I was recently asked what lead me to do the work I do. The answer is multi layered and it’s been a lifetime journey. This 2 minute video is part of the story. What motivates you?
Humans are actually really good at change. Our drive to make things better and easier has been one of the key success factors for our species. And yet so often there is resistance to change, even when we know it is a good thing we are trying to implement. The source of resistance is rarely explored, but if you can identify it clearly, it’s much more likely you will succeed!
Things had been dodgy to say the least. The organisation was losing money, and while it was never proven it was pretty likely that some was being internally skimmed. A new CEO was appointed and she was met with a tangled web involving people at all levels right up to the board. Had the organisation continued “as is” it would have been broke in 18 months and likely facing a number of legal ramifications. People were suspicious and guarded. It was an emotionally charged and manipulative environment. There was very little trust. The organisation was far from unshakeable and on the verge of being shaken to the core.
As the new CEO uncovered the extent of the chaos, the organisation slipped further with people running for cover behind blame. Factions began making threats in an attempt to ensure compliance or silence. Threats ranged from minor to very serious.
In the aftermath there was very little trust. In rebuilding the organisation there was a strong swing to creating policy and procedure (P&P) for everything. It’s an understandable reaction - an attempt to lock the doors and bar the windows.
However the higher the quantity of P&P, the lower the effectiveness:
Higher quantities of P&P increase the likelihood that some or all of your staff are operating outside the ‘rules’. The more there are, the less it is possible to know, understand and apply them all. In fact, time and effort will be spent finding work-arounds and short cuts.
High volumes of P&P increase the annual workload of review and update. If the team takes the task seriously, it requires a detailed look at each document and how it is serving the organisation (or not). High volumes tend to result in a ‘tick and flick’ mentality that does nothing to contribute to the security that P&P are trying to create.
People who will do the wrong thing will find a way, regardless of how thick the P&P file is.
P&P is a great killer of innovation and improvement.
High volume P&P implies staff aren’t to be trusted and need every element of their work guided by the organisation.
It raises the centre of gravity, by taking decisions and processes up the hierarchy. In turn, this restricts thinking and creativity at the coal face.
High volume becomes addictive, as every little gap in P&P is hunted down and filled. It’s like rabbits or those wire coat hangers from the dry cleaner.
Unshakable organisations are lean on Policy and Procedure, but do not leave the organisation without guidelines. Ray Dalio’s book “Principles” is a great example of detailed guidance that leaves heaps of room for flexible approaches to changing conditions.
A great principle for organisations who want to be unshakable is to reduce P&P as much as possible.
When reviewing documents, ask yourself “Is there any reason why this document could not be deleted or shortened?”
The boat was skittish and unstable. Every time a small wave rolled beneath us we struggled to keep it upright. We were planning for an extended sea kayak trip and this experience told us there was work to be done. Fighting the boat for days on end, at times miles from shore was never going to work.
The solution turned out to be simple. A paddling friend suggested attaching a 1kg diving weight to the lowest point inside the boat. That small weight lowered the centre of gravity and suddenly the boat was easy and delightful to paddle.
If you want to build an unshakeable team, lowering the centre of gravity is just as important. Old world organisations relied on hierarchy and decisions being made at the top. It used to work. Now it’s way too slow, and too easy to disrupt. Lower the centre of gravity by empowering your team to make decisions close to where the action is. Here are some ways to do it. We’ll talk more about them in coming articles.
Reduce bureaucracy. Be relentless in the pursuit of making things easier and smoother. Pay attention to where people take short cuts and either enhance the process or adopt the short cut.
Set clear boundaries for autonomy. If people know where they can make decisions and be backed by leadership, they’ll start doing more things, more effectively in direct response to the challenges of their work. As a leader focus on removing barriers and establishing the direction. The team will come to life.
And when disruptive situations occur your team will be more unshakeable.
"The team don't like or respect him", he said. "But I can make a difference to how the team operates, even if I'm not the leader."
It was an inspiring conversation with a young man who understood leadership. He was working in a team where the official leader was dictatorial and inconsistent. The team spent a lot of time over the 'water cooler' complaining about their boss and the direction he was taking them.
"That just adds to the dissatisfaction and tension. When people push back they make themselves a target."
When I asked what he did differently, here's what he shared:
I don't buy into gossip. It doesn't help anyone. If something is factual, i share what I know, otherwise I stay out of it.
I don't talk behind people's back, and when I hear others doing that, I pull them up. If I have feedback to give, I'll do that straight up with the person it concerns.
I do the best job I know how, even when I don't like how the instructions are given.
If I'm told to do something unreasonable, I respectfully say why I think it is unreasonable.
