The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

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We left the dock at 5 am, bundled against the cold, the boat loaded with food, drinks, snacks for us and lures for the fish. It was opening day of Rockfish season. I know nothing about Rockfish, but I was with an experienced team who have fished together for twenty years. Their preparation was extensive and exhaustive. The week before they organized lines, white and chartreuse lures, weights coordinated to each line so that lures trailed the boat at varying depths and distances. The team planned it all in advance  ̶  thoughtful & intentional. Knowledge of Rockfish patterns determined the trolling location which was 90 minutes away at top speed. We were well organized, well planned, and well prepared…and we caught no fish.

Have you ever been fully prepared; thought of everything and were disappointed that it (the project, the meeting, the conversation) didn’t turn out as planned? Insightful leaders may be disappointed but they start asking questions.

  1. What mid-course correction can be made?

At the first inkling that the plan isn’t working out, insightful leaders look for ways to adjust. Since much of any work project is about making an emotional connection, what clues can you pick up from the reaction of the client, boss or audience? Notice their mood and receptivity. Do you need to ask more questions, reorient the project direction, be more or less aggressive, or make a change to the project team? Mid-course corrections could be in timing, staffing, approach, product/service shift, scale or more. Maybe a tweak will get you back on track.

Our accomplished team quickly realized that the fish were scarce. They adjusted the lines, cleaned jellyfish from the lures and changed course. All were good mid-course corrections and they didn’t work. Time for the next step.

  1. What are others experiencing?

Is it just you or are others experiencing problems? Your next steps are colored by the answer.  Are you able to ask questions of others in your office with similar projects or clients? Competitors may offer clues, too. When you observe their behaviors, do you notice them shifting strategy, tactics or customers? Are there partners or even competitors with whom you can safely make inquiries? Your intention is to determine if your work is an isolated situation or part of a bigger trend.

As we trolled the quiet waters, we observed the charter fishing boats.  Many were in the same area we were. We took comfort in that, except the radio was missing the usual chatter of excited fishermen. Within hours, the charters started looking for fish elsewhere. We were part of a tournament. Friendly competitors texted back and forth lamenting the lack of fish.  It wasn’t just us.

  1. What’s the bigger picture?

An insightful leader is always attentive for indicators of a big picture shift. In a time of big data, there are an increasing array of information sources to help spot a shift. Sometimes, the gnawing in the gut is also a good indicator. When you look at all the information you gathered, do you see a shift in client expectations, a change in client demographics or psychographics? Are there new technologies that bring new business opportunities and disrupt existing ones? Is this a one-time problem or a systemic trend? You need to know the difference.

The water was still too cold. That was the consensus from our team. The fish had not yet left the rivers. The question remains, is this a one-time event or an indicator of climate change? One is a blip, the other would make opening day fishing more speculative.

As any leader can attest: It’s essential to have a plan and it’s equally essential to be able to change the plan. Use these questions whenever your best-laid plans don’t pan out.

Are there other key questions you use when plans change?

 

I was in my hometown of Smithville, Texas for the big Jamboree celebration. Jamboree includes a coronation, parade, dances and a livestock show and sale. For the livestock show, kids raise steers, pigs, goats, chickens and rabbits to be judged and sold. The two-year old granddaughter, Kyndall, of my childhood friend was fascinated by the rabbits. An eighth-grader holding a white bunny walked past and Kyndall was ON IT. She patted the rabbit, rubbed its ears and, in a moment of brilliance, she bent over to be at eye level with the rabbit as though she was communicating with it. It was an adorable moment that captured my attention. Here’s why.

In today’s world where email, instant messenger, LinkedIn messages and more are a predominant form of communication, the insightful leader understands the importance of relating person to person (or, for Kyndall, person to bunny). Here are three tips to be more relatable, particularly for high-stakes conversations.

