Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

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We were in Mikki William’s speaker school. The room was filled with accomplished professionals from a variety of businesses, each there for their unique reasons. One was Barbara. Tall and striking, Barbara’s goal was to overcome her anxiety about speaking. On day two, each of us were to stand in front of the room and tell a story using the techniques Mikki taught us. It was Barbara’s turn.  She demurred.  “No,” she said. “I’m not comfortable and my heart is pounding.  Besides, I don’t have a story to tell.”

“Oh yes you do!” we all replied. “You can do this!”  And she did.

Nervously, Barbara stood in front of a room full of accomplished business people and told her story. Her story? It was about her anxiety around speaking this morning.  First, she had asked her husband what story to tell. “Tell them about your trip to Panama and what happened there,” he said. She didn’t think that story was appropriate. She asked her best friend, “You should definitely tell them about Ecuador. They’ll love that one!”  No. She didn’t like that one either. She mused about telling us her experience dog sledding.  None seemed like the best story.  Instead, she told us a story about not having a story. It was masterful. By the time she finished, we were engaged, laughing, and on our feet. And, she taught us about bravery.

As insightful leaders, you will face situations that make you feel uncomfortable and unsure. In those moments:

  1. Gather support from others. Talk about the challenge to people that you trust, just as Barbara sought input from those close to her. Whether she took their suggestions or not, talking generates ideas in your own mind. It helps you see perspectives that you may not otherwise notice. Those discussions give you time to reflect.  Depending on your situation, you may not wish to talk to those within your organization. Use your network of peers as a safe place to engage in dialog about new and unsettling challenges.  Mikki works with Vistage which provides this type of environment for senior staff and executives.
  2. Own the discomfort. Barbara never tried to hide her discomfort. She owned it. Studies in neuroscience show that acknowledging fear and uncertainty help calm the threat response in the brain more effectively than denying the unease. I recommend talking to yourself about the discomfort. “What is it about this situation that makes me feel uncomfortable?” “Why am I hesitating?” Unravel your feelings by probing and naming them. As my friend says, “Name it to tame it.”
  3. Step into it anyway. Take a deep breath, decide on your first step and take it. There’s nothing like action to quell uncertainty. I have a quote on my wall that says, “Fear fades in the face of action.” Each step forward creates more and more certainty. Maybe the situation will go great and maybe it won’t. In either case, you grow and learn for the next time.  Because, as an insightful leader, there will always be a next time.

Mikki’s speaker school was an excellent learning environment for speaking, business and, unexpectedly, bravery. Thank you to Barbara for modeling bravery in action.  I don’t know about you, but I want to hear about dog sledding!

Copyright: shalamov / 123RF Stock Photo

It’s a cold winter’s day and the fireplace is blazing.  Yellow flames grasp upward and their heat warms the room.  It’s the gas fireplace in my living room. Down the road the fireplace is blazing at my friend’s house.  Yellow flames grasp upward, heat warms the room and the burning logs crackle and pop as the embers fall under the grate. It’s a “real” fireplace. While both functionally use produce heat from fire to warm the room, the experience of the real fireplace is different. Many would say that there’s no substitute for a “real” fireplace.

Similarly, every day as we communicate with others, we choose whether to communicate via email or voice-to-voice.  In both situations, we use words to share information but the experience of voice-to-voice communication is different. As an insightful leader, you need to know when you use each approach.

Email is quick and easy, like my gas fireplace. Most of us use email as an easy and quick way to communicate and, for some needs, email is the perfect tool. In fact, we couldn’t do without it. But sometimes, email is not the best fit. Email can create more harm than good.

