer has spent her career helping people get out of seemingly endless conflict loops.

Here are some of the questions Jennifer answered for me in our conversation:

  • What’s an optimal outcome to conflict and why is that not always a win-win solution?
  • Why do we get stuck in endless conflict loops?
  • What are the basic conflict patterns and how can you determine which ones are in play?
  • How can we use conflict maps to understand what’s really going on?
  • Why is self-observation so important to developing optimal outcomes?
  • How can we create pattern breaking paths to end conflict with optimal outcomes?

We cover a lot more than this brief list of questions does justice to. It’s a rich and, I think, highly action-oriented conversation. Please give it a listen.

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Categories: Blogs

What I Learned from Jack Welch

Wed, 03/04/2020 - 05:00

One of the most memorable moments of my professional life was the first time I got to present from the Pit. (The picture that accompanies this post is me in that moment from 2013.)

In case you’re not familiar with it, the Pit is the well at the bottom of an amphitheater style room that seats about a hundred people on GE’s Crotonville leadership development campus in the Hudson River Valley. Back in the day, GE’s CEO Jack Welch used to hold forth from the Pit for three or four hours at a stretch leading a spirited back and forth with the high potential leaders in the company’s flagship Management Development Course (MDC). As a young manager and executive, I (like millions of other corporate leaders back then) used to consume everything I could about Welch and how he led GE. A work friend of mine with connections to GE corporate arranged for Welch to sign and autograph his photo for me which I proudly displayed on the bulletin board behind my desk. I was a total Welch geek and must have read at least a dozen stories about Jack teaching, prodding and goading his proteges from the Pit.

Flash forward 15 years or so later and there I was standing in the Pit as a guest speaker to a roomful of high potential leaders in the MDC. With everything I had read about Jack over the years streaming through my brain, it felt like I was standing on hallowed ground.

You’ve probably read that Welch passed away this week at the age of 84. Since he retired almost 20 years ago, GE has been through some radically tough times and is in the process of bouncing back under the leadership of Larry Culp, the company’s third CEO since Welch. In retrospect, Welch’s legacy at GE looks mixed but that doesn’t change the fact that I indirectly learned a lot from him when I was developing as a corporate leader that served me, my teams and my companies’ well.  His death has prompted me to reflect on those lessons and I’ve concluded that many still hold up.

Here are three top of mind examples of what I learned from Jack Welch along with some reflections on how he shaped the way I lead and the way I now advise leaders:

CEOs Have Two Main Jobs: Welch used to regularly say that his role as CEO came down to two main jobs – resource allocation and developing people.  I learned in Econ 101 at Davidson College that economics is essentially about the division and allocation of scarce resources. That was how Welch saw his first job at GE – making the final calls on where the company would place its biggest bets. His second job was to make sure that the company was systematic and strategic in developing the people who could execute on those bets. Part of that development was through Crotonville programs like MDC but most of it was through developmental assignments that stretched people beyond what they initially thought they could do. By all accounts, Welch invested his personal time in alignment with those two jobs. That was a big takeaway for me. Senior executives vote with their time and attention. Where they spend it is predictive of what gets prioritized and done by the organization.

Use Your Calendar as a Strategic Lever: In 1998, Business Week ran a cover story by John Byrne titled How Jack Welch Runs GE. I practically committed that article to memory back then and for years shared it with colleagues and clients. Looking back on it today, I smiled to see that it begins with a scene of Welch in the Pit speaking to an MDC class. What really grabbed me about the piece when it first ran, though, was a high-level summary of how Welch structured his annual leadership calendar to focus on his two biggest jobs of resource allocation and people development. There was a rhythm that Welch and his top leaders followed to make sure that their time and attention was leveraged to allocate the available resources and develop the people to achieve the strategic objectives. The calendar used key meetings throughout the year as a forcing function to focus top leadership’s attention and drive strategic decisions. It’s long been said that time is money. The way Welch used his leadership calendar showed me that time is also outcomes.