  1. Make eye contact. Kyndall got it right. She made every effort to be make eye contact with the rabbit. You, too, must make every effort to make eye contact and that can only happen in person. Increasingly, the staff I work with seek to hide behind email, but an insightful leader meets in person and makes eye contact – for real. Yes, it’s easier to email but the personal touch makes all the difference. Force yourself, make the time, and make the effort to talk to your staff face-to-face and eye-to-eye. That’s how you connect as people.
  2. Use language that is relatable. Multisyllabic, pretentious (big, showy) words may make us feel educated but they create a barrier to communication. Recently, I assisted a client to craft an important communication to all employees in the company. We intentionally used words that are simple and understandable to all. You create connection via your communication. Think about the simplest terms you can use to communicate effectively. Simple, concise and clear are the recipe for relatability.
  3. Show your interest. Kyndall carefully ran her tiny fingers through the rabbit’s fur and over its ears. As I watched, it was clear that she loved the rabbit and the rabbit sat calmly under her touch. Your staff may not have soft ears and fluffy fur but you can still communicate your interest through sincere curiosity about their perspective and interest in their work life. How do you express your interest in your staff? What do you know about their thoughts and ideas? Do you inquire about their suggestions to improve their work? Like Kyndall’s rabbit, people respond to those who they sense are interested. What would your staff say about your level of interest in them?

Let’s learn from Kyndall and her rabbit. As insightful leaders, you can take a few simple steps to be more relatable to your staff. It’s pays off in dedication and the hard work that comes from feeling connected.

 

Have you ever found something that you like and just stick with it? Maybe it’s your favorite restaurant, favorite running shoe, favorite hand lotion or…in this case, your favorite clam chowder. Recently, we visited friends in Florida and a discussion ensued about the best clam chowder. The next day, we had a side-by-side taste test with two clam chowders. There was the old favorite and a new un-tried contender. I’ll leave you in suspense about the winner as we ponder the relevance to insightful leadership.

At work, we also have our favorites– a favorite process, a favorite go-to staff person who always gets the job done, a favorite approach to problem solving. They are our favorites for a reason – they worked well in the past, we are familiar with them, they don’t require excessive thought, or they are reliable. Like the favorite clam chowder – we know what we’re getting. We get what we’ve always gotten, and the brain likes it that way. It takes less energy for the brain to do what it’s always done.

But, you lead in a fast-moving environment where little is stable. Can you afford to settle for the standby, comfortable solutions? What if there’s a new way and you didn’t discover it? How do you entice people to look beyond their favorites and uncover the creative approach? Here are two simple questions that help push you and others to look beyond the obvious.

Ask, “What if we can’t do it this way – what’s another way?” Let’s say you’re working on a sensitive project and all recommendations take the tried-and-true approach. Push yourself and your team out of the comfort zone by posing this question. “Let’s pretend that our regular approach isn’t available to us. What else can we do?” With that question, you force the discussion to become more creative immediately. When you take the favored approach out of contention and require consideration of other options, you force the brain to dig in and do the hard work of real thinking. Expect to meet resistance. Don’t settle for the default option. Continue to take options off the table to force thinking at a deeper level.

Ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” Listen carefully to the responses. Perhaps you hear, “That’s what we did the last time,” or “It worked for us before,” or “It’s the standard approach.” All responses are of the same ilk…they are reliant on the default behavior. Don’t stop probing until you get to the bottom line goal.  Take the clam chowder example. Why do we always choose this particular clam chowder? The answers could be: It’s at the restaurant on the way home from work; it has a top reputation; we’ve been eating it for years. Good to know but the objective was not to find the most convenient clam chowder with the best reputation. When you uncover the reason for selecting the tried and true, it can open the door to other choices and reveal options to explore.

As for our clam chowder taste test…the old standby won in a landslide. That could happen to you, too. If it does, don’t be lulled into thinking there’s no reason to probe in the future. Change is constant and those who keep up the questions and see beyond the obvious will be the first to find the next favorite thing.

Copyright: cokemomo / 123RF Stock Photo

pavement markersIt happened just the other day. I was in Florida driving back from a training program just as the sun was getting low in the sky. Because I’m a transportation engineer I see things on the road that you may not. Glancing in my rear-view mirror, I saw them. The raised, reflective pavement markers. Have you ever noticed them?  They are small, raised bumps between the white dashes and they reflect white light at night with your headlights. But, if you happen to travel the wrong way on the road, they reflect red. You see a continuous line of red twinkling dots to tell you that you need to go the other way.

As the red dots sparkled in the evening sun, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were red twinkling dots to tell us we’re going the wrong way as leaders?” On second thought, perhaps there are.