Email is your best choice anywhere simple communication is appropriate, the opportunity for misunderstanding is small, and the situation requires little nuance.  Use email to:

  • coordinate schedules for meetings or events
  • distribute meeting agendas
  • confirm action items
  • summarize key discussion points
  • relay short, simple or low-sensitivity messages
  • document conversations, meetings or events to serve as a record
  • distribute technical information or other data such as specifications, price quotes or reports
  • disseminate a non-critical message to many recipients (such as, holiday greetings, thank yous)
  • solicit input for future discussion

Voice-to-voice communication provides opportunity for nuance. My friend’s wood-burning fireplace is, admittedly, more time consuming, messier and requires frequent caretaking. And, it provides a more complete fireplace experience. Talking in-person and, to some extent, talking on the phone, allows a more complete communication experience. Voice-to-voice, we pick up subtleties and the intangible factors that can make or break good communication. Tone, volume, pace, urgency, facial expressions, and body position all provide additional communication clues. That’s why voice-to-voice communication is essential for any situation where nuance is key, multiple interpretations are possible and where emotional reaction can sway the outcome.  Use voice-to-voice for

  • conversations to reach complex decisions
  • performance feedback and mentoring conversations
  • discussion of goals and objectives
  • sensitive subjects
  • confidential information
  • delivery of good or bad news with significant implications
  • personnel issues or disciplinary action
  • topics that need full understanding, discussion and interaction

Like the “real” fireplace, voice-to-voice conversations take more energy than email. However, just as there’s no substitute for a “real” fireplace, there’s no substitute for a “real” conversation when the situation calls for it.

Use your insight to assess when you need “real” discussion. Then, make the time and bring the energy to engage and connect.

Photo Credit: Romolo Tavani

The party is over. The confetti clings to the floor, reluctant to be swept away. The hats and horns are conspicuous with glittered hot pinks, blues and golds. And so the new year begins.

Maybe you had a New Year’s Eve like this or maybe you sat quietly at home in front of a fireplace. Maybe you kissed at midnight or maybe you slept through it.  Either way, the new year is a natural time for reflection and goal setting.

As a leader, one of the most effective activities you can do is to set a goal for the new year– not ten goals–one goal. The value of setting a clear goal is that it keeps you focused amid the bombardment of distractions. Your challenge is to set the goal that will make the most difference and then focus on it relentlessly.

That sounds good, doesn’t it? And, frankly, it’s excellent advice. It’s just that, honestly, I’m terrible that this.  I have many goals, not one goal. Maybe you’re in the same boat. Really…what is that one big goal? It’s not constructive for me or for you to fragment our focus.  In this article, I’ll examine my own struggles and see if we can come up with a workable approach together. Okay? Here we go.

Step 1. Make a list of the goals you’d like to accomplish this year. Go ahead….make the list. What do you want to have completed this time next year? Now, step back and see what you have. My list has seven main goals, each with bullets.

Step 2. Triage. Identify the goals that have the biggest impact. What does it mean to have impact? Is it an activity that makes money, grows visibility, advances a cause, positions the organization for future growth? Those are high priority.  Now, which goals can only be executed when others are finished? Those are medium priority.

Even after triage, there may be too many high priority goals. There are for me. But, here’s the problem. You can’t effectively execute them all with high quality. Or can you?

Step 3. Gather more resources. Which goals can be tackled by others? Can you hire or delegate one or more goals?  In my case, the answer is – probably.  Identify the goals that can be associated with someone else. Note the person and the role they will play. Set a time to talk with them about the new assignment.

Step 4. Brutal prioritization. It’s time to be brutal with yourself. First, find any goals that are easy and quick. Next, think long and hard about which goal REALLY matters. Which goal, when accomplished will make a tangible difference now or for the future?  Which goal, if not accomplished, would make you feel like you missed an opportunity?

Hopefully, you whittled the list to one or two. In my case, there are two.  One is an action and the other an attitude while taking the action.  I have my focus. Have you identified that one goal that really matters?

Step 5. Be accountable. You’re not finished yet and neither am I. Set up an accountability method that maintains your focus. Tell a mentor or trusted colleague about your goal and ask that they check in monthly.  The point is to stay focused on your priority.  You’ll be lucky to make it through January without some distraction derailing your priorities. You need an accountability system to keep your eye on the goal.

Here’s my accountability system.  You.

You see, my top priority goal is to refocus my business on Insightful Leadership. I’m redoing the website and aligning all products and services to support the development and growth of insightful leaders like you.  The newsletter articles, programs, webinar series (to be launched this year –  a secondary goal) and future books will center on development of insightful leaders.  Hold me to it!

