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What Multiple Sclerosis Has Taught Me About Life and Managing Myself

Wed, 08/21/2019 - 08:36

It was ten years ago this summer that I was diagnosed with MS. That first year or two was really scary. My thinking was frequently foggy. Most days my brain felt like a wet sponge inside my head. One way that showed up was that I was constantly letting our dog roam through the neighborhood because I thought I was pressing the button to close the garage door after walking him when I was really opening it.

My body was betraying me too. In a few months, I went from regularly going on 8 or 9 mile runs on the weekend to barely being able to walk around the block without leaning on my wife, Diane. There was one afternoon in DC that I’ll never forget. I was coming out of a meeting and a huge thunderstorm opened up out of nowhere as I was walking the three blocks back to the parking garage. I started to run to get to the garage and literally couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. I had to steady myself against buildings as I walked back getting soaked in the storm.

Today, things are very different. This is the fifth year in a row when I’ve flown 100k plus miles on United by the middle of the summer. I’m not particularly proud of that stat;. it’s just one way of making the point that MS isn’t slowing me down. Diane tells me that people ask her all the time how I do what I do and keep the schedule I keep. My first thought is I just do it. Then when I stop and think about it, I recognize that what’s working for me is what I’m always telling leaders will work for them.

It’s all about the routines – physical, mental, relational and spiritual – that will help you live and lead at your best. For me, my core routines have become such a normal part of my life rhythm that I don’t really think about them anymore. You know how you can end up doing stuff so automatically that you just assume everyone else does all of that? Of course, that’s not true but it is true that routines can cut both ways – there are helpful ones and ones that aren’t so helpful.

The early effects of MS really caused me to step back and reassess the pros and cons of what I was routinely doing and open myself up to new routines that could help me get my life back on track. One thing I learned early on was that when you have a chronic illness you have to manage your stress. You can’t afford to live in a state of chronic fight or flight. Doing that makes you less productive in the short run, feel worse in the short to medium run and reduces your life expectancy in the long run.

So, in the hope that this might be of help to some of you who are reading this post, here’s what I’ve learned about life and managing myself in these past 10 years with multiple sclerosis. I’ve organized what I’ve learned and do by the four domains of routines that I share with readers and clients when I teach them how to create and use their own Life GPS®.


Keep Moving – Rhythmic, repetitive motion activates your nervous system’s parasympathetic response. Pretty much every positive outcome in your body flows from that activation. I am constantly moving throughout the day and doubling down on that with regular yoga classes, long walks and lifting weights. All of that has increased my strength, range of motion, flexibility and sense of balance. Those are super important factors in living a healthy and confident life whether you have MS or not.

Eat Cool – Over the years, I’ve adjusted what I eat and drink to reduce inflammation in my body.  There’s a ton of research that demonstrates that chronic inflammation is a big source of disease. My anti-inflammation diet approach is no gluten, very little dairy, lots of plants, no red meat, lots of hydration, and limiting the alcohol to red wine and the occasional gluten-free beer or small glass of really good single malt scotch (Those last two are cheats but I also believe in doing things you enjoy in moderation even if they’re not on the “approved” list.)

Sleep – Research demonstrates that 95 percent of human beings need at least seven hours of sleep a night to be fully functional in the short run and reach their full life expectancy in the long run. When I learned this, I got serious about my sleep. When I get seven to eight hours in a night I feel and perform a lot better the next day both physically and mentally.


Keep Breathing – In 2013, I did a 200 hour yoga teacher training program with a wonderful, highly experienced instructor named Birgitte Kristen. I quickly realized that a lot of what she was teaching us also applied to my work with leaders. I asked her to lunch to get her input on what I should share with my corporate clients. She immediately said, “Breathing. Ambitious people don’t know how to breathe.” She explained that the right way to breathe is deeply from the belly. About the same time, I learned of Nobel prize winning research from Elizabeth Blackburn and her team at the University of California at San Francisco that shows that as little as 12 minutes a day of meditative breathing improves genetic expression. When I heard that I thought, “As someone with MS, why would I not spend 12 minutes a day on breathing in that deep meditative way?” Since then, the meditation app on my phone tells me I’ve spent about 450 hours breathing deeply and intentionally. I’ve found that has lengthened my gap between  stimulus and response. It’s made me less reactive and more responsive. There are way fewer things that trigger me than there used to be. I think more clearly and it feels like I make better decisions. All of that breathing has slowed things down in a way that sometimes makes me feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. That’s super helpful in maintaining a productive perspective on the ups and downs of life.

Almost Everything is Temporary – If there is anything MS has taught me it’s that almost every condition in life is temporary. In my early years with the disease I would feel completely crappy for a few hours and then suddenly feel OK if not pretty good for a few hours. Everything was subject to change. Since then, I’ve learned how to manage myself so I have way more feel good moments than bad but I haven’t forgotten the lesson that most everything is temporary. It doesn’t really matter whether you like it or not because it’s going to change pretty soon anyway. Accepting that has made life in general much easier.