Make Change Systematic: In 1993, Noel Tichy and Strat Sherman wrote a book about Jack Welch and GE called Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will. I devoured that thing multiple times and constantly went back to it for ideas on how to do my job as a new executive charged with leading change.  Welch was constantly driving change at GE through big and revolutionary strategic initiatives. The book made the point that Welch noted that successful revolutionaries in history quickly moved to control three things: the police, the media and the schools. For Welch, the police at GE were the corporate audit staff. Historically, the GE audit staff were the rules enforcers that everyone else tried to avoid. Welch turned them into a group of internal consultants charged with spreading best practices throughout the enterprise. Welch’s media was GE’s internal communications function. He was masterful at coming up with brief and memorable strategic themes that drove multi-year agendas for the company. The comms team drove and reinforced those themes on a granular basis day after day. And, the schools at GE converged around Crotonville and the leadership development programs and systems that emanated from the campus. Put your versions of those three – police, media and schools – together and you’ve got a good handle on the tools you’ll need to drive change in a systematic way.

Was Jack Welch a perfect leader and perfect person? No, none of us are. He was a product of his era and did and said things that would never stand up today. He made his share of mistakes that proved out both during and after his time as CEO. None of that means, though, that Jack Welch didn’t make a difference and develop a whole lot of people who went on to lead great things. Even though I never met the man, I learned a lot from him and am grateful for that and to have had the opportunity to stand where he stood. Rest in peace, Jack.

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Categories: Blogs

Stop Feeding Your Trolls

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 05:00

We all know that there are trolls on social media. Twitter is full of real people and bots generating a constant stream of mean tweets.

What we sometimes forget is that trolls have been with us since long before Twitter was ever a thing and live on in three-dimensional form today. Trolls can show up on peer leadership teams, boards of directors and lots of other places where people need to work together to get things done. Chances are you’re dealing with some trolls in your work world right now.

Your trolls may not be sending literal mean tweets but they are likely disrupting and derailing productive conversations with their grousing, complaining and cheap shots. You never get constructive input from a true troll. Attacking and complaining, for trolls, are not means to an end; they’re ends in themselves.

In other words, trolls are gonna troll. It’s almost always a waste of time to try to figure out what motivates them or how you can help them see the light. Your energy is better spent on neutralizing their impact.

Here, then, are three ways to seize the initiative and stop feeding your trolls. 

First, establish and reinforce your narrative. In his classic book, Leading Minds, Harvard professor Howard Gardner made the point that the great leaders of history all had two things in common. First, they had a compelling story of change and, second, their lives embodied their stories. Take a lesson from Gardner’s work. Get really clear about the story of the outcomes you’re trying to create and why they matter to the people you’re serving. Then, be very intentional about acting in ways that are consistent with and reinforcing of your narrative. The strength of your story and how you’re leading and living in support of it will speak volumes to the people who matter most. And, in the process, you’ll reduce the credibility and impact of whatever junk the troll is spewing.

Second, recruit some troll containing allies. You need help when you’re under attack from a troll. Guaranteed, you’re not the only one who is annoyed by the troll and who sees the negative impact of the troll’s misdirection of time and attention. Ask your colleagues for help. Recruit some of them to serve as allies in containing the troll. Ask them to step up in meetings to help get things back on track when the troll is distracting everyone from the real work. Ask them to be particularly aware of not getting pulled into a back and forth with the troll. Ask them to have your back and speak the truth when you’re personally attacked by the troll. There’s strength in numbers. Increase yours.

Third, respond, don’t react. If you watch for the patterns, it’s not going to take you long to figure out what the troll is going to do and when they’re going to do it. It’s usually pretty predictable. That works to your advantage because it gives you the opportunity to step back and choose a productive response instead of just reacting with understandable frustration or anger (which just further feeds the troll). Respond with your narrative strategy and personal brand in mind. Choose the dignified response by focusing on what matters and the facts that support the goal. Don’t let the troll pull you and the rest of the group into a reactive ditch. Remember the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

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Categories: Blogs

The Three Essential Components of Strong Preparation

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 05:00

A few months ago I wrote here that preparation is the new leadership differentiator. That conclusion is based on close observation of my executive coaching clients and their colleagues. In an age where just about everyone has too much input and too much to do, showing up prepared for important meetings and conversations is something the best leaders do that sets them apart from the norm.

How do they do it? I shared some of their time management hacks in the post I just linked to. In this post, I want to share how they organize their thinking around three essential components of strong preparation.

The components are It, Them and I. Here’s the breakdown on how to put them to work for your own preparation.