I maintain my own standard of work and encourage others to do the same - It's easy to let it slip when you don't like the boss, but that reflects as much on me as on him.
It's a great example of leading from wherever you are. This young man is making a contribution to his team and his workplace that adds value and quality. What he is doing makes his team more unshakeable.
How do you lead from where you are?
I tossed and turned. It didn’t seem to matter what what position I lay in, I couldn’t get to sleep. My mind was a whirlwind of activity . It churned with ideas and sequences for an upcoming workshop with a new client. I tossed and turned some more, eventually falling asleep, only to spring awake almost immediately. It was as if the whirlwind had prodded me awake. After a while a thought adds to the whirlwind, “If this keeps up, I’ll be shattered tomorrow!”. It adds to the stress. The more I try, the less I sleep.
When I talk to my coaching clients, I’m not alone in finding it hard to relax and switch off sometimes.
It seems we get the “whirlwind” from 3 categories:
Stressful thoughts about things yet to be completed, things that make us worried or anxious, overload, tight timelines, big decisions…
Creative thoughts like big ideas, great solutions, new directions…
Processing thoughts like when you have learned something new and your mind is filled with it and how it fits with other things you know…
Fortunately, the Guerrilla Mindfulness tactic can be really effective in those moments.
Guerrilla Mindfulness is:
3 long, slow rhythmic breaths
Acknowledge how you feel
Clarify your intention
When I can’t sleep for the whirlwind I use it this way:
Focus on the rhythm of your breathing. Make the breaths in and out the same each time. Breathe into your belly. To do that, ‘lock’ the muscles of your ribs together and let your belly expand and contract with each breath. Try to keep your ribcage still as you breathe in and out. Let the belly fill and empty. Breathing this way is deeply relaxing.
Acknowledge how you feel, without getting into the story of why. You might be stressed, anxious, frustrated, excited, or curious. Use as few words as you can to describe your feelings. Acknowledging your feelings in this way reduces the stress hormones in your system.
Be clear about your intent - it might be ‘I’m going to park this for now, relax and sleep.”
Go back to breathing into your belly - slow, deep, rhythmic. I usually find I’m asleep before I count 7 cycles. If the whirlwind interrupts your breathing, be kind to yourself. Gently notice the thoughts and return your attention to breathing. Even if you don’t sleep, your gentle focus on the breath will have you more relaxed tomorrow than a night with the whirlwind.
Sometimes you’ll wake up again during the night with the whirlwind spinning again. Rinse and repeat as often as you need to. I also find it helpful to do a quick brain dump into a notebook to get the whirlwind off my mind.
And of course, if you find yourself getting stuck in a pattern of long term sleeplessness, seek help.
Next time, we’ll talk about using Guerrilla Mindfulness when you need to be switched on and ready for action.
Many leaders feel like a vending machine. Staff come to them with problems. They dispense solutions. It's exhausting and keeps leaders down in the weeds, rather than focussed on higher level thinking and work. The article I wrote about it hit a nerve and provoked some questions. Over the next few weeks, we'll explore some tips for getting out of the 'vending machine' cycle.
One of the easiest ways to break the cycle is ask more questions. Questions help you and your staff think through the issue and understand it. From your point of view, you want to be able to offer assistance (if it's genuinely needed) without bailing people out too easily. From their point of view, assisting them to think about the issue increases their understanding and ultimately their capacity. For both of you, the process builds greater trust and understanding making future issues and delegated tasks easier to tackle.
Here are some great questions to ask. You don't need all of them every time. One or two insightful questions create the space for your staff member to come up with their own solutions. They also identify what your most useful contribution to the issue, or your staffs development might be. Even if it is an issue that needs input from you, ask some questions first. It establishes an expectation that staff will think for themselves, and that you value/trust their input. The three questions in bold italics are almost always worth asking.
- Who is involved in this issue? Who does the issue impact the most? Who would benefit from a solution? Are there any people this impacts who may not be aware of it yet? Who raised the issue? Who do we need to communicate with as we work on a solution?
- When did you become aware of this? Are there any significant or critical timeframes we need to consider?
- Where are the resources you need? Do you have access to them?
- How would you solve the problem?
- Why is this important to you/us/the company/our stakeholders? Why do you need my assistance?
- What is the impact if it isn't solved? What would it take to solve it? What resources/connections/networks would help? What attempts have you made to solve the issue? What do you think would be the most effective solution? What barriers (if any) are there to you doing that?
Go on - Unplug that vending machine!
Do your staff keep expecting you to have all the answers and solve all the problems? Do you wish they would show a bit more initiative and try to solve their own problems? Does the constant flow of requests from your team add to your daily pressure and work load? If you answered yes to any of those questions, perhaps you are leading like a vending machine. Over the years I have coached many leaders who experience this issue. I coined the phrase "Vending Machine Manager".