Enjoy the Now – Once I literally got my feet back under me, Diane and I decided that whenever we could, we were going to enjoy and take advantage of the “Aren’t we lucky to be alive?” moments that life presents. My MS diagnosis made us realize that we don’t have any guarantees about how life is going to play out so let’s not wait. We don’t wait to connect. We don’t wait to have that experience or create that memory or touch that life.

Share Your Secrets – In the first five years after I was diagnosed, we only shared my condition with immediate family and close friends. We were so scared by what MS did to me early on and all of the terrible stories we had heard that we didn’t want people to know what I was dealing with out of fear that my clients might think I couldn’t perform or show up for my commitments. Then, in 2014, I wrote my second book, Overworked and Overwhelmed. I couldn’t have written that back without the experience I had had learning how to deal with MS so I felt like I had to share my secret if I was going to be authentic in putting that book out into the world. What was shocking to me was how supportive people were and how much they appreciated me sharing what was going on and what I was learning from dealing with it. It was a huge stress reducer for me (which made me feel even healthier) and also a huge source of connection. One thing about being a human is we all have something going on. I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to deal with your something when you share it. The bonus is that other people sometimes benefit from your story and what you’ve learned along the way.


Reading for Purpose – This last lesson is one that I learned a long time ago, kind of forgot about and have recently returned to. The volume and availability of news in 2019 makes it way too easy to overdose on the latest headline, tweet or outrage. A recent trip out of the country for business and pleasure made me aware of what I’ve been doing the past couple of years. In two weeks abroad, I didn’t see a single flat screen TV with a “Breaking News” headline in a public space. Here, in the US, you can’t escape them. For me at least, the news culture was causing me to spend more and more time reading the same story in five different places. Thanks to the trip abroad, I’ve been on a cable news fast for the past month and, boy, do I feel better. I’m reading more books and fewer articles. I’ve found that my new reading habits are generating less stress (always good when you have MS) and providing more impetus and space to reflect on questions of purpose like why am I here and how do I want to contribute. That feels great and I intend to keep doing it.

So, this post has turned out to be way longer than I originally intended. I guess it takes about 2,000 words to process ten years of life lessons and experience. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for hanging in there and I hope you’ve found something useful. If you did, I’d love to hear what landed with you. In the meantime, remember we all have something going on so, whatever it is for you, know you’re not alone and continue to rock on.

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Categories: Blogs

If You’re Only Transmitting You’re Not Influencing

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 05:00

As I’ve written here before, effective leadership communications involves two distinct activities – transmitting and receiving. You can think of it like a two-way radio or a smartphone. They only work when they both transmit and receive. For your leadership communications to be inspirational and influential, you need to do both as well.

Too many people in leadership roles overemphasize the transmission and underemphasize the reception. These folks equate leadership with giving inspirational speeches or pep talks. Before you can have the inspiration, you’ve got to have the conversation. To inspire and influence others to action, you have to know and address what they care about.

To do that, you need to be super-intentional about putting yourself in reception mode. An easy and proven way to do that is to conduct a Listening Tour. I talk at some length about how to stage an effective Listening Tour in chapter 8 of The Next Level but, for now, here are some tips for getting started.

Identify Representative Stakeholders: The groups of people you’re trying to inspire or influence are made up of real human beings with hopes, fears, wants and needs. They’re all people who have a stake in the movement you’re trying to lead or the outcome you’re trying to create. Go have conversations with a representative sample of them. Note that I said “have conversations” instead of “talk with.” The distinction turns on transmitting vs. receiving. “Talking with” is usually transmission-oriented; “having a conversation” is usually reception-oriented. You want more of the latter and less of the former.

Start with Open-Ended Questions: Once you’ve figured out who you’re going to listen to on your tour, develop a list of open-ended questions that will help you learn more about them. Some of my road-tested favorites include:

  • What will make this a great year for you?
  • What difference would that make for you?
  • What’s helping you accomplish your goals?
  • What’s getting in the way?
  • What’s going on that has you excited?
  • What’s going on that has you concerned?
  • What kind of help do you need to be successful?
  • What can I do to help?

Compare and Contrast: Take notes during or immediately after each of your Listening Tour conversations and then compare and contrast. What similarities do you see across the conversations? What differences do you see? How do the dots connect into a bigger picture that could give you guidance on how you should lead and communicate?

Spending some quality time in receiving mode will make you much more effective in transmitting mode. Get the balance right and you’ll be a more inspiring and influential leader.

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Categories: Blogs

My Top Three Leadership Reads for Your Summer Vacation

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 05:00

Just in time for your summer beach reading, I thought I’d share a quick recap of the three most popular blog posts I’ve run so far this year. Happily, each of the posts addresses one of the three key leadership imperatives I identify in the new 3rd edition of The Next Level:

  • Manage yourself
  • Leverage your team
  • Engage your colleagues

My most popular post on managing yourself so far this year has been How to Keep Your Poker Face. If you could benefit from not letting your facial expressions or body language give away everything you’re thinking, this one’s for you.

