Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

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Do you remember what it was like to fold a paper airplane? You fold the corners in on an angle so that there is a pointy end; fold the sides down into wings and there it is. A sheet of paper transformed into an airplane. And it flew! Well,…mostly.

Now, unfold the airplane and what do you see? The paper no longer lays flat; it retains the creases. Then, using the same paper, fold a new airplane but with the pointy end on the other side. You’ll find that the creases work against you. The paper fights your efforts because it already has a shape and it wants to keep its original shape. That’s the dilemma with habits from the perspective of the brain.

Think of your office. What habits are embedded in the organization that are no longer serving the organization?  The habits will show up as processes, routines (formal or informal) and ways of doing business. The organization has folded its own paper airplane and the creases in the paper are pronounced. For example, a team I managed years ago, learned over the years to put every new roadway sign or pavement marking through a long, arduous process guaranteed to take years. The individual and organizational brain was folded into a specific paper airplane and the creases were deeply formed. If we were to introduce innovation in the process, we had to unfold the old airplane and refold a new plane on top of the old one. Just as with the paper, the brain resists new folds.  So, what’s an insightful manager to do? Think like a paper airplane.

Commit. To develop a new habit, commit to it.  Refold the paper airplane with conviction; otherwise, the paper defaults into the hold pattern. You must be clear and specific about the behavior you wish to see. Make it as easy as possible for their brains to take the new pathways because the brain prefers the old paths – just as the paper more easily falls into the original folds. In my example, the team talked at length about a new streamlined process: how it would look, what steps were included; what decisions would be made along the way. Commit to the new habit.

Focus. You can’t remake every habit so focus on a high impact one. Remaking a habit is hard work. It requires considerable brain energy to use new pathways. Consequently, you are more likely to be successful if you focus on one change at a time. This allows the brain to use all available energy to remember the new approach and choose it.

Repeat and reward. Creating new habits requires effort and repetition.  If you refold a paper airplane in a new way, you may run a fingernail along the new creases so that the paper more easily follows the new path. It’s the same for creating new habits with your staff. Reinforce, reward, and repeat the new habits over and over and over until you’re tired of hearing yourself talk it. Then you may be getting through. You, as the astute leader, must maintain the vision and constantly talk about the new approach.

So, go ahead. Grab a piece of paper and make a paper airplane. You know you want to!  As you do, think about a new habit that would benefit your organization. With each fold of the paper, consider the behavior do you want to see. Can you articulate it? How will you reinforce it every day for months and years? It takes commitment, focus, repetition and reward to bring about the new habit.  But once you have it – you’ll fly!

 

Copyright: nnudoo / 123RF Stock Photo

It was a beautiful fall day in Keystone, Colorado. The aspen were gold and the sun highlighted the crevasses in the mountains that guarded the lake. It was a perfect time to rent a kayak and paddle around under the blue sky. My friend is an experienced kayaker. I am not.  But…how hard can it be? It’s a kayak.

Truthfully, it wasn’t hard to paddle around. It was just difficult to get to a specific point on the lake – just as it can be difficult to reach the goal that you set in your organization. Here are three points gleaned from paddling on a Colorado lake that can help you reach your organizational goals.

  1. Set a clear goal. “Let’s paddle to that grove of trees on the point,” my friend said. I replied, “Which grove of trees on which point?” It took discussion and lots of pointing to clarify which grove of trees on which point of land.  It’s the same in your organization.  The goal may seem crystal clear to you. It’s unlikely to be that clear to others. Talk about the goal with your staff and team. Engage them in discussion. What behavior will you all see when the goal is achieved? What specific outcome will be realized and how will you know?  This is the only way to ensure that everyone is working toward the same end.
  2. Adjust constantly. Off we went toward our grove of trees. But it wasn’t that easy. We negotiated how we would paddle together without knocking each other’s paddle. Plus, the light breeze blew the kayak away from the point of land.  We were constantly compensating for the breeze and an occasional boat wake. Similarly, how will your team work together and not get in each other’s way? It’s not that easy. Personality conflicts, incomplete communication and busy schedules get in the way of coordinated work. I’ve seen it first hand in my organization and in those organizations with whom I work. Busy staff don’t talk to co-workers – even briefly – to discover that they are doing the same work or that they are working at cross-purposes. It takes constant communication to make course corrections. In my office, each project had a detailed road map to guide the work. Even with the road map, it was essential that we read the “breeze” in the organization and adjust. As your work progresses, what do you know today that you didn’t know when you started? What course corrections are called for? Become an observer of the staff and their communication styles.  Who is working well together and who continues to paddle at cross-purposes? An adjustment in staff roles can better align natural communication styles for more productive work.
  3. Anticipate. As we paddled, it looked like we were on track – heading straight for the point – but with one extra paddle stroke, we’d gone too far. I didn’t anticipate the momentum of the kayak and adjust my paddling in time. It took more time and effort to reach the point. Are you reading the situation and anticipating the next steps? Every office has momentum – work flows that are set in motion, processes that are half completed. You must anticipate where the momentum takes you and adjust in advance before the need is obvious. This is the work of the insightful leader. Are you a keen observer of the work flow, the patterns in the office and the external influences? It’s only then that you can anticipate the trajectory and course correct before others realize it’s needed.