Staff come to the Vending Machine Manager and punch in a request "B4". The machine shakes and rattles a bit. There's a couple of clunking sounds. Out of the flap pops the perfect answer or solution to their problem. It's cool and it's sweet. Next time they have a problem, they remember how easy it was. How cool and sweet it was. Back they come. They punch in "A9", and walk away satisfied. Before long, the Vending Machine Manager has a constant flow of traffic wearing out the floor in front of their work station. "D7", Clunk, WooHoo. "F2" Clunk, WooHoo. "B6"Clunk, WooHoo. On and on it goes - and your workload continues to grow.
From a survival point of view, humans are designed to find the easiest return for energy expended. The Vending Machine Manager plays straight into the hands of that design. To change the dynamic you need to move from dispensing answers to building capacity. Work with your team to build their own knowledge and skill. Make them experts in their own right. If you keep vending, they'll keep coming. Change the game!
I was talking to a colleague who has a rapidly growing business in entertainment. They manage artists, bring shows to Perth and create venues for great content. She's a great leader with a clear vision for her business. Her team are excited about creating it with her. With growth come several inevitable challenges for leaders. Systems have to move and evolve to keep up with where you want to get to. As the team grows, vision and leadership become more important, and simultaneously more diluted - Getting good and consistent messaging to staff and the market about what you are doing is critical. Growth also means that there may be times when staff who were a good fit when you were a different size, no longer are.
My colleague was describing a couple of conversations she had with staff who had been with her a while. In the early days, they had been awesome - Productive, switched on and enthusiastic. But that had waned. She had spent considerable time with them attempting to recreate how it had been but nothing seemed to be working. Motivation continued to drop and they were starting to get in the way of progress.
She decided to have a straight conversation about the expectations they each had for the business and the role to see if that would lead anywhere productive. End result, the person left and was relieved. The staff member had been feeling obliged to stay with the business - feeling she would let the owner down if she left. She'd been excited about it when she first joined and had been a big part of creating the success. The rapid expansion was hard for her though, and she really liked smaller teams than this one was now. She found the constant evolution and growth stressful and wearing.
When they had an open conversation about what the owner needed from staff, and how her staff felt about the environment, it became clear to them both that it was time to move on. For the business it has been like taking a foot off the brake. A new person has joined with skill and enthusiasm for the current business, rather than what it once was. No doubt the person who left is also feeling relieved.
Situations like this are often stressful for everyone involved. It's easy to become victim to unspoken expectations and assumptions. Our perspective gets bent out of shape, and sometimes that results in conversations like this one becoming adversarial when there was no need for that.
Actions we can take:
Employers/Leaders/Managers - Set up clear expectations for people and roles early, and check in with them often. Use as many opportunities as you can to deepen you/your teams understanding of the expectations. Create an environment where conversations about what we expect and whether those expectations are being met are safe and regular. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.
If you work for someone else - Be bold about asking for clarification of what the business expects from you. If your ecxpectations are not being met, raise the issue and explore it. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.
For both - If it's time to move on - do it.
Anecdotal feedback from many leaders in many sectors suggest Western Australia is currently facing challenging times. It seems that there is more effort required to secure a sale, and that buyers are more consciously looking for lower cost and/or higher value for their spend. Providing good quality and timely service is always important. In a tough market it seems to me that it is essential. Scrap that - I reckon it's essential all the time. I'm amazed at how ofter I hear of businesses not even getting the basics right. In a buoyant market, it may be overlooked, but in a tight one, it could be enough to get you side lined.
A good mate of mine supervises technical work crews. His role is to liaise with clients, ensure the work is done to spec and act as a technical/safety back up to his crew. He gets deployed all over the world. He has two skills that I reckon make him stand out from the crowd:
- He's quick - His work rate is high, but more importantly he can get to an unfamiliar location and quickly get his head around the skillset of his crew, the issues on site, and build rapport with the people he needs to liaise with.
- Great Communication - He'll make sure every one is in the loop. He anticipates issues and gets in front of them. And he's always on the look out for ways to improve the standing of his company and their reputation with clients.
As a result he often gets pulled off his main job to sort out potential issues, and it's amazing how often this is the result of the basics not being covered properly. Recently, the supervisor that was replacing him on the next shift did not have the minimum qualifications to supervise the job. If he had left without rectifying the situation the whole job would have stopped costing many thousands and who knows what in terms of reputation. It's a basic of the job. A fundamental specification that was either overlooked or ignored. That seems an unnecessarily high risk to me.