On the imperative of leveraging your team, the most read post so far this year has been How to Stop Inspiring Your Team to Underperformance.  Starting with “Dial Back the Nice,” this one has three proven and practical ways to raise your team’s game.

And, this year’s number one post to date on engaging your colleagues is How to Get Your Micromanager Boss to Back Off. For all the people who have a micromanager in their lives, this post teaches you how to Anticipate, Train and Show your way to a more productive and less frustrating relationship.

So, there’s my contribution to your summer reading list. Maybe not as pulse pounding or as steamy as that spy novel you have lined up, but guaranteed to be a quicker read and something you can actually put to work when you get back from vacation!

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Categories: Blogs

Beat the Churn with Context

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 05:00

One of the stories I tell in The Next Level is about the CEO of a very well-known company who, in speaking to a meeting of the top 200 executives there, spontaneously riffed out loud about how “We could use more employees with the skill set and approach that Competitor X has.” Over the next six months, the CEO’s company had hired scores of employees from Competitor X and, as they did, unintentionally changed the culture of their own company. The CEO started to notice what was going on and asked why the company was suddenly hiring so many people from Competitor X. The answer was, “You told us to at the top executive conference.” The CEO’s response was that he was just thinking out loud that they could use people like that and he didn’t mean that anyone should go out and poach them away.

Chalk one up for needless churn. Based on a random comment rooted in a fragment of a thought people sprang into action, spun things up and changed the culture of a major company in the process.

Another way to spark churn in your organization (which both I and a number of my executive coaching clients have been guilty of) is to send your team members an email with a report or article attached with a cryptic cover note like, “Please take a look at this.” I was reminded of this one lately in a senior leadership team meeting where some of the executives were talking about how they had been acting on an article their CEO sent with a “Read this” message. The boss was surprised when they told him that and said that he had only sent it because he had found it interesting. In the meantime, hours were burned and churned by people guessing and then acting on what they thought he wanted.

So, if you’re the designated leader how do you avoid sending your people into a cycle of churn?

It’s pretty simple really. Slow yourself down and take a few more moments to provide some context about what you’re saying or sending and why you’re saying or sending it. For instance, the Competitor X example that I started this post with could have been avoided if the CEO had first said, “I’m just thinking out loud here and putting this on the table as food for thought, not action.” Or, in the case of sending an article around, expand on “Take a look at this,” with a sentence or two more about why it resonates with you and how you think it could be useful to others.

You may think that advice is beyond basic and that it should be obvious that you don’t expect people to take action on the things you say and the stuff you share unless you explicitly ask for action. Yeah, it may be obvious to you, but it’s likely not obvious to them. Experience shows again and again that even senior executives are so motivated to please their boss that they will often spring into action at the slightest prompt. As a result, there’s a lot of needless churn in a lot of organizations.

Beat the churn. Provide some context.

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Categories: Blogs

What I Learned About Leadership from Reading Mad Magazine

Wed, 07/17/2019 - 06:40

You may have seen the recent news that Mad magazine is ending regular publication. On the other hand, you may not have known it was still being published (I didn’t) or, depending on your age, have even heard of Mad.  I definitely have. As a tweener and a young teen, there was a three to four year run where I read pretty much every issue.

As a matter of fact, the copies of Mad in the photo that accompanies this post all belong to me. In thinking about writing this, I remembered that I had a bunch of old comic books and rock and roll magazines stored in a plastic box in my closet. I haven’t looked through it in years but figured there were some issues of Mad in there. Sure enough, I found a couple of dozen of them from the era of peak Mad.

If you don’t have your own copies and want a quick recap on the heyday of Mad, I recommend Tim Krieder’s opinion piece in the New York Times, “The World According to Mad Magazine.” My favorite line from his article is “Grown-ups who worried that Mad was a subversive influence… were 100 percent correct.” After browsing through some of my old issues today, I completely agree. I don’t know if my parents actually ever looked at Mad, but if they did, I’m amazed that they let me read it.

For good and for bad, Mad influenced me in my formative years. Reading some of the stuff that I read back then makes me cringe today. My old issues of Mad are definitely reflective of where the U.S. was in terms of race, gender and sexuality in the 1970’s. (Of course, given some of the headlines we’ve been reading regularly lately, it’s reasonable to wonder if we’ve really come that far since then.)

On the other hand, I can see how Mad started shaping my 10 to 13 year old brain in ways that, for the most part, have been useful influences on the way I’ve engaged with and led others over the years. There are a few things in particular that stand out for me:

Words MatterMad was full of plays on words. The magazine’s writers were also highly skilled at conveying a lot with a few words. One photo article I found today was a “Mad Look at Then and Now,” where they juxtaposed two photos with a “from this to that” caption. My favorite was a side by side of Moses holding up the Ten Commandments next to a picture of Nixon holding up his arms during a parade. The caption was From PROPHET… to LOSS. And, of course, they were famous for their movie and television show parodies. A few of my 7th grade buddies and I were so inspired that we produced an issue of our own Mad knock-off called ZAP! I have a copy of that too (yes, I know it’s strange).  We came up with our own satire on The Exorcist that we called Extrasick. Today, I try to keep my writing style casual, conversational and, hopefully a little bit smart and occasionally funny. A lot of that took root while reading Mad.