Photo Credit: Scott Betts

It was the night of the lighted boat parade in our neighborhood of Eastport. The boat parade, sponsored by the Eastport Yacht Club, is a regular event that draws spectators who line the shoreline and bridge around the three sides of the harbor. The boats – dressed as angels, Santa’s sleigh, the Grinch, and more – parade in a circle around the harbor. This year, I was on a friend’s boat moored inside the circle serving hot food and drinks to the boats who work behind the scenes to ensure safety. Consequently,  we saw the opposite side of all the decorated boats.

We pointed and clapped at each lighted boat from our deck, bundled up with snow flakes falling. Sailboats make excellent Christmas trees and there was one coming into view. Puzzled, one of our crew mused, “Why does that boat say, ‘Oh oh oh?’” It didn’t. From the perspective of the spectators, it said, “Ho ho ho!” but from our side, it looked like “Oh oh oh.”

And that’s the way it is at work. An insightful leader knows that there are many perspectives available aside from the obvious one.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and fall for the same viewpoint each time but that doesn’t bring creativity or innovation.  An insightful leader seeks out alternative perspectives to inform their decision. Here are three tips to cultivating that alternative perspective.

  1. Put yourself in other’s shoes. We say this all the time but it’s surprisingly difficult to do. We’re not in someone else’s shoes; we’re in ours. It takes considerable cognitive energy to convince your brain to look at a situation or decision from another view point. To do so, make an effort to think about the person(s) on another side of the situation or decision. What is their background? What are their interests? What work experience do they have that color their perspective? What hot button issues are you aware of? It’s only when you force this level of thinking that you come close to putting yourself in other’s shoes and seeing a new perspective.
  2. If not this, then what? When your staff brings a recommendation to you, note if it is a standard recommendation – something that you would expect. This would not be surprising. The brain is designed to take the easiest (lowest energy) path which is to do what it’s done before. To force a new perspective, say, “Thank you for the recommendation. Now, let’s assume that this course of action is not available to us. What would we do then?” By taking the tried-and-true option off the table, you force new thinking.
  3. Ask others. The insightful leaders that I interviewed were skilled at asking others for input. It helped them see other perspectives. When you seek out the opinions of others, don’t ask what they would do. Instead ask: “How would you approach this problem?” “What factors would you consider in the decision?” “What are other ways you’ve seen this situation addressed?” These questions evoke a broader, more thoughtful response that is more likely to provide new options for your consideration.

Whether it’s within your work, your community or your family, there’s value in making an effort to see other perspectives. And nationally, in this time where it seems that divisiveness flourishes and there is little effort to understand alternative viewpoints, perhaps we can all take a moment to find appreciation and respect for our differences and similarities.

After all, “oh oh oh” and “ho ho ho” are just two sides of the same boat.

Have you ever wanted to try something new in your organization but were hesitant to start?  Maybe it’s a process that you need to change or a technology you’re considering investing in.  It can feel risky and uncertain. You don’t want to break anything. And, that causes you to delay jumping in.

Recently, I was in Vienna, Austria.  As my friend and I strolled though the Christmas markets near the Rathaus (City Hall), we noticed people ice skating. But it wasn’t on an ice rink. It was an ice path that meandered through the trees in the park. It was beautiful and unlike anything I’d seen before.  “I’d like to try that,” I thought to myself, “but what if I fell and twisted an ankle or broke a leg or dislocated a shoulder?” A big part of my business is traveling to organizations for consulting, speaking or training. A broken/dislocated anything would be bad for business.  Hmmm…do I take the risk and try it?

Later, skating through the trees, I reflected on the thought process that helped me move forward and how to apply it in business.