But it must happen a fair bit - I'm amazed at how often people tell me of clients who are grateful for something that seems pretty basic - like follow up, or customer service, or delivering on an agreement, or holding yourself accountable.
I'm sure we have all experienced the receiving end when the basics are not done well. My wife and I did an online booking for a restaurant a while back. We got the usual email confirmation. When we arrived we were told there was no booking. "On line" we said. The owner then proceeded to berate us for using the online system which was broken. We got a table and breakfast, but we haven't been back, and possibly neither have several other parties who were in earshot of the dressing down we got.
A warm greeting at the door is a basic. It is called hospitality after all, unless they changed it to hostility while I slept.
One of the easiest and most underrated ways to stand out, regardless of your job, position or level of ownership is simply to do what you say you will do. I my mind that includes the basics which are surely implied if not explicitly stated.
If for some reason it is not possible to deliver on the basics, be courteous, accountable and professional while you negotiate a solution. It will help you stand out from the crowd, and often the only cost is discipline.
What's it like being on the team you are on? The experience can be dynamic and productive. A great team performs well, exceeding the results that any one member could achieve. Other teams get in their own way. When the objectives are not clear and people are not pulling their weight, a team can add work and confusion. 2017 has been dominated with discussions about teams for me. Leaders and team members have been tackling the ingredients for high performance and also dysfunction. Over the next few weeks I'll share a series of insights about teams from both sides.
"You have to bank for the future and trust that will get you through the challenges"
The sector you are in is facing the largest change it has seen in 40 years. There's widespread optimism about the change, but also lots of confusion. The big picture looks compelling but for some individual staff and customers it's not great. People are looking for answers and they are not always available - not because anyone is trying to mislead - simply because many things are still on the drawing board. The nature of jobs is changing. Employees are dealing with their own uncertainty while facing a barrage of customer uncertainty and angst.
One leader reflected on the unofficial nature of some of the teams he is leading. Groups of people who are held together more by relationships and common ground, than because they are an actual team. He spoke of "banking" trust and reliability. Doing the right thing consistently. Following through on promises.
In an environment that is totally relationship based these are the only tools available to make the team perform. They are powerful tools and in a more formal team setting they often get overlooked.
How do you build trust within your team? I reckon the most powerful way to influence trust is to consistently do what you say you will do. Regardless of whether you are a leader, or a team member, backing yourself in this way creates a sense of certainty and reliability around you. "Banking" credit in relationships will help when the team faces challenges.
Do you ever get into a groove? Not the helpful sort that's characterised by flow and productivity, but the sort where you feel you are getting stale. Depending on how deep and long it is you might even call it a rut. I reckon it's part of human nature to experience these times. Most people I speak to have experienced it at least once. Maybe it's a product of our search for certainty.
We are wired to manage our environment in a way that creates some certainty and predictability. Depending on personality and background, some people like more certainty than others. Some of us follow very precise and ordered sequences for almost everything we do. Going back to the same coffee shop, talking to the same people and driving the same way to work are all examples. Others will seek greater variety, sometimes going to extremes. But even then there are ways they create certainty. In the high risk sport of wing suit proximity flying for example, people spend huge amounts of time planning until they are certain enough of the outcome to make the jump. Despite appearances, they don't have a death wish.
Part of life is finding your personal balance between variety and certainty. Enough variety that you don't fall into a rut. Enough certainty that you feel comfortable.
Every year I intentionally do at least one thing that I have never done before. It keeps me fresh. I search for a challenge that will push back some boundaries and expose me to new skills. The experience should induce a bit of fear I reckon - something that puts me in a position of being a beginner with a lot to learn. For me a tandem skydive, or bungy jump would not meet the criteria. While both would be scary and definitely get me out of my comfort zone, neither requires me to learn. In both situations I'm dependant on an expert.
This year's challenge is a stand-up comedy course that ends with a 5 minute stand-up performance to a live audience. I'm getting sweaty palms just writing about it. Some people don't believe me when I say that, after all I speak for a living, and sometimes it's humorous. But comedy is different I reckon. There's something very exposed about being on stage specifically to make people laugh. And there's nowhere to hide if it doesn't work. Humour is a pretty personal thing as well. What makes me laugh might not make you laugh. It could be a long 5 minutes!
I recommend this kind of personal stretch at least once a year for anyone.
- It keeps you fresh.
- It's great for brain health.
- You become more aware of yourself, and sometimes find strength and resources you didn't know you had.
- You'll probably have some fun.
I think it's especially important for leaders.
- It reminds you what it's like to be lead, especially if the leader is asking you to stretch yourself.
- It reminds you that you don't know everything.
- It awakens creativity and insight that are impossible to access from the rut.