We made it to the point – eventually. I learned that I have a lot to learn about kayaking. On the surface, it looks easy, but the art of kayaking takes skill and intentional thought. Providing wise leadership is the same. Data isn’t enough. You must be an astute observer of the people and work to stay on course.

 

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

Rain. All day. Grey and dreary.

Yay! I love a rainy day. Why would anyone find a damp, overcast day appealing? Here’s what I observe:

On a rainy day, the to-do list is shorter because some things can’t be done or are less convenient in the rain. I focus my attention more on a rainy day.

A rainy day feels refreshing as if the world is clean and less cluttered.

A rainy day has a slower pace. I’m more likely to read a book, take a nap, and think new thoughts.

So how do I transfer these observations from a rainy day to a regular work day?

Focus. Shorten the to-do list and focus. Not everything has to be done today or done by me. Let’s all take a moment and remove a few things from the list. We are left with less to do and more room to get them done. Send the other tasks to someone else or delete them entirely. Admit it, we all have something on the list that’s been there for ages. It can’t be THAT important if it’s still waiting to be done.

Declutter. Every item—pen, note pad, stack of papers, random business cards, another stack of papers, a book, an iPad—adds clutter to your world and to your mind. The brain uses small bits of energy to scan, process and label as irrelevant each of those items. That activity drains your brain power that you could use for productive tasks. Take a moment and organize the desk and the work space around you. Declutter and observe that your productivity increases.

Slow down. Now that you are more  focused and decluttered, you can slow the pace and do higher quality work – work that is thoughtful, considered and insightful. Most of us live in a frantic world. Those few who offer insight – insight that required astute observation – stand out. Who has time to think or think differently? You do. That’s who. But only with focus, less clutter and a slower pace. It’s during the slowness that the brain makes new, innovative connections. It’s where we find an aha-moment.

I confess that it’s hard for me to focus, declutter, and slow down. In the last few years, I trained myself to be at a frenetic pace. I’m not the only one. You know who you are! But we can retrain ourselves. I’ll give it a try if you will.

Imagine the rain. Focus on one or two things; remove everything else from sight, take a breath, settle your brain….and let your mind wander slowly. Allow the insight to come. It will be worth it.

Copyright: giedriusok / 123RF Stock Photo

“You’re doing what?” The question came from my girlfriends during our morning run. I had explained my plan to attend a weekend meditation retreat. It wasn’t the meditation retreat they reacted to. It was the plan: Friday night concert (we already had tickets); Saturday morning drive five hours to the retreat (it started at 9am); meditate all day; Sunday fly across country for a business meeting. All this so I could relax.

“No. You will not do that.” One of the girls insisted. The remarkable thing is that it took their perspective to convince me that, once again, I was over-doing it. The idea was good – to slow down – but I didn’t see the big picture. Their reaction caused me to pause and remember what I already knew about energy balance but had shoved aside.

Clearly, knowing and doing are not the same things. Here is my refresher course:

1. Know your energy profile. We all have it–the time of day when we’re at our best. For many people, it’s in the morning. But not for everyone. I’m a morning person and I do my best work in the morning…in the quiet. My friend writes and creates at night long after I’m snoozing. And don’t even call her before 11am. When are you at your peak performance? What time of day does your energy peak…morning, afternoon, evening?

 2. Recognize your energy drains and fillers. Each day starts with some amount of energy in your tank. Throughout the day you constantly fill up or drain away that energy. Energy fillers make you overflow with vim, vigor and vitality. Energy drains are activities, people or situations that sap your strength. Perhaps you procrastinate and mutter, “This just takes all my energy.” And you’re right! What activities fill or drain your energy?

As you read the following list, take note of subtle shifts in how you feel:

• Reading a book
• Listening to music
• Going dancing
• Hosting a party
• Attending a large networking event
• Going for a run
• Practicing yoga
• Meeting friends at a lively bar for drinks
• Meeting your best friend at a quiet restaurant
• Participating in a large conference
• Speaking before a group
• Facilitating a small group discussion
• Brainstorming new ideas with co-workers
• Participating in a heated debate

I noticed my breath slows with the energy fillers and my brain emits a tiny “yikes!” with the energy drains. What about you? Can you tell the difference?