  1. Make a financial commitment. If you’re serious, you must buy in at some level – with your cash or your time. Buying a ticket, renting skates and a locker wasn’t the same as purchasing software or hardware but it was enough to cause me to evaluate how badly I wanted to ice skate. In business, “free” can be too easy….to easy to not follow through. You have no stake in the new venture to motivate your behavior.  Commit and get going.
  2. Take small steps and increase confidence. It had been years (a lot of years) since I ice skated. I laced the skates with trepidation. The voice in my head said, “Have you lost your mind? You’re 57; you haven’t skated in ages; you weren’t a whiz at it; and you could jeopardize your work. This can’t be a good idea.” Take one step at a time with increasing confidence. Lace up the skates; walk slowly on the decking outside the icy pathway; step onto the ice and hold the rails; slowly gain confidence to haltingly move forward. You can do the same in your organization. Start with a limited effort –a small project, a handful of customers. Pay attention along the way and assess progress. Gradually, do more, go faster, implement farther into the organization as your confidence grows and results surface.
  3. Grow skill. In my experience in working with other organizations, the hardest part of doing something new is having the discipline to keep up the new activity. It’s far easier to revert back and do what has always been done. As you innovate, keep the faith. Now is the time to observe others who have more practice, actively assess progress, and keep trying. It helps to acknowledge small gains and discuss the experience with others on your team. That will assist them to maintain focus and keep up the effort (and it takes effort to do something new). I watched the little kids glide past effortlessly. Slowly, I remembered how to gently push off with my skates and slowly…oh so slowly, propel myself around the iced pathway. After a few laps, my skill grew. It was still precarious, but I was out there making progress.
  4. Develop expertise. Once you’ve proven that the new approach (process, software or whatever is new in your organization) has value, start learning from the experts. Who has the best practice? What are they doing? How can you tweak your approach (while it is still pliable in the minds of staff) to position yourself to use this innovation to your best advantage?

In my skating example, I didn’t get to the stage of developing expertise.  That wasn’t the point. But I did successfully try a new activity in a way that managed risk.

You don’t have to go to Vienna or go ice skating to try something novel in your organization.  What would you like to put into place that’s innovative? Take a step back and find ways to step through the new implementation in a way the manages your risk. There’s no need to risk that broken leg.

Copyright: gdvcom / 123RF Stock Photo

Egg nog‘Twas the holiday season…and family dynamics are taking a toll. There are the folks you see often and those less regularly. Some relationships are easy and welcome. Others …well, other relationships may grate on your nerves. Let’s face it, some family members seem to have a knack for hitting your hot buttons and setting off triggered reactions–—easily and often. And yet, it’s a season to enjoy good cheer and egg nog. Here are four tips for resourcing yourself to remain cheerful without a punch-bowl full of egg nog as reinforcement.

Identify your expectations beforehand. I learned this technique years ago and, honestly, it has been a life-saver. Before a family or social event, I think about my expectations.  What would I like to get out of the occasion? For example, I may want to spend quiet time with a distant cousin whom I haven’t seen in years, and not be drawn into group caroling. Without this knowledge beforehand, when pressed to go caroling, my body would tense and I would likely react more harshly than necessary. Clarifying expectations in advance allows you to prevent misunderstandings before they take place.

Before your next event, try this: Ask yourself what the family event will be like in your ideal world? How will it unfold? Who will you spend time with? What will you do and not do? Now share that information with your spouse, partner or friend. And listen to their ideal scenario. Together you provide mutual support and you are more likely to have a positive experience.

Think about who and what will be triggers. Many of our triggers or hot buttons are known and repeatable: “If Aunt Harriet tells that same story about the turkey again, I’ll scream!” “You know that Cousin Jim is going to spend all evening talking about his investment skills.” “I can’t bear another of Ann’s discussions about government conspiracy theories.” Whatever the story, you already know it because it happens every year and every year it is annoying. This year, prepare in advance. What are the people, situations and issues that trip your trigger? How will you handle it when it comes up again? Maybe you can simply walk away to refill a drink, get a snack or find someone else to talk with. Maybe you can make a light joke that deflects the discussion to another topic (“Ha, ha, Ann! As if the government is organized enough to create a conspiracy!”). I remember that for one event, my late husband and I had a code word. If either of us became frustrated with a conversation, we’d work in the word, “pineapple.” That was code to provide the other person with an exit strategy. Whatever your technique, it works best when you proactively identify triggers in advance.