- It makes you more aware of what it takes to create an environment where people are willing to follow.
What will you do to challenge yourself this year?
If you want to join me at the school of comedy details are here. https://www.schoolofcomedy.com.au/stand-up/
If you want some other ideas here's my article on the same subject from last year.
I looked across the track at the small collection of gear I had packed for this advanced survival exercise. It was nearly dark and I was being patted down to ensure I had nothing other than a pocket sized survival kit on me. I glanced nervously at my eight companions as our gear was thrown into the back of a vehicle. We were handed an envelope and our instructors drove into the gathering darkness, leaving us alone. We opened the envelope and read our instructions, "You are somewhere on one of your 3 maps ... ".
In hindsight the next three days were characterised by hasty decisions and poor communication as we struggled to come to terms with our circumstances. We also lashed out at each other - verbal sparring as we vented frustration about our external circumstances on each other.
Over the 20 years I worked as a survival instructor it never ceased to amaze me how easily individuals and groups could be made to feel they were at threat. In that state, people are more reactive than normal and results definitely suffer. It's amazing how rarely people pause to consider the best course of action.
In the modern work context a sense of threat is not unusual either. Most workplaces experience some level of uncertainty. Mostly it's from circumstances beyond our direct control. One possible reaction is rudeness to the people around us. I can certainly think of more than one occasion when my conduct was not as good as it could have been.
Rudeness in itself is enough to make people feel at threat. It damages psychological safety (How safe people feel). And it doesn't have to be extreme (or deliberate) to have an impact.
- Raised voices
- Harsh words
- Intimidating body language
- Slammed doors
- Banter and sarcasm
- Side conversations and excluding people
- Disregard for people's time
- Sending emails, taking calls, checking watches while you should be listening to someone
- Not following through on things you said you would do
Over the last two decades, Christine Porath and colleagues have researched rudeness in the workplace. They clearly identify many impacts on individuals, teams and bottom line. A recent article in HBR summarises their findings and others in the field. If you want the detail you can find it at hbr.org/2017/01/how-rudeness-stops-people-from-working-together
How we treat each other is largely a choice. We can choose to be civil, even in the most demanding environments. It's one of the few things that we have direct control over which has a massive and positive impact on our team environment. It's an easy way to directly impact cohesion, trust, productivity and engagement. It also takes effort and attention.
All of us have moments where we crack or fray and resort to rudeness out of frustration. Perfect politeness is not the goal. But in situations when we accept rudeness from ourselves and others it gets worse, not better. Increasing levels of incivility become the norm of 'how things are done around here'. Looking at Porath's research, it's way too expensive on almost every measure to allow that. And it's on the rise.
Reflect on how you, your team and your business conduct themselves when some of these common stressors occur:
- Giving or receiving feedback about performance
- A new deadline, or urgent of piece of work
- A customer complaint
- The photocopier crapping out in the middle of an urgent print run
- An interruption when you are in the flow of work
- New (and probably onerous) requirements from an external regulator, customer or market
- A long day to meet a deadline
- Scope creep
- A financial loss
- Personal pressures from outside work like a puking kid, unexpected bill, or relationship problems
- Something not going to plan
Here are four things you can do to influence how cohesive and effective your team is. A single individual can influence others by paying attention to these things. It's even more effective when whole teams (or organisations) decide to remove rudeness from their environment.
- Aim - to treat each other well in spite of the pressures you face. Work on respect and integrity. Even when there are hard messages to deliver or receive, do it politely.
- Recognise - the kinds of situations that tend to push your personal buttons. What about the team? Start spotting rudeness and noticing its impact. Also recognise that different people have different levels of skill around rudeness. It's much easier to avoid if you have had lots of examples through life of people who handle adversity without getting rude.
- Clarify - the kinds of behaviour that you want to see, and the ones to avoid. Also the situations that may trigger rudeness. Be as specific as you can. Discuss it politely away from heated moments. Talk about what you will do when you see, experience or perpetrate rudeness. Discuss how you might raise the bar and hold each other to account. Explore where the line is between healthy banter and rudeness for your team. When people do something you consider rude, give a clear example of both the behaviour and its impact on you.
- Apologise - when you notice something you did or said had a negative impact on others. Do it whenever you know you have crossed the line, however small the crossing might be. Accept other people's apologies with grace. Remember it is unlikely to be perfect, cut each other some slack.
I'm kicking my year off with a bang! Next week I'm working with a diverse group of forty leaders. Together they represent State Primary Schools, Oil and Gas, Health, Environmental Services, Not-For-Profits, Human Services. There's a mix of people who founded and own their business, and others who are entrusted to lead it. Some are large, publicly listed companies and some are small.
