Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

Latest Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: thanaphiphat / 123RF Stock Photo

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

Three core elements are the foundation of their growth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were climbing out of the Denver International Airport on an overcast day with bumps typical of Denver.  I was flying from a speaking engagement in Keystone to another one in Atlanta and was engrossed in my work when…POP! Flash!  The noise and bright light came from the left wing. The response from passengers was immediate.

“Did you hear that?” “What was it?” “Did you see that flash?” Someone said, “Lightening hit the plane!” Lightening hit the plane? That can’t be good.  From across the plane nervous chatter erupted. Worried thoughts flooded my mind as I thought, “Be calm. Your brain won’t function correctly unless you’re calm.” Easier said than done.  And I thought, we need for the pilot to tell us what’s going on. As minutes passed (fewer than it seemed) I wondered, why isn’t the pilot talking to us? We were left in the dark.

Soon (but not soon enough), the pilot came on the speaker.  Lightening had indeed hit the plane, but, not to worry, the plane is fine.  And with that, he was gone. It took time for the nervous energy to settle, during which I couldn’t focus on my work.

While this is a dramatic example, we leave our staff and teams in the dark all too often.  Something happens in the workplace – a new boss arrives, a big client leaves, technology melts down, there’s a personality conflict between key staff – that are the workplace equivalent of a lightning strike. The team is agitated and thinking is disrupted. Here are ways we leave our staff in the dark:

  • No feedback on performance
  • Limited information on company strategy
  • No context for where a small task fits into the bigger picture
  • No reassurance during leadership transitions or mergers

You see, uncertainty triggers the brain’s threat response. We imagine bad options before good ones. When the brain registers threat and unease, cognitive functioning is impaired and we lose productivity.

What can you do?

  • Communicate what you know even if it isn’t much. You don’t know anything…you REALLY don’t know anything about the situation at hand.  What’s the point of saying that?  For your staff, the difference is that you KNOW you don’t know anything; they don’t. Tell them what you don’t know and give regular updates. At the federal government, every four years the administration changed. Months passed before all the leadership was in place. During that time, staff were uneasy: What would the new boss be like? My leadership team reassured staff, “We don’t know who the new boss will be or when they will arrive. But we do know that we’re doing quality work. Let’s prepare now to bring the new boss up to speed when she arrives.”
  • Over-communicate. As leaders, we are exposed to information that others aren’t. We hear discussion; see emails and network with people that our staff don’t. Share what you can (without violating confidences or proprietary information) and more often than you think necessary. It will create trust, keep your staff at ease and performance at a higher level.
  • Give feedback even when you’re over-whelmed or don’t think it’s necessary. Managers tell me that they’re too busy to provide feedback. Staff, on the other hand, tell me that they are left in the dark not knowing if their work is good, bad or indifferent. Don’t be that manager who, like the pilot, provides scant information.  Put “give feedback” on your to-do list; set a goal to give feedback once a week.

Toward the end of the three-hour flight, the pilot returned with more information.  “Planes,” he explained, “are designed to dissipate the energy from a lightning strike. The pilot and I went through the checklist and all systems are working fine.”  Good to know. Wish I’d known sooner. A little knowledge would have calmed me and everyone else. And I would have been more productive because of it.

Photo copyright:  Igor Zhuravlov

 

WhiskeyScotland is known for fine woolens, shortbread, the heather-covered moors and single malt Scottish whisky.  I’m not a single malt whisky drinker but as a visitor to Scotland for ten days, I decided to try two per day. Here’s what I discovered about tasting my way through Scotland and why it’s relevant to your team.

  • Each whisky is the result of its environment. I tasted whisky from the islands (Skye, Jura, etc.), from the Highlands and from Speyside regions.  The flavors were as different as the topography and environment. For example, ingredients for whisky from Skye are heated with peat which gives the distinctive smoky flavor like drinking a camp fire.  The severe cold in the Highlands impacts the flavor intensity. Additionally, the flavor varied by age from the 10, 15, and 25-year-old varieties. And so it is with your team. Each team member is a product of his/her environment –strengths, skills, and stressors are colored and formed from individual history, experience and environment. How aware are you of team members’ background and experiences? Are you accounting for that natural behavior when pairing skills with tasks – just as one would choose whisky appropriate for the meal.

 

  • Small dilutions made a big difference. It was quickly evident that some whisky was smooth and soft to drink; others were like drinking a razorblade. Staff at the Dalwhinnie distillery explained that a single drop of water could make an otherwise edgy whisky into a smooth-drinking dram. A single drop of water? Sure enough…one or two drops swirled into the glass changed the nature of the whisky and calmed the edginess. It’s not so different with your team. Each of us brings our own uniqueness in the form of skills and behaviors. Those skills and behaviors bring their own type of edginess. Good teaming requires that each person recognize when their behavior gets in the way. We can develop the skill to dilute our behavior just a tad and make a big difference in teaming abilities. For example, someone with a strong personality who learns to rein in their outspoken approach just a wee bit becomes a more welcome team member.  A person inclined to extensive collaboration who delays decisions can benefit from diluting that behavior so that he/she pushes themselves to a decision sooner.