The Difference Between What They Say and What They Think or DoMad was always calling out hypocrites and their hypocritical actions. One little illustrated piece I found today was on “What Coaches Say in Public and in Private.” For example, the football coach says in public, “We won because we stuck to our original game plan!” and in private says, “We were just lucky they fumbled more than we did!” Another issue provided a handy guide to “Bulling Your Way Through Election Campaigns” where, in true Mad-Libs fashion, you could pick your topic like foreign policy or the economy, choose a pre-written draft of an all-purpose statement and then select two adjectives from columns A and B and a noun from column C. And, voila, you kind of sound like you know what you’re talking about. Learning at an early age to focus on what people say versus what they do served me well later in life when I started coaching leaders. If what you say doesn’t line up with what you do, people will eventually check out on you and your culture will fall apart. Who would have guessed that Mad would end up being a guide to assessing corporate cultures and their leaders?

Question Assumptions  – In my years of being a leader and working with leaders, I’ve always found “Why are we doing it this way?” to be a very useful question. That impetus to question assumptions (and quite often authority) probably started with reading Mad. Their editors and writers were ruthless in leveraging “the way we do things around here” for laughs whether it was a mock catalog of worthless junk sold through direct mail, a take-down of the power and light company or any number of other absurdities you encounter in everyday life. Learning to step back and question the assumptions about the way things are done around here has proven to be valuable in both being a leader and coaching leaders.

All of that said, I’ve also learned, as I wrote years ago, that being a smart-ass can only get you so far. It can be charming and funny until it’s not. In reading Tim Kreider’s and other writers recollections and appreciations of Mad, I had one of those almost embarrassing flashes of self-knowledge. It was like, “Oh, so that’s where that came from!” Like most things in life, the impact of reading so much Mad magazine as a kid wasn’t all good and wasn’t all bad for me – it was a mix. So, I’ll continue on with the journey of leveraging the good and mitigating the bad. That’s a big part of life and leadership isn’t it? We keep on keeping on or, as Alfred E. Neuman might ask, “What, me worry?”

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Categories: Blogs

A Life Leadership Lesson from My Mom

Wed, 07/10/2019 - 05:48

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you may remember the post I wrote back in April after my dad, Jack Eblin, passed away. One of the things I mentioned early on in that post was that my mom and dad were together for a total of 69 years. They dated for seven years starting at age 14 and were married for another 62 years after that. So, not surprisingly, I’ve had a lot of friends and readers ask me over the past few months, “How’s your mom doing?”

My answer is pretty much always the same, “She’s doing amazing.” Of course, she misses the love of her life, but she has shown an amazing and inspiring amount of strength and resilience since Dad died.

As an example, she called me up one afternoon about three weeks after the funeral to run an idea by me. A year or so ago, my dad had bought a super nice but extremely large SUV. I found it cumbersome to drive and my mom did too. She wanted to know what I thought about the idea of her trading in dad’s car and her own 10 year old car that she loved for the new version of her car. I immediately said, “That’s a great idea.” Clearly, she didn’t really need my affirmation as she then told me that she’d already been talking to the dealer, had the cars appraised, picked out the color of the new one she wanted and figured that she’d get a cash payout as part of the deal. Two weeks later, she had traded the old cars, got the check and picked up the new car in time to make the five hour drive to my brother’s house to spend Mother’s Day weekend with him and his wife.

My mom gets shit done. The car trade is one example out of dozens from her over the past three months. Most of the time when I call her during the week, we have to cut the conversation short because she’s headed out to dinner with friends, going to a charity event, playing bridge, or organizing something for church or another community organization she supports.

My wife, Diane, and I spent last week in West Virginia with my mom to hang out with her and help clean out the garage. One evening, we talked about how she’s been doing what she’s been doing these past three months. She shared something neither of us will forget. While Mom misses my dad greatly, she has chosen not to feel sorry for her loss. Instead she’s chosen to feel grateful for the amazing gift of all the years they spent together. She believes it would be greedy to feel sorry for herself given the great life they had for so many years together.

The life leadership lesson from my mom is we all have the option to choose our response. That’s what Viktor Frankl wrote about in his classic memoir of surviving the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning. The determination he made in the concentration camp was that while he could not control what the Nazis did to him, he could choose how he would respond to his circumstance. He chose to respond with dignity.

My mom, Judy Eblin, in facing the common but profound life challenge of loss, has chosen not to respond with self-pity but, instead, with gratitude for all she was given. In addition to being the best possible way to honor and remember her husband, my mom’s choice to be grateful improves the quality of her own life and everyone who knows and loves her.