 3. Coordinate your energy and your day. Big-ticket activities are best planned when your energy level is topped off. Write the report, hold budget negotiations, and do strategic planning when your energy is high. Research shows that decisions that need high moral considerations are strongest in the morning. And you certainly don’t want to have that high-emotion talk with your problem employee when your energy level is low (the same is true for having The Talk with your partner). Bad idea. Very bad idea. Plan routine administrative, minimal thinking tasks when your energy will be lower.

4. Balance the Big Picture. Even when you are adept at balancing daily energy, there is the week, month and year to consider. This is where I failed. I’ve been told that I put ten pounds in a five-pound bag.  Scan your monthly calendar. Is there time for the fun energy fillers? Or does work follow you home inside your computer or inside your head? Advances in neuroscience allow scientists to see that your brain keeps working on a problem when you are at the park, in a museum, listening to music, or baking cookies for the school fund-raiser. In fact, this down time is some of the most creative for your brain. Take a few pounds out of the bag to make time for the energy fillers across the week, month and year.

It’s easy to complain about having too much to do. It’s harder to commit to change. We wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor as though it is an indicator of value. It’s not. Perhaps something won’t be accomplished exactly when I want or perhaps I must make hard choices about the number of clients I can support. Whatever it is, I commit to managing my time with more balance.

Now it’s your turn. Be aware of your energy profile and your energy drains and fillers; balance each day, week, month and year. Make the commitment to always keep energy in your tank. Good luck! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take five pounds out of my bag.

planningIt happened for the second time. I arrived to speak at the conference workshop and realized that I left the mail-back cards and envelopes at home…again. (Yes, I have a packing checklist; yes, I used the checklist; yes, I still overlooked it.) That feeling of panic hits. The mail-back cards are an added feature for attendees. They write their key points on the card, seal it in an envelope, self-address it and I mail it to them 30-days later as a reminder. In this case, the cards were part of the agreement with the client; hence, panic.

In my study of neuroscience, I’ve come to understand that an alarmed brain can derail, well, almost anything.  When we get alarmed, even at a low level, it impairs the thoughtful part of the brain just when you need it most. I learned (the hard way) the importance of a) staying calm and b) finding a work-around, believing that there’s bound to be a way to solve the problem.

Stay calm. My mind raced, “Oh no! I’ll have to drive two hours back home to get the mail-back cards. I need that time to prepare, but the cards are part of the contracted program. I NEED those cards! What will I do?” Have you ever had your mind run away with you shouting, “Oh no! What will I do?” It’s natural. The brain perceives a threat (in this case I perceived impending failure) and it sends off alarms. Your skill is to recognize the feeling of alarm for what it is: your brain feeling threatened. The brain is super-sensitive to threats so it isn’t the best at discerning real from fake threats. You must slow down enough to intervene, take some deep breaths, and not give in to the “Oh no!”

Work-arounds. My friend is a retired association executive director who ran, over the course of a 30-year career, hundreds of conferences and trade shows. There’s always a glitch – always. He taught me that there is also always a work-around. He’s right (and I put that in writing). You just have to keep your head in the game (see Stay Calm) and be a bit creative. Staying calm is essential but not enough.  You must believe that there’s another way and look for it…really look for it.  In the mail-back card example, after I calmed down and realized that the cards really weren’t here, the search for a work-around began.  There was bound to be a business office with a printer and paper cutter. There was and the young man staffing it was very helpful. New cards were printed (but without the photo on the back) but still no envelopes.  The young man suggested the CVS – right-o! They had envelopes but not the correct size. This is where done is better than perfect. I got the envelopes, explained the story to the participants and instructed them to exercise mental flexibility and fit the card into the envelop any way they could!  And they did.

As it turned out, there was a glitch at the session and there was no projector or screen for my presentation, and it’s a highly visual program. Ok…stay calm; find the work-around. Two flip charts, colored markers and creative sketching later, we did the program without any AV. And, the attendees learned both the content and the power of work-arounds.

The next time something doesn’t go right, remember: Stay calm. Find the work-around. It’s there; it just takes a calm head to find it.

 

 

Some time ago, I spoke at and facilitated an Executive Leadership Program for a notable association.  The speakers were a who’s who in that industry–successful business people with a solid track record.  There were sessions on responding to RFPs, auditing and accounting, business operations, and profitability. At the end of the program, the participants met in groups and identified their top three take-aways from the day, which we recorded.  One item rose to the top of the list: Do the right thing and be nice. The group discussed that it was interesting that profitability wasn’t the first item on everyone’s list – indeed, it only came up once. But every group commented on being nice and just caring.

So, what does that look like at work?  It all comes down to behavior. If we are being nice and caring, what are we doing? Gleaning from the discussion and from my experience, there are three behaviors that communicate care.