The nagging feeling that gnaws in your gut. You know that feeling – it tells you that something’s not sitting right. Ignore that feeling at your peril. It’s your inner red twinkling dots trying to get your attention. Both my personal experience and interviews with executives say one consistent thing about the nagging feeling – pay attention. There’s something in your brain that’s trying to get through. Ask questions; probe your discomfort; dig in to understand why the tell-tale feeling has kicked in.  From a neuroscience perspective, the nagging feeling is something from your experience that’s trying to get your attention. Call it intuition or gut feel, but, whatever you call it, it has validity and deserves your attention. In fact, a friend who is an executive director of a trade association told me that she gages the wisdom of her decisions based on the nagging feeling. “The nagging feeling goes away when you make the right decision,” she says. It’s your internal warning system … if you pay attention to it.

Trusted colleagues who say, “You might want to think about that again.” The emphasis here is on “trusted.”  When someone I respect says, “uhhhh….you might reconsider that before you decide,” I’ve learned to reconsider before I decide. There’s only so much that you can see from your vantage point. Others may have a clearer perspective and see consequences and implications that you can’t.  They are your own personal red, twinkling dots. In fact, they can be so effective you should proactively cultivate them. As an important decision approaches, seek counsel from the wise people in your world. What perspective can they offer that you wouldn’t otherwise see?

What other red twinkling dots have you noticed that cause you to pause and take note before deciding? Share your experiences with me and the other readers so that we don’t make a wrong turn.

Photo credit: 3M

escalatorThey were in front of me as I approached the hotel’s escalator to head down to the first floor.  A little, brown-headed boy about 2 years scurried to the escalator holding his dad’s hand. His dad held firm to his hand as he flew him inches off the ground to land squarely on the escalator step. The little boy jumped and jiggled as though the escalator an amusement park ride. Clearly, this is the fun moment the little boy was anticipating.  As they approached the bottom, the boy couldn’t wait any longer. He leaned forward ready for take-off.  His father calmly said, “No. Not yet….wait for it.”

One of my most requested programs is about avoiding over-thinking. I hear from clients, “There is too much wasted time on over-thinking. The decision needs to be made now!” We add pressure by telling ourselves: I should decide, I need to decide, I’ve got to decide. But what about the decisions that need to wait? How does an insightful leader know when to “wait for it?”

The future is too hazy. During a disruptive time, the future can evolve in many different directions. It’s like seeing into a fog. The fog can lift just a bit – enough to see the next step – by waiting. But until the future begins to clear, deciding “NOW!” can be highly risky. It’s better to allow a little time to reveal the next best step.

There’s no coalition behind the leader. Leaders are in lonely roles. They see the future sooner and more clearly than others. If the future is too blurry for others to see, the leader may find themselves without a tribe. As that leader, you may find that building the tribe is harder than you thought. You are too far ahead and they can’t see what you see.  When that happens, “Wait for it.” Give the issue time to gel while you continue to socialize your idea with others until a coalition of like-minded people begins to coalesce.

Trying too hard. Have you ever felt like you were pushing toward a goal – pushing and pushing –  and it’s not happening? It’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole. You are trying to force a decision or an approach whose time has not yet come. The nagging feeling tells you that you’re trying too hard; the time has not yet come. Wait for it.  You’ll know the right time. In my experience, puzzle pieces begin to fall into place or something in your environment shifts. The result is it’s not so hard.

As the escalator ride came to an end, the boy, barely containing himself, waited for the precise moment when the step flattened into the floor and his father swung him over the threshold.  With glee, he scampered off not realizing the lesson he taught us: wait for it.

Have you ever found value from “waiting on it?” I’d love to hear your experience.

Photo Copyright : studiolaska  (Follow)

It was a hustle bustle morning. I was in Austin preparing for a client meeting. I was downtown, and they were in South Austin. It required a drive down Interstate 35 in rush hour to reach their office. Traffic was stop, start, stop, start for several miles before the exit onto the frontage road. I made a quick turn into their driveway so as not to be run over by the pickup truck on my bumper (it’s always a pickup truck in Texas). My knuckles were still clinched as I pulled into the small parking lot.  And then it happened. The parking lot was tucked into a stand of scrub oak trees – small oak trees that twist and turn in sculptured forms. As I parked under the trees, my heart rate slowed and I began to breathe again. It’s the calming power of nature.