The next time you work with your team, pause a moment to consider Scottish whisky.  How are your team members unique?  Are you able to appreciate them by understanding the environment that has shaped them? How can you coach them so that they learn to dilute pronounced behavior a drop? Even the smallest change can make a big impact for your team.

For me, the interesting part of tasting Scottish whisky was appreciating the differences. It’s the same for your team.  Appreciate the differences and use them for a stronger team.

 

Photo Copyright: karandaev / 123RF Stock Photo

HikingThe Isle of Skye in Scotland is laced with hiking trails. Some run through heather-covered rolling moors; some are technical climbs that scale tops of peaks; others drop to the sea along sheer cliffs. If you were setting off on a hike along one of the trails, would you do it blindly and hope that you had the equipment needed or would you consult resources to prepare appropriately?  Chances are you would read about the trail on the web, read hiking books, look at topographic maps and talk to others.  It’s a no-brainer and yet we frequently don’t leverage the resources at hand when tackling a tough task at work.

Do your homework. While on Skye, we wanted a challenging hike for our skill level. After a internet search, we found a website that categorized the hikes by difficulty and provided a description and map of the hike.  Rubna Hunish was our selection. The description included directions to the trail head, descriptions of each stage, and a topographic map of the trail. This provided an overview of the hike for general planning.

Let’s say that you face a tough task or are in a new job where every task is a bit mysterious. Rather than jumping in, start with basic research on the task, job or process.  As with the hike, you benefit from an overview of the overall the project. This allows you to plan appropriately, identify needed resources and skills; and confirm time frames for the work.  We could have gotten into a predicament without an overview of the hike. You, too, can find yourself in a predicament without proper background work.

Use other’s experience. As we began our hike, we noticed three hikers a short distance ahead. Their attire, equipment and confident manner indicated experienced hikers.  We were not. After a trek through flat, boggy, sheep-dotted land, we came to gate at the top of a steep rock cliff. “Ah,” I thought. “What a lovely over-look. I wonder where the trail went?” About then, we noticed the three hikers headed briskly through the gate. We stopped them and asked about the trail. “It’s here – down the rock to the bottom. But don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks. Just go slowly.” And with that they clamored down the rock face. The tops of their heads were out of sight in a flash leaving us stunned and worried.

Who do you know that has tackled this task or one like it before?  Who in your office has experience that could provide insight? Perhaps they had your job previously. Talk to them and take in their experience. Yes, that seems obvious but too often, we convince ourselves that our project is unique and the experience of others isn’t relevant. Maybe it’s pride, self-reliance, or the fear of appearing unknowledgeable that holds us back from seeking insight from others. On the hiking trail, it would have been foolish to proceed without information from books, maps and especially the experienced hikers.

Look outside your industry. If there is no one in your office with experiences similar to the challenges you face, you can leverage experience outside the organization. Associations, mastermind groups, professional friendships, or mentors are excellent resources for bouncing around ideas and approaches to a difficult task.  Have you looked to others for insight and tips for tackling your task?  A few inquiries can save time, resources and stress.

We stepped through the gate and surveyed the precipitous drop, the peninsula dotted with sheep and ocean below. One wrong step and there was no recovery.  “It’s not as bad as it looks,” the hikers had told us. Without that bit of information, we would have turned around and missed an amazing experience. One step here; another step there; a pole planted for balance; a hand on the rock and one step more. And sure enough, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.

You might not literally tumble down a cliff, but you can make your task easier and more likely to succeed by talking to others and learning from their experience. It’s the smart move.  It’s not as bad as it looks.

 

If you’ve read my blog for long, you won’t be surprised to hear that travel is very important to me. I find that time spent in other environments, cultures and fresh activities expands my thinking, allows me to reconnect to my values, and put into expanded practice the healthy habits I encourage my readers and clients to use.

I’ve had a full and rich season of speaking, consulting and business travel over the last few months. Most recently, I so enjoyed conducting the webinar on the role of motivation in management and using brain-friendly techniques to lead our teams well.

I am now turning my attention to a two-week vacation, and some “down time,” in Scotland. I plan to fully embrace this opportunity.  Because of my trip, there won’t be a blog post or newsletter for a couple of weeks, although I expect plenty of inspiration for future posts!

I encourage you to carve out time for a break for yourself soon, too. It will help you treat your brain well, and ready you for insightful decision-making without overthinking.

‘Til next time,

Shelley