We all face challenges as we lead our lives. The quality of the outcomes depends on the responses we choose. I’m fortunate to have a mom who reminds me of that truth by embodying it.

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Categories: Blogs

There’s No Debate – Vote for Sleep

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 07:15

You may have heard that 20 of the 23 candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President of the United States are having their first debates this week. In the run-up to the debates The New York Times asked 21 of the 23 candidates running the same 18 questions. You can watch all the videos of their answers here. My favorite question was number seven, “How many hours of sleep do you get a night?”

Why was that one my favorite? Probably because for the past five years I’ve regularly been asking my leadership keynote audiences to raise their hands if they get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Why seven hours? Because the research shows that 95 percent of human beings need at least seven hours of sleep a night to, in the short run, be fully functional the next day and, in the long run, to avoid the chronic illnesses that will shorten their life expectancy. The five percent of people who can get by with less than seven hours have a rare genetic mutation that enables them to do that. On average, around 20 percent of my audience members raise their hands for seven or more hours of sleep. After I share the 95/5 percent breakdown, I point out to the 80 percent the audience members who didn’t raise their hands that there’s no way they’re all in the five percent of people who can perform well and live long with less than seven hours.

Apparently, I need to start working on the Democratic candidates as well. After watching them all answer the sleep question for the Times videos, my count is only five of the 21 say they regularly get seven or more hours of sleep each night. Eleven of the 21 answered “Not enough” or some version of “It depends.” One candidate clocks in at four hours a night but said he is shooting for four and a half. Another is getting around five hours a night and three are getting about six hours. Just about all of those folks either made a joke of how little sleep they get or seemed to take a perverse pride in it.

On the other hand, the five who are getting seven or more a night seemed, from their tone of voice and gaze in responding to the question, to understand that getting enough sleep is critical to their performance, health and well-being. Of course they’re right about how much sleep they need and have organized their lives to make sure they get it. There’s a 95 percent chance you should too.

And, in case you’re wondering, the five candidates who said they’re getting seven or more hours of sleep a night were John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tim Ryan and Elizabeth Warren. I’m not suggesting you vote for one of them solely because they get enough sleep, but, everything else being equal (and they never are), wouldn’t you want a President who does?

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Categories: Blogs

How to Have Your Best Week

Wed, 06/19/2019 - 05:20

Let’s face it. There’s way more to do in any given week than you can possibly do. What you can do, however, is manage your week in a way that gives you the best chance of living and leading at your best.

For example, I recently talked with an assistant general counsel during a leadership workshop that I was doing for the big company she works for. We were talking about time management strategies and she shared how she organizes her week.

She manages a pretty large team of corporate attorneys and, like most managers, has a lot of meetings she needs to participate in. She tries to fill up every Thursday with those meetings and schedules as little as possible the rest of the week.  As she described what her Thursdays are like – back-to-back meetings for 8 or 9 hours – I could sense that that was not her favorite day of the week. I asked if her energy was more extroverted or introverted. She said it was the latter and I responded that she must be pretty exhausted by Thursday night. She said she absolutely was but she recovers on Fridays by working from home and following up on all the commitments and to-do’s she gathered in the Thursday meetings. By doing that, she ends her week with a relatively clean slate and can focus on herself and her family over the weekend. Finally, I asked her what she’s usually doing Monday through Wednesday and she immediately answered, “I coach my team.” She keeps the first three days of the week clear to deal with whatever challenges or requests for help her attorneys have.

So, her story is just one example of how one leader organizes her week to live and lead at her best. While your conditions and mileage may vary, I think there are some core lessons you can take from her story that, if applied, will help you to have more of your best weeks:

Know and Honor Your Big Rocks: The leader in my story is clear about what the big rocks or priorities are that she needs to attend to each week – her team, her other colleagues, the decisions she needs to make, her family and herself. She schedules herself so her big rocks get first dibs on her time and attention. That’s a proactive rather than a reactive approach to calendar management. Taking a proactive approach around your big rocks is pretty much the only way you’re ever going to have your best week.

Batch by Energy Impact: One thing this leader was extremely tuned into was her energy. As an introvert, she recognized that larger group meetings were energy drainers for her. So, rather than having several hours each day of energy drainers, she batched almost all of that on one day of the week. A key to her success was working alone the next day so she could recover from all of the interaction the day before while still getting important work done. Focusing on herself and her family over the weekend further renewed her energy for the one-on-one and small group coaching sessions she did with her team Monday through Wednesday. Of the things that you typically do in a week, which ones create energy for you and which ones drain your energy? As much as you can, batch your activities so you can manage your energy in a way that leads to your best week.

Set and Enforce Boundaries – Here’s a secret that’s not often discussed. All of the great leaders set and enforce personal boundaries. They know what they need to live and lead at their best and plan their weeks so they can invest time in those things. It might not be their optimal amount in any given week, but, in almost every week, it’s at least some amount of time. These leaders know and understand that the only person who’s going to take care of them is them. They establish boundaries that enable themselves to do that and then enforce those boundaries. The woman whose story I shared here does all of that.

