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

Latest Posts

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

“There’s no place for feelings at work!” I heard it frequently as a young engineer. Thankfully, I learned this admonition was impossible to achieve and very bad for my career. Today, after interviewing 76 effective leaders, it is clear that the skillful use of feelings is essential to leadership success. To deny feelings is to deny a key part of your intelligence. To use feelings is not about being carried away by each whim or passing flutter in your gut. It’s about having the self-awareness to discern the source of the feeling and how to constructively put it to work as a leadership asset.

Here are five skilled ways that leaders use their feelings that merit attention and practice.

1. Emotional feelings are red flags. Your nervous system is a sophisticated sensing network. Over time, your brain became hard-wired to know situations or events that run counter to what it believes it best for you. Your body, via the nervous system, picks up the warning signs and launches a red alert. Your body will hijack your brain with an old story. Left unchecked, your brain will generate a knee-jerk reaction that is unlikely to benefit your career. Effective leaders learn to recognize when an emotional feeling is coming. They develop the skills to slow down the knee-jerk reaction and rebalance the nervous system so that the cognitive brain has time to catch up. Techniques such as relaxing the face, breathing deeply or counting to ten can buy just enough time to engage the brain. This key skill allows you to separate productive feelings from those that are emotionally reactive.

2. Feelings alert you to issues you might otherwise miss. I heard it over and over from leaders. When faced with a difficult decision, leaders paid attention to their own hesitation. “Something is bugging me.” “This is just not sitting right.” They described a nagging feeling that was….well, nagging. Effective leaders pay attention to that feeling. Then they dig in. What is the feeling? Where is it telling me to probe further? What other questions should I ask? They don’t necessarily seek more data. Instead they seek more insight about the context or impact of the decision. The nagging feeling points the way to issues that transcend mountains of data.

3. Feelings align decisions with values. Effective leaders are clear on their values and principles. These values ground their decision-making. Complex decisions frequently have great latitude and range of choice. Without values, it is hard to chart a course through an open sea of options. Leaders describe searching for and trusting in the decision that is in alignment with their value system – the decision that “just feels right.” They also point out the importance of having a personal value system that aligns with the company culture. In that case, they trust their feelings to guide them to the best solution for the company and for them.

4. Feelings point to the higher goal. Early in my career, I over-thought everything (before my recovery began). Every career choice was agony. Should I or shouldn’t I? Is now the best time for a change or later? Is this the best next step or not? Over and over the options tumbled in my mind. In one instance, by boss called. Others asked that she call and ask me to stay. Instead she said, “Follow your heart.” Over time, I learned to check in with and trust my feelings. My gut seems to instinctively know the choice that is best suited for me at a particular time. My biggest career decisions were made from the gut. It required courage and trust…and a lot of hard work, but each instance brought success and life-changing experiences. My boss was right. Today, my heart points to goals and my head manages the steps to reach it.

5. Feelings underpin authentic communication. What is it about some leaders that make them seem more attentive and more human? Research shows that leaders who are better listeners are viewed as having more charisma. These leaders do more than listen for facts, dates, and results. They listen for and hear feelings. They pick up on the atmosphere in the room, the tone of voice, the comfort or discomfort of the other person. They validate discussion content and feelings – proud, frustrated, exhausted, striving. It’s the feeling that makes real communication happen between person to person instead of from boss to employee.

The next time you try to push your feelings aside…stop. Consider the wisdom they bring, unravel their message and put them to work to create more effective leadership.

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.