Seek First to Understand. That’s from Stephen Covey’s classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He teaches that listening is a key skill. To do that, seek first to truly understand the other person’s point of view. Listen…truly listen. What we now know from neuroscience, is that when we listen and validate the other person’s comment or emotional state, it calms them.  They feel heard, and that settles the nervous system. It’s not that hard. But, you do have to restrain your impulse to dive in with your point.  Listen first. State it back. Hear them.  It shows you care about their opinion.

Speak strongly and politely. Somewhere along the way we forgot that being strong and confident are not mutually exclusive with politeness.  We can be strong and nice.  In fact, some of the strongest people I worked with embodied quiet calmness.  Without defensiveness, they could listen, hear, evaluate and come to a reasoned conclusion. I’ve seen caustic situations diffused when a manager lets the negative energy from another slide by and comment with calm understanding.  Even performance problems can be addressed with strength, without giving in and while being polite. We forget sometimes that politeness goes a long way.

Be interested in more than just their work.  One of the leaders who spoke at the program told the group that every Friday in the middle of the day, he called his staff just to chat.  He intentionally did not talk about work but rather used that time to connect on a personal level. Connection was another key theme from the program. For those of us (like me, I confess) who derive pleasure from checking off accomplishments, we can forget the importance of connecting personally. And yet, we feel more committed and motivated when we feel that people at work care about more than work. All it takes is an honest inquiry – How are things with your kids?  Which college did your daughter select? What did you think about the game last night?

Yes, profitability is essential but what these future executives learned is that they can get to profitability when their staff understands that they just care. Let’s face it, it’s just not that hard to be nice.

Copyright: thanaphiphat / 123RF Stock Photo

They started with two helicopters, an office crammed into the corner of the hangar filled with beat up furniture. Today, there are eight helicopters, a flight simulator, an office building outside the hangar and services offered in three locations across the country.  This company is Jerry Trimble Helicopters based in McMinnville, Oregon.  For full disclosure, the company is owned by Jerry and my sister, Alison. During a visit to Oregon I was struck by the growth of their company and the customer service principles behind that growth.  It’s worth taking a look. What they did holds true for other businesses and organizations as they mature into their potential.

Three core elements are the foundation of their growth.

Differentiated Vision. There are many companies that provide flight training services for flight instructors and other helicopter pilots. In this case, Jerry and Alison figured out their differentiated service early on.  Given the extensive flight experience that Jerry has, they provide access to that experience at an attractive rate. And they maintain high standards for themselves and the people working for them. Plus, they understood the circumstances of their customers. People come from all over the world to train with Jerry and they need a place to live.  Jerry Trimble Helicopters has access to housing for long-term clients.  They have been consistent and unwavering to this differentiated vision since starting.

What is it that makes your organization unique?  This is not a trivial question; indeed, it is a hard but central question. Once you figure that out, are you communicating that difference clearly and consistently in everything that you do?

Build over time. I confess that in my business, it’s been easy to fall prey to the shiny object syndrome.  There are so many things that are possible to grow the business it’s hard to focus on just one! And plenty of people are hanging around to tell you that you HAVE to do this, that, and the other.  To Alison and Jerry’s credit, they have steadily and consistently built the business over time. Alison is quick to point out that “growth” isn’t necessarily measured in profit.  They have grown by expanding services geographically across three states; expanding the number of helicopters and simulators available for training; expanding the type of training; and expanding student housing options. They did it a little at a time focusing on the opportunities most advantageous at the time.

How are you prioritizing the investments you make in your organization? What one big thing is your focus for this year? A friend of mine tackles one initiative each quarter to grow her business. Pick one, just one, and focus. Then pick again and repeat.

Be true to your culture. I have to hand it to Jerry and Alison, they have infused their personalities into the company, and no other helicopter flight training company can duplicate it. It is uniquely theirs. They make sure clients feel like family complete with nicknames and celebrations toasted with local beer.  Their equipment has personas – Juanita the airplane, Ole Yeller the helicopter (because it’s yellow, not old), Lola the fuel truck, Jethro the second fuel truck. Dogs roam in and out of the office as they have priority over…well, everything. Alison’s style which she calls hillbilly chic (their Swiss student calls it hillybilly chic) is reflected in the office décor – corrugated tin office dividers, wire mesh fencing, weathered metal chairs and hewn wood tables. This business is theirs and theirs alone.

What makes your business uniquely yours? How does your personality and belief system drive the culture of your organization? Does your organization have a generic or distinctive feel?

Every business and organization is different; however, these three basic principles, vision, uniqueness and focused growth over time, hold valuable insights for growth and top notch customer service. And if you find yourself in McMinnville, stop by for a ride in Ole Yeller.