I regularly work with groups of high potential leaders who are on the road to running flat out until they crash. We’ll talk about the pace they’re keeping and how they’re struggling with it and, almost invariably, someone in the group will say they don’t manage their life that way. Instead, they set boundaries at work that, unless there is a legitimate emergency, they don’t cross. They end up with time for their family, time to take care of themselves, time to think, time to relax. They’re still viewed as high potential leaders and many of the ones I know who organize their weeks this way have gone on to top level roles in their organizations. If you want to have your best weeks, you need to set and enforce some boundaries. What would make a difference for you on that front?

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Categories: Blogs

Three Reasons Your Change Initiative Will Fail

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 05:00

When you stop and think about it a big part of leadership is about convincing people to do things differently. It could be persuading customers to buy your product or try your service. It could be getting employees or vendors to raise their game. It could be convincing regulators and other rules makers to support what you want to do. In each of these examples or a dozen others that you could come up with, success depends on getting people to change their behaviors.

And, as oft-cited research from Gallup suggests, there’s about a 70 percent chance you’re going to fail.

Why is that so many change initiatives fail? Based on a few decades of experience as a corporate leader or a coach to leaders, I regularly see three related reasons your change initiative will fail. They all involve too much of this and not enough of that.

Here they are and what you can do to increase your odds of success:

Too much solution, not enough acceptance: Years ago, I learned a simple little equation about change management developed by leaders at GE. It’s Q x A = E. What it means is the quality of your technical solution multiplied by the acceptance strategy for your solution equals your overall effectiveness. If you score 10 out of 10 on both the Q and the A then you end up with a 100 percent effective solution. Most leaders and organizations don’t end up at 100 percent though and it’s rarely because they don’t have a good enough technical solution. The relatively easy part of the equation is pulling together a group of subject matter experts to develop a good to great solution. What usually doesn’t get the same amount of effort is putting together an awesome strategy for stakeholder acceptance of the solution.  The math makes the impact of that kind of obvious. If you score a 10 on the Q and a 3 on the A, you’re only going to be 30 percent effective. A score like that is usually a fail.

Too much thinking, not enough feeling: Overemphasizing the quality of the technical solution and underplaying the acceptance strategy stems from the second reason most change initiatives fail. There’s too much emphasis on logical thinking and not enough emphasis on emotional feeling. The problem with that is people almost always take actions based on their emotional feeling rather than their logical thinking. Too many leaders believe that just getting their logical thoughts out there about the change will be enough to win people over. As in, “They’ll see the logic of this and then we’ll be good to go.” Logical to you, maybe; perhaps not so much to them. A more effective approach is to consider how you need people to feel to take the actions that will lead to the change result you’re hoping for. For instance, if they’re feeling angry, ignored or disengaged, they’re probably not going to take the actions you’d like for them to take. If, on the other hand, they’re feeling excited, appreciated and engaged, you’re much more likely to generate actions that lead to positive outcomes. What do you need to do as a leader to get your stakeholders’ feeling more supportive of your change?

Too much results, not enough relationships: Here’s a hint for answering that last question. Focus at least as much on the relationships as you do the results. You’ve probably picked up by now on one of the big things these three reasons for change failure all have in common. The mistake too many leaders make is over-indexing on “what” and under on the “how” of the change. One variant of this is when their time, attention and behavioral energy is focused too much on the results and not enough on the relationships that will yield the results. Great change leaders exhibit roughly equal measures of results-oriented behaviors and relationship-oriented behaviors. I summarized the differences between the two in this post from ten (!) years ago. The spoiler alert is that a lot of the differences I outlined come down to that old idea that they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Relationship building works best when it is part of your everyday routine and not a last-minute activity like you’re cramming for a final exam.

Why do change initiatives fail? There are lot of possible reasons – way more than I covered here. But if you want to do a post-mortem on why your latest crashed and burned or prevent the next one from doing so, I’d argue that the three I’ve listed here are a pretty good place to start.

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Categories: Blogs

Three Questions to Keep You from Losing Your S**t

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 05:00

Have you noticed that there are certain triggers that are guaranteed to make you lose your shit? I have. One of my “favorite” triggers is when someone makes a commitment to keep me in the loop about a series of events that could affect the health and well-being of my family and then doesn’t follow through. Another is when someone misses an agreed upon deadline on an important project and doesn’t let me know.

Depending on the day and what else is going on with me, my reaction to the trigger can be pretty ugly. I can go immediately into a fight or flight response (more fight than flight) that is usually accompanied by a good bit of profanity and speculation on the intelligence of the other party. You know, something along the lines of “that bleeping idiot.” Like I said, not pretty.

Over the years, I’ve learned to take my rant offline rather than saying or doing something I’m going to regret later. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever express my frustration or disappointment. I do, but I try to choose a time and method that leads to positive short and long-run outcomes.