Together we'll be looking at Leadership Under Pressure! Regardless of sector or size, leaders are facing unprecedented levels of pressure and change. Leaders are dynamic people with a passion for getting great results. Sometimes that has an impact on their own wellbeing. Here are four tips for leaders under pressure.
Breathe - It's easy to get caught up in the rapid fire transitions between all the meetings, roles and responsibilities of the modern leader. We are not well adapted to that, but it's not an option to stop either. It all has an impact - adding stress hormones to our bodies, reducing sleep, gaining weight etc. Slow rhythmic breathing sends a clear signal to your body to switch off the stress response. Unless you are a well practiced monk, it's unlikely that you'll get through a whole day focussed on how you are breathing, so just focus on the transitions. As you are going from one thing to another pause and take 3 long slow rhythmic breaths. It will help shed the stress of what you just did and focus more effectively for your next leadership challenge. It's quick, easy and effective.
Nature - There's piles of research showing that even small amounts of time in nature rejuvenate us in all kinds of ways. Creativity, problem solving and mental clarity all improve, as do wellbeing and resilience. There's lots of other benefits too. See if you can get a small slice of nature every day. Lunch in a park, walk, meet by the riverside, sit under a tree (also a great place for a meeting) watch a flock of birds.
Clarity - A leaders role can sometimes feel like an endless repeat of the same messages. That's a good thing. Investing time making sure people understand vision, direction and expectations is rarely wasted. It's easy to get caught up in endless frenetic doing which can result in a lack of clarity. In turn that breeds confusion and inefficiency. I see so many teams doing work over because of lack of clarity. It sucks energy, motivation and resources. Make it a priority to build clarity. Even if it takes you away from your immediate task list, the result will be more progress in the long run.
Progress - For many of the things we work on, it's hard to feel a sense of progress. Take time each day to acknowledge the achievements of the team. Creating a sense of progress is a great way to inject energy and maintain motivation.
I'd love to hear from you about what sustains you under pressure.
Wishing you a 2017 filled with great leadership moments!
Have you ever had moments as a leader when you have felt unsure and timid. I certainly have. Regardless of whether you hold an "official" leadership role, we get called upon to lead in all manner of ways. Leading is an interesting thing to do. And in my experience it's a great way to grow. Leadership has presented opportunities for some fantastically positive outcomes and some subtle influence with people that has steadied the ship. It's also presented challenges, self doubt and a reasonable share of mistakes.
I spent most of last week on the beautiful south coast of WA with a group of year 9 boys. These emerging young men were walking, paddling, cycling and surfing and learning about leadership in practice.
There were some outstanding young men and we had some great conversations about what makes a good leader.
One in particular stood out from the crowd. He was able to positively influence his peers, rally their focus and energy and organise them for a result. His presence created a sense of calm and certainty. That was on a good day. There were other times when he was right in the thick of disruptive and counter productive action. Chalk and cheese. It was as if a different person showed up.
We had a great conversation about it. He was really aware of the swing and said he much preferred to lead well. When I asked what was holding him back he had the answer straight away.
He was concerned about what people would think, unsure about making the right call, not wanting to seem too confident, afraid of the attention he might receive, sometimes feeling the weight of responsibility. These are familiar themes from the work I do with leaders, and from my own experience.
To lead is to step up in many big and small ways. It takes boldness. To say what needs to be said. To do what needs to be done. To acknowledge the efforts of others. To be responsible and accountable for your results. To raise the bar. To move between the spotlight and the background as the situation demands. To think ahead. To collaborate.
However and wherever you lead. No matter how large or small your role. Be Bold!
A few weeks ago I wrote about focus. Often our focus shifts in response to what is happening around us. Requests, tasks, pressure, health, distraction, fatigue and other variables have our focus moving between hard and soft, fixated and broad. If the shifts happen without us consciously choosing them, we can end up operating with an ineffective focus. Each mode of focus is highly effective in some circumstances and ineffective in others.
Some of you wanted to know more about how to recognise and use focus more effectively.
Yesterday I was talking with a highly competent and experienced colleague. She's one of the best thinkers I know. Few people can match her for productivity. She's highly valued for her ability to analyse complex situations and find clear paths for effective action. Over the last few years she has consulted in many different industries and sizes of organisation, always adding significant value.
She'd been asked to present a case study from her experience. It was to include lessons learned and would act as a catalyst for a strategic discussion in her current organisation. It was creating a focus problem. Her focus was narrow and soft. She was scanning for specific elements (Narrow) across the full range of work she had done (Soft) to find the best single example of effective strategy. Much of the consulting work she has done has been confidential and highly specific to the business she was working with at the time. Very difficult to find an example that she could share, and that had clear lessons that could be generalised to the current context.