Create a calming toolkit for use in that environment. You can’t predict every situation but you can create your own personal toolkit of calming techniques to use in the moment. For example, when I need a brief respite, I simply walk outside for a few breaths of fresh air and a moment to reflect on nature. You may be able to let your mind wander to pleasant thoughts when the conversation goes in an uncomfortable direction. Bathrooms are havens of quiet in the hub-bub of a loud, high-energy event. I confess to loitering a bit longer than necessary to catch my breath, center myself, take some deep breaths and reconnect with my expectations. Find the techniques that provide you with those few, precious moments to come back to yourself.

Take time for yourself. Even during (particularly during) intense family events, it’s important to take time for yourself. I’m fortunate that to have experienced understanding when I said, “I’m going to sit in the corner for a few minutes and read my new novel.” Most people respect the space you need to recharge. This is especially important for those of us who are introverts and need quiet to replenish our energy. Make a commitment to yourself to carve out a bit of time to be with you and only you. What is your plan — read, go for a short walk, listen to music, nap? When might it fit into the rhythm of the day? Let your spouse, partner or family member in on the plan so that they are not surprised when you retreat and regroup. When you emerge, your energy will be higher and you will be more present for everyone else.

The holidays are a special time to connect with friends and family. Take a few moments to resource yourself to remain merry and bright. It will make the time together even better and you can enjoy the egg nog, too.

Happy holidays to all…and to all a good night.

 

bootsIt was the sixth shoe store we visited in Vienna, Austria. And still no shoes.  I wanted to buy a pair of boots as my old ones from Milan, Italy, fit so well. In and out of shoe stores we went. My traveling companion had the patience of Job. I looked at combat-style boots, knee-length heeled boots, punk-rocker studded booties and everything in between. At each store, the increasingly impatient salesperson asked, “What are you looking for exactly?” To which I replied, “I’m not sure but I’ll know it when I see it.”

Have you ever worked for an I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it manager? Or are you an I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it manager? I’ve worked for this type of manager and my staff might even say that I’ve been this type of manager (although I’d like to think it was rare). Here are the pitfalls to this management style:

It’s frustrating for everyone around you. They, like the salesperson, are doing their best to assist in your quest. But no matter what they provide – a report, a product, a marketing plan, or a strategy – it’s not what you were looking for. It doesn’t take long for them to become exasperated and demotivated.

It’s a time waster. As the frustration grows, so does time. Time is spent guessing at the goal and producing a product to meet their best-guess.  While time spirals into more time, the cost also includes lost opportunity costs.  Just think about all the other work they could be doing that would result in a productive output rather than a guessing game.

You won’t know it when you see it.  Despite the belief that you’ll have an “aha” moment when you see that mysterious just-right thing, you won’t. You won’t know-it-when-you-see-it because you don’t know what you’re looking for. It’s a futile circular loop that rarely plays out well.

Everyone, including your organization, is better off if you replace I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it with clarity of vision and direction. Here are three tasks to get you started.

  1. Clarify your objective. In my case, I needed to define my shoe objective. Did I want comfy, go-to-the-grocery-store booties, sophisticated stand-on-the-stage boots, or an edgy silver-studded pair? What did I want to accomplish with the boot search? Similarly, what are you trying to accomplish with your task? Do you know? Challenge yourself to define the goal and articulate it specifically. Ask yourself, “What does success look like?” What behavior will you see; what product will be available; what service experience will be created?
  2. Do your research. Poke, prod, search, explore, ask others, and research what’s out there. Now is the time to research options. Who else is in the ecosystem? What are their products or services? What is the state of the art or state of the practice? Seek out information to give you the boundaries of what currently exists so that you have a knowledgeable frame of reference to share with others.
  3. Define the parameters. In my case, I finally narrowed the search to black booties with a low heel and below a specific price point. That helped. What are your boundaries?  Think about your task and define the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable. Communicate that dividing line clearly to reduce the frustration of those working on the task. Define the box within which your task fits to reduce the time and effort of others.

In the end, I didn’t buy shoes because no matter how many I looked at, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I didn’t know it when I saw it after all. Next time, I’ll be clearer and it will save me time and reduce the frustration of those around me.  You can do the same. Clarify your objective, do the research, and define the parameters. You, those around you and your organization will come out ahead.

 

Copyright: bushalex / 123RF Stock Photo