The key to doing that is to get really clear about your triggers so you know them when you feel them. I’ve written a lot about triggers over the years like this post on managing the gap between stimulus and response. What I haven’t written about yet is three simple questions that can help you learn how to keep from your shit when triggered.

These three questions are ones that I have used for years to set up one-on-one peer coaching conversations in our leadership development programs. They’re based on Tim Gallwey’s idea that your performance is equal to your potential minus the interference. As I cover in more detail here, interference comes in two flavors – external and internal. The external interference is all that stuff out there in the world that triggers you. The internal interference is that monologue inside your head about how stupid, wrong or unfair that external trigger is – a phenomenon more commonly known as losing your shit.) Get rid of the internal interference and you’re much more likely to live and lead at your best. Your performance just equals your potential – straight up.

Here, then, are the three questions that can help you keep it together:

  • What are the situations or events out there in the world that are guaranteed to set you off? (These are your triggers or external interference.)
  • What’s the “go-to” story in your head when you’re triggered and what kind of language do you use and physical reactions do you have when you’re telling yourself that story? (This is your internal interference.)
  • What’s the impact on your performance when those stories in your head become super loud or overwhelming? (This is what’s keeping you from demonstrating your full “at your best” potential.)

When I ask leaders to coach each other using those questions, they use words like “cathartic,” “revealing” and “valuable” to describe the experience. From encouraging these conversations over the years, I’ve learned that most people haven’t taken time to stop and learn more about their triggers and their impact.

Getting to know your triggers is essential to living and leading at your best. Here’s a suggestion – find a trusted colleague or friend this week and use the three questions to coach each other on getting to know your triggers.

What are your triggers?

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Categories: Blogs

How to Get Your Micromanager Boss to Back Off

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 05:00

If dealing with a micromanager for a boss isn’t the number one complaint I hear from high potential leaders, then it’s certainly in the top three. Pretty much every leader I’ve ever coached or spoken to has worked for a micromanager at least once in their career. The question that everyone always asks is a version of, “How do I get my micromanager boss to back off?”

To answer that question, I’ll offer one thing you need to know and three steps you need to take.

The one thing you need to know is that the primary driver of almost every micromanager boss is trust – or, more accurately, a lack of trust. If your boss doesn’t trust you to do the job well, you’re going to get micromanaged. As I’ve referenced here before, trust comes down to three factors – sincerity, credibility and competence. Sincerity means acting with and demonstrating positive intent. If you don’t have that, I can’t coach you for that.

Credibility and competence, on the other hand, are more coachable. Sure, you’ll need  to have particular skill sets and knowledge to go your job, but there are ways you can position your work so you build the trust that will make your micromanager boss comfortable with backing off.

Here are three steps you need to take:

Anticipate – When you have a boss, whether they’re a micromanager or not, you need to learn how to anticipate what they’re going to need and want to do their jobs. When you anticipate what they need, you can get ahead of the curve of the stream of requests for information and updates that micromanagers engage in. You need to be a student of your boss and their operating environment. Who is their boss? What do they expect from your boss? (Remember, leadership rocks roll downhill.) Who are your boss’s peers? Which ones are supporters, competitors or a frenemy combination of the two? How do those dynamics impact your boss’s needs and wants? How is your boss being assessed and evaluated? Make sure your work is clearly supportive of their success. If all of that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. It’s the kind of work, though, that will make your job a lot easier over time.

Train – Who’s going to train your boss how to not micromanage? You are. Partner with your boss to create an operating rhythm that works for both of you. Ask your boss specific questions about how they like to receive and process information and how often they like to get updated. Are the updates expected on a timeline driven by the calendar, by milestones accomplished, by problems that come up, some combination of all of that or by other factors? Come to an agreement on how and when information is going to be shared and then stick to it. If you’re consistent in following your operating rhythm and get ahead of unpleasant surprises, then you’ll likely train your boss into asking for less and less that’s outside the rhythm. As the trust builds, you may even find that they start asking for less.  Establish an operating rhythm and stick to it.

Show – The final step is to show that you understand your boss’s world. An important question to keep in mind as you’re weaning your boss from micromanagement is “What am I working on that my boss needs to know about to be in good shape with their boss?”  As I talk about in The Next Level, that will mean that you need to let go of an inside-out perspective based on your needs and agenda and pick up an outside-in perspective that factors in what’s important to your boss and what they care most about. The more you can put yourself in your boss’s shoes and show that you get what they’re dealing with, the less micromanagement you’re going to get.

Anticipate. Train. Show. Taking those three steps and consistently following them can increase your chances of getting out from under the thumb of your micromanager boss and, instead, working along beside them as a valued colleague.

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Categories: Blogs

How to Speak for Your Work

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 07:16

A lot of us grew up with the idea that if you just do good work, it will speak for itself. That’s not true in large organizations full of busy people all focused on their own agendas. If you’re a leader in that kind of place, the work doesn’t speak for itself; you have to speak for the work.