Have you ever had a hustle bustle day at work? The day where you go from one meeting to the next? The day where there are more things to do than the hours allow? In those days, when a break seems like the last thing you have time for, use the calming power of nature to rejuvenate your brain and body. The real thing is best but research shows that even photos of nature scenes can be reinvigorating. Here are four ways to fit a nature break into your day.

Lunch or coffee break. Take them. For years I worked through lunch eating off a paper plate while checking emails. Now, I stop for lunch, move away from my desk and computer and take a short stroll somewhere outside.  It might only be to stand in the sun and breathe deeply. What will it take for you to find a small patch of nature to enjoy at your next coffee or lunch break? More importantly, make yourself take that break for even a few minutes.

Change of topic. A nature break also helps your mind shift from one subject to the next. Sometimes we jump quickly from one thing to another but when you are focused on completing a task and it’s time to shift your attention to the next one, your brain makes that change easier if it has a little break to breath and reorient. Try it the next time you intentionally move your attention from one topic to the next. Pause, walk outside or look out the window, and let your mind wander. Take a couple deep breathes to let go of the old subject. It only takes a few minutes to help your brain reorient.

Before walking into work and leaving work. The work day can be intense so use nature to help you prepare for and unwind after work. Notice plants and trees, the smell of fresh air, and the sounds of birds as you leave your home and walk into work. Notice them again leaving work and going home. Like parking under the stand of oaks trees calmed me, let nature bring calm to you at the beginning and end of the work day and transition your brain for the rest of the day.

Thank you to my client, the good people at the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, for providing an unexpected respite from Austin traffic. Take care of those trees!

“I’m trying not to be worried. It will be fine.”

If I said it once, I said it a hundred times.  I said it to my friends. I said it to my work colleagues. And most importantly, I said it to myself. Looking back, I thought I was being positive.  “It will all be fine.” But my brain heard, “worried” over and over and over again. So my brain gave me worry.

Words matter.

As an insightful leader, the words you say to yourself are more impactful than the words you say to others. The words you say to yourself color your outlook, your demeanor and the way you show up to others. You can use your words to create the impact you want.

I attended the Align Retreat this weekend in Oregon with Chris West (www.videonarrative.com). During that retreat I was reminded of the power of words. We were encouraged to write down the type of life we want and design a business that supports it. If I don’t want to worry, then what do I want? After learning tips and receiving tools, I realized that growing a business didn’t have to be hard.  It could be easy.  That’s it!  Easy. Like they say at Staples, “Just press the Easy button.™” Those are the new words that I feed my brain.

How are you using words to get what you want? Try these three steps:

  1. Choose positive words. Choose positive words that reflect the state of mind you want rather than the state of mind you don’t want. Instead of saying, “I’m not ________” say “I am _______.” Leave the “not” behind. Your brain responds to the words you say repeatedly. Whether it’s worry, easy, hard, peaceful, or frustrated, your brain creates what you tell it. Next time you’re tempted to say, “I’m so frustrated that this process didn’t work,” pause, rethink and choose differently, “Okay. That didn’t work. Here’s a chance for a new approach.” Focus on creating a new approach. What state of mind do you want to be in? How can you state it positively? Leave the “not” behind.
  2. Repeat and repeat again. The brain pays attention to repetition. The more you state something, particularly out loud, the more likely your brain will pay attention. You train your brain. It’s like learning to hit a golf ball, paint with watercolors, or speak in front of a group. Practice makes each time a little easier. It’s the same with words. The more you say positive words, intentionally, the more your brain embeds it.  This is why mantras work.
  3. Reminders. Have you tried to change a habit? You made a good effort briefly but fell back into the same, old pattern? It’s understandable because the old way is easier for the brain. That’s why you need reminders to force you and your brain to remember the new words. In my case, I ordered an “Easy” button.™ It’s being delivered as I write. I plan to surround myself with reminders that work can be easy. What will remind you of the positive words you choose? The more reminders, the more likely you are to reinforce the positive words and the more likely you are to believe them.

Words matter. Choose yours carefully and positively. Leave the “not” behind. Surround yourself with reminders. It’s like pressing the Easy button.™

Copyright: 123render / 123RF Stock Photo