A soft and relatively narrow focus is highly effective when looking for something detailed and specific. That's what my friend was using as she scanned back though her work. One of the problems of soft and narrow focus is that if you can't find what you are looking for it drifts toward hard and fixated. As frustration grows this can be further exaggerated, and an ineffective loop is created. You get more and more fixated.
When she told me about her frustration with finding something specific in her past work that was clear, relevant to the new context and didn't breach confidentiality, I saw a focus problem. I asked, "What if instead of presenting a specific case study, you presented the strategic themes that have been relevant across all the industries, companies and situations you have worked in?"
The question shifted her focus from fixated and hard to soft and broad and she was instantly able to bring her vast experience to bear. She'll no doubt rock the room with her insights and expertise.
If you're feeling stuck, notice where your focus is and ask yourself if it's time for an intentional shift.
As a leader, start paying attention to the focus of the individuals and teams around you. Develop the skill of asking questions that shift focus when people become ineffective or stuck.
Much of the work that I do in facilitation and coaching shifts focus which enables individuals and teams to use what they know to greater effect. Feel free to be in touch if I can assist you with that.
We have been told for years that goals are the road to success. There's been everything from reputable research through to pop psychology explaining why goals are so important. The snap shot summary is:
- Without a clear idea of where you are going, it's unlikely you will get there.
- Setting goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound) makes it much more likely that the goal will be attained.
- The goal by itself means nothing. Successful people also take massive action toward their goals.
I know many people who are great goal setters. It works really well for them. Goals help them get motivated and focussed and they regularly exceed the targets they set for themselves. But goals don't work for everyone, or in all situations.
More recently there has been a significant body of research suggesting that goals have a dark side and may not be as useful, productive or relevant as previously thought. Some of the factors include:
- If a goal is not reached exactly (like it ran late or didn't quite reach the specific target), some people find that extremely frustrating and demotivating. They subsequently lose a lot of energy in self criticism due to the unmet goal.
- In many circumstances, quality of work is sacrificed for reaching the target. While the numbers are achieved, how they are achieved is not always desirable. Some people will cut corners, act unethically, or neglect other important focus because for them the idea of not reaching the goal is worse than doing it poorly.
- Specific goals can sucker individuals and organisations into an way of operating that is inflexible and unresponsive to changing conditions. Essentially they become too focussed on achieving the goal and their perception narrows.
- There are other interesting organisational impacts emerging. If you are keen to know more you might like to check out this paper.
On top of this there are personalities and situations that don't lend themselves to goal setting. In these circumstances, goals can be counter productive. For example:
- I, like many others have a strong negative reaction to being told what to do. At my worst even if it's me telling me what to do, and I think it's a good idea, my default reaction is resistance. When I set goals for myself, it's actually negatively motivating, and I have to play all sorts of mental games with myself to make progress.
- If you don't know enough about what you are trying to achieve, it is very difficult to make meaningful SMART goals. The plane build I wrote about last week is like that. I don't know enough to be able to meaningfully estimate the time it will take to complete a component.
- Sometimes a broad, soft focus is the most appropriate response to circumstances (I'll say more about this in a future article). If the operating conditions are highly dynamic, a narrow, specific focus can get you into a world of trouble.
- Some goals are about creating new habits or just getting more focussed. Consistency over time, just showing up and taking action are more effective than driving for something specific.
That's where Areas of Focus come in. Rather than setting a specific goal an area of focus simply determines where you will focus your energy and attention. For those of us that don't like to be told what to do the softer focus brings greater energy and enthusiasm to related tasks.
If you are a habitual and successful goal setter, I certainly wouldn't recommend you change what you are doing, but if you have not found goals to be useful, you might like to choose an area of focus.
Ask yourself - Where can I most fruitfully direct my energy and attention? Why is this area of focus important right now? Am I clear about what the vision is for this area of focus? Who else needs to be involved and how can I make it clear to them?
Once your area of focus is decided, the same rules apply as for goals - turn up and take massive action. That's the secret ingredient that makes stuff possible. If you want a great and inspiring example of massive action to get a result check out Jack Andraka, a teenager who is making significant progress in cancer research. The volume of work he has undertaken is impressive.
Group Think for Leaders
There's a phenomenon in survival and safety/accident research where people increase their exposure to risk by getting away with inherently risky acts. Getting away with it creates a mental model that doesn't see the risk, or believes the activity to be safe. In some cases, this is compounded by the fact that every time the activity is repeated it builds up more "energy" for a failure.