It refers to the issue and the preparation required to master it. It’s basically doing the homework required to be up to speed on the issue. You read the reports, think through the deck, have the background conversations, get the briefing. You know you’ve done your homework on It when you have a good handle on the following questions:

  • What is It?
  • What isn’t It?
  • Why does It matter?

Them is the component of preparation in which you consider the other people involved in or affected by the issue.  Some of the preparatory questions to work through on Them include:

  • Who are they? (In other words, who are the key people or groups involved?)
  • What do they care about?
  • What are their likely objections or concerns?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Who are the supporters?
  • What’s my strategy for engaging them?

I is about you as the leader who needs to prepare. You’ve gotten a handle on It and have thought through your approach with Them. Now, it’s about preparing yourself to engage.

That involves thinking through and, in some cases, visualizing your answers to questions like:

  • What am I trying to accomplish in the bigger picture?
  • What am I trying to do in this next conversation or meeting to support that goal?
  • If I’m completely successful with this next exchange, what happens at the end? What do people know? How do they feel? What have they agreed to do?
  • How do I need to show up to make those outcomes more likely?
  • What kind of energy should I project? High? Low? Positive? Negative? Some combination of those?
  • In my communications, am I putting more emphasis on transmitting or receiving or trying to hit a sweet spot between the two?

As you can see, none of the above is rocket science level stuff. It’s mainly about giving yourself a little bit of space to think things through before you act. It’s the little things like that that separate the great leaders from the near-greats.

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Categories: Blogs

How Successful Leaders Use Both Retail and Wholesale Communications

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 05:00

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s presidential primary season. There are any number of reasons to pay attention to primaries, one of which is you can learn a lot about leadership communications strategies and tactics by watching how the candidates do what they do. The most successful ones tend to go both broad and deep with their communications. They send messages to very large groups of people while at the same time try to establish personal connections with individuals.

Sometimes it’s a coffee klatch for a small group and other times it’s a rally for thousands. Sometimes it’s standing for hours taking selfies with a line of supporters and other times it’s giving a big speech to mark out their positions and platform. Sometimes it’s a text message or phone call and sometimes it’s a 30 second television ad on what seems like every commercial break.

Successful candidates are masters of both retail communications (the coffee klatches and selfies) and wholesale communications (the rallies and ad campaigns). Retail and wholesale communications have applications far beyond politics. The distinction definitely has importance for leaders of any kind of movement or large organization.

Here’s a rundown of the similarities and differences between retail and wholesale communications and some ideas to consider as you work out your leadership communications game plan.

Many Channels, One Strategy:  Choosing a retail or a wholesale communications channel depends on the need, the reach and the moment.  Either way, the channels and the approaches within them need to be tied to an overarching strategy. A simple framework for building a communications strategy can rest on three questions that you keep coming back to:

  • What? – What are you trying to accomplish?
  • So What? – Why does it matter and why should people care? (And, by the way, what do they already care about?)
  • Now What? – What do you want people to do next? What do you want them to know or think? How do you want them to feel?

Narrowcasting or Broadcasting? Narrowcasting is another way to think about retail communications. It allows you a lot of opportunity to tailor your “So what?” to individuals or small groups of people with common interests. It gives you the chance to be more nuanced in your messaging. Broadcasting is a wholesale communications approach. It’s delivered through online and offline channels that can reach a lot of people at once. It’s best used for establishing themes and value propositions that can fit on the proverbial bumper sticker. Highly effective communications campaigns use a combination of narrowcasting with key influencers and broadcasting to the larger group.

Simplicity vs. Complexity – Building off the narrowcasting and broadcasting distinction is the need to hit the sweet spot on the spectrum of simplicity vs. complexity in your messaging. As a general rule, simple messaging (again, think bumper stickers) is the way to go when you need to wholesale your communications. You can definitely be more nuanced and complex in your retail communications but be careful not to make the messaging too complex. The human brain can only process a limited amount of ideas at any one time. Make your points for sure, but keep them short and memorable. Simple and familiar analogies help a lot on that last point.

