Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

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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

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.