How do you do that without coming off as an annoying braggart? There are seven questions you need to answer when you speak for the work:

What is the work? This may sound obvious but it’s not as simple as you think. In the age of ever shorter attention spans, you need to get really good at describing what your work is and why it matters in a super succinct way. A good rule of thumb is if you can summarize it in the length of an old school tweet – about 140 characters – you’re probably hitting the mark. The goal is to lead with a great summary that hooks people’s attention and makes them want to engage and learn more.

Who does it matter to? Now we’re getting into some stakeholder mapping. Who are the different players inside and outside your organization who have a stake in the success of what you and your team are working on? One size does not fit all when you’re speaking for the work, so you need to get clear about the people you’re going to need to tailor your message for.

Why does it matter to them? Where you stand depends on where you sit. If you want to really connect with people when you’re speaking for your work, you must focus on understanding and addressing what’s most important to the people you’re speaking to. That’s going to vary from person to person and group to group. Take time up front to learn about their goals and make sure you’re tying your work back to the things they care the most about.

What progress have you made? Most people like to hear good news more than bad so start with that. Share the headlines on the progress you and your team have made since the last time you reported in. Tell the time; don’t build a watch. Avoid getting too weedy and into the details.

What obstacles have you overcome? This is where you can establish some context and show off the chops of your team. Highlight one or two of the major problems you and your team have had to solve and what you’ve learned in solving them. There’s likely some good information in there that others can learn and benefit from. Talking about obstacles overcome also provides you a chance to publicly recognize high performing team members.

What are your next steps? The last two questions have more or less focused on the rearview mirror. This one is about what you see coming up down the road. Put a marker out there and let people know what you intend to do next. Doing this creates an opportunity to confirm that you’re on the same page. It reassures people that you have a plan to move forward. And, it sets you up for the ask.

What kind of help do you need? Close out the “speak for the work” conversation by asking for help. Your request could be something as simple as, “Please give me a heads-up if you come across anything you think we should know about,” to something more substantive like an approval decision or money, people or other resources. You usually don’t get if you don’t ask, so ask. If you’ve done a good job of speaking for your work, you’re more likely to get a yes.

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Categories: Blogs

Leaders, Your Rocks Roll Downhill

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 06:14

As I’ve written here before, one of my favorite games to play with high potential managers and executives is called, “What’s on Your T-Shirt?” The way it works is the leaders in my programs or workshops review the highest and lowest results they’ve scored on behaviors in The Next Level 360 or self-assessment. To reduce the stress that naturally comes with that conversation, I ask them to pair up and review the overall results for the group first. The output from their review is a couple of paired phrases that could fit on the front and back of a T-shirt.  The front, based on the high-scoring behaviors, describes what that group of leaders should feel good about and the back, based on the lowest scores, what they should take a look at if they want to do better. I position it as a “no-fabulous-prizes” competition for the team that comes up with the T-shirt slogans that generate the most laughs in the room. The winners are always the ones where everyone else feels like they resemble that remark.

I’ve been running the T-shirt game for years and realized a good while ago that the underlying themes really don’t change that much. When the leaders look at their results, they recognize that their high-rated behaviors are all about getting stuff done and their low-rated behaviors are about not having enough space, bandwidth or connection with others to even determine what needs to be done. I’ve heard a couple of T-shirt slogan pairs lately that got a lot of laughs of recognition in the room and did a great job of summing up what I hear all the time. Here are the latest winners:

  • Teamwork makes the dreamwork; but to dream you’ve got to sleep.
  • We get it done; but can’t stop doing it.

The recurring theme in the T-shirt game is that, on paper at least, most leaders are pretty good at managing others and aren’t that good at managing themselves. In the long-run, though, that poor self-management leads to poor management of others. If you’re in a leadership role, what’s on your t-shirt doesn’t just have an impact on you, it affects the entire organization.

When you’re a designated leader, your rocks roll downhill. If you’re generating stress, your people are absorbing it and dealing with it. If you’re burned out, stressed out and frantic from not getting enough sleep, not exercising and not getting enough time away from work, then your team or organization is going to reflect that.

The impacts are broader than work really. If you’re taking your stress home with you, your people probably are too. From there, your rocks keep on rolling with impacts on the health of your people and their families and the quality of their connections to the broader community.

Wondering if any of that applies to you and your team? An easy way to check is to step back and look at how the people in your team or organization are operating. If they’re making poor decisions and running around like their hair is on fire, in all likelihood that’s on you and the rest of the leadership team. Your people are just reflecting back what they’re seeing from you.

The good news, though, is that the opposite is also true. If you’re leading and living at your best, it’s much more likely that your people will too. You really can’t overestimate your impact as a leader.

So, with all of that in mind, I’ll wrap up with two questions. What’s on your t-shirt? And, if you’re not happy with the back of the shirt, what are you going to do about it?

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Categories: Blogs