A good example of this is people texting while driving. The first time someone does it, they feel uncertain and nervous. Nothing bad happens so they do it again, maybe giving even more time to the screen. Gradually they desensitise themselves to the risk, feeling like it does not apply to them.
I call it "Stacking the deck with Jokers". At some point, someone will brake suddenly in front of them. They are unprepared, not alert, and have no plan in mind. They have no "real" cards to play. The research shows people in this state become victims of accidents that were totally obvious and predictable to others. If they survive, they report being completely taken by surprise...
We do this in the business environment as well. It looks like a lack of self leadership - ignoring an intuitive sense that something isn't quite right, following someone else's lead with blind faith, developing a sense of complacency with team members or customers.
There are some simple measures to avoid falling into this state. A friend demonstrated them beautifully as a pilot in a close formation flying display. It was led by a well known and respected pilot of considerable experience. The weather was marginal for flying to the extent that any good flying instructor would caution their students never to fly under those conditions. He described the lead up to take off:
- exhilaration for being part of it
- busy, focused on ensuring his preflight checks were thorough and complete
- a sense of peer pressure (we have a display to put on, everyone else seems happy to go)
- unquestioning faith in the experience, qualification and leadership of the pilot in charge - "if he thinks its safe with all his experience, I will follow him"
- a small niggling feeling of doubt about the weather
At the last moment he aborted his takeoff. The others completed their flight uneventfully, stacking the deck with jokers like "its OK to fly in conditions like that".
What made it possible for my friend to abort? It was all about self leadership:
Intuition - He paid attention to the small but persistent intuitive feeling that he was putting himself and others at risk.
Self Examination - He began to ask questions like "Would I fly in these conditions under normal circumstances?"
Backing himself - He "switched on" his own training, experience, judgment and thinking and assessed the situation himself, rather than just following the group.
Courage - He exercised the courage of the self leader, and took a decision that was possibly unpopular with the leader and his peers
People who apply these principles are of great value to themselves and those around them - they make it possible to "see" risky mental models and make sound choices. They stack the deck in their favour. Those are valuable skills in leadership.
Is there anyone you follow blindly - especially if it is detrimental to yourself, others and the results you are trying to achieve? What would you need to do to exercise more judgement and self leadership in that situation?
A retreat is an intentional withdrawal from work to renew recharge and reflect. It's different from a holiday which usually just involves taking time out purely for relaxation. People on retreat generally have something specific they wish to gain and/or leave behind. Perhaps you like the idea of a retreat and you have a preference for DIY, rather than joining a program run by someone else. A DIY retreat is a great thing to do if you can structure the time to be effective for you. Here's some tips for DIY'ers.
Choose a location that is dramatically different from your usual working and living environment. Ideally it will have few distractions and will be a comfortable setting for you. I love to get out into the outback because the scenery, isolation and simplicity of minimalist camping work for me. Others would find this a horrible place to be. A good question to ask is "Where do I feel most focussed, relaxed and at ease?" Consider both specific places and types of locations that work for you.
- Get clear about your intention for the retreat. If you would like some questions to help create that clarity go to this link www.surveymonkey.com/r/Pilbara-Executive-Retreat At the bottom of the information about one of the retreats I run there are a set of questions.
- Remove the distractions. Switch the phone off or even leave it behind. Make sure you can't access email or take calls, respond to social media etc. Genuinely unplug. We are so constantly connected these days that we are often reacting to beeps and pings, rather than being strategic. Let people know that you will be completely off the grid. If there is a possibility that someone may need to urgently contact you, arrange a 3rd person as a gate keeper.
- Create variety. Spend time reflecting, learning, studying, planning or reviewing, mixed in with physical activity like walking, cycling, yoga, or weight training.
- Make the food simple and good. Choose stuff that is easy to prepare and that you know works well for your body. You know the stuff. It leaves you feeling light and energised, rather than bloated and lethargic.
- Don't self medicate. Leave behind the chocolate, alcohol or other drugs and anything else you turn to in discomfort. Allow yourself to be fully present and to feel whatever you feel. A few day without those things won't hurt.
- Plan for some time just to be. Don't fill the entire time with action. Allow time to just sit and be. These spaces create the possibility of greater integration and potential AH HA moments.
- Capture what you got from your retreat in a way that you can bring it to fruition back in your everyday life. After all, that's where the rubber hits the road.
- Do it at least once a year.
If you like the sound of all that but can't imaging having the time or inclination to DIY, I've joined with a team of four other dynamic and inspirational leaders to bring a two day retreat to Perth on October 30 and 31. Lead By Example is a retreat designed for leaders and owners in all kinds of business. if you would like more information for yourself, a colleague, or a family member you can find it at www.mikehouse.com.au/lead-by-example/ We would love to see you there.