Adjust Your Energy Dial – As a general rule, the bigger the room, the bigger your energy needs to be. This point was driven home to me years ago by a client. My natural energy setting is friendly but low key. I’m not usually going to be the loudest voice in the room. When I was getting started in my career as a speaker 15 years ago, I had a client organization where I spoke to 40 or 50 high potential leaders three or four times a year. Sometimes those sessions went great and other times they were kind of flat and I never really understood why it went one way or the other. After watching me in action a few times over the course of a year, my client contact gave me some incredibly valuable feedback. She said, “I notice that when the group has a lot of energy, you have a lot of energy. And, when the group starts out kind of flat, you’re flat. I need you to lead the energy of the room, not be led by the energy of the room.” That’s something I worked on for several years and I’ve since learned to adjust my energy to lead the people in the room toward a particular outcome. That lesson has a lot of application to effectively using both retail and wholesale communications. The more intimate channels of retail communication usually call for a level of energy projection that is appropriate to the room. You want to hit the sweet spot and not overdo it. In the wholesale communication scenario of much bigger rooms where you can’t make eye contact with everybody there, you almost always need to dial up your energy. The goal in big rooms is not an inauthentic version of you; it’s a bigger version of you.

CTA’s Beat FYI’s – One thing we know for sure about communications in 2020 is that people aren’t going to stay with you very long if you don’t keep them engaged. CTA’s (calls to action) almost always beat FYI’s (you know what that means). Whether you’re using a retail or wholesale communications channel, your messaging needs to be delivered in a way that encourages interaction and/or action between you and the audience, within the audience, from the primary audience to other audiences and especially within the minds of individual audience members. No matter what communications channel you’re using, always be thinking about the Now What? What do you want the audience to know, think, do, feel or believe? What’s your CTA both during and after the communications event?

So, that’s a recap of some my experiences and observations on the ways successful leaders use both retail and wholesale communications. What have I missed? What do you agree or disagree with? What’s one takeaway that you intend to act on?

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Categories: Blogs

Preview The New Audiobook of The Next Level

Mon, 02/10/2020 - 15:38

For everyone who likes to get their leadership development through their ears instead of their eyes, I have good news. The audio edition of my book, The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success has arrived and is ready to stream through your earbuds.

The new audio edition is available wherever you purchase your audio books including Amazon, Apple Books and Audiobook.com. You can listen to a free preview and introduction to the book here.

That resonant voice you hear in the preview is KTLA-TV anchor Frank Buckley who did a great job narrating the book.

We’ve learned that not all of the audio book vendors make it possible to download the PDF with the book so we’re providing it here for everyone whether you have the audio edition or not.  The PDF includes graphics that are in the print edition like a summary table of the behaviors leaders need to pick up and let go of when they’re moving to the next level and a Life GPS® worksheet that you can use to map out your strategy for effective self-management.

After you’ve given the new edition of The Next Level a listen or a read, please leave a review on Amazon.

Thanks, and enjoy!

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Categories: Blogs

The Leadership Difference Between Being Accessible and Available

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 06:22

Ever had a manager who told you they had an “open-door policy?” Who knows, maybe you’ve even declared that yourself. The open-door policy implies that your team members or colleagues can come to you with anything. That desire to be a transparent and open leader is admirable. The problem starts when people knock on the proverbial door (and knock and knock) and no one’s home.

When I’m doing colleague feedback interviews for an executive coaching client, I’ll sometimes hear that person described as accessible. Other times, a colleague will describe the leader as available. On rare occasions, I’ll hear that the executive is both accessible and available.

You might think the two words mean more or less the same thing. They do in the dictionary, but they don’t in the realm of leadership. There’s a big difference between the two and the example of the leader who has an open-door policy but is never around to answer it explains the difference. Accessible and Available. Not the same thing.

Being accessible is mainly a function of personality. Accessible leaders:

  • Put people at ease.
  • Encourage open and honest conversation.
  • Provide coaching and guidance.
  • Don’t stand on title or hierarchy.
  • Seek feedback.

Being available is mainly a function of time management. Available leaders:

  • Put team members and colleagues on their list of priorities.
  • Leave time in their weekly calendar for unscheduled conversations.
  • Make clear to others how and when they can be reached.
  • Keep their meeting commitments except in case of true emergencies. (This is especially true for regularly scheduled team meetings or team one on one’s.)
  • Make good use of technology – particularly video conferencing – to be available virtually when they can’t be physically.

The benefits of operating from these “best of” lists for accessibility and availability are pretty clear. Both the leader and their team learn more, develop faster and have higher levels of engagement and performance.

So, how are you doing? Are you accessible, available or both? What’s one thing you could start doing in the next week to move the needle in a positive direction for you and your team?

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Categories: Blogs