Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

Latest "Decision-Making" Posts

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

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

Head storiesYou’re in a long security line at the airport. A LONG line. A frazzled, middle-aged, perspiring, blonde woman rushes up from behind. “Excuse me! My plane is leaving! May I cut in line?” In that moment, what do you think? Perhaps some of the more gracious of us think, “Oh…poor thing. I hope she catches her flight.”  Others of us may think, “Really? Why is this my problem?” or “If she prepared better and planned ahead she wouldn’t be in this situation.” Honestly, I would probably be in the later camp.  Except that this time, the woman was me.

Two newsletter articles ago I wrote about the man who had a heart attack on the plane and probably died. I was so upset and flustered that I forgot I had a connecting flight. I realized it on the rental car shuttle in the wrong city.  To have any chance at making my connection I had to get back through the long security line. I was forced to politely ask for a favor from strangers.  Most were great. I only got a couple of exasperated looks. There was no time to explain the unusual circumstances (how often does a person have a massive heart attack on a plane?) that led to my predicament. I asked, said thank you, kept moving and ignored the looks.

At one time or another, we all created a story from circumstances and slim information. And then believe the story! The boss slings edgy comments at you in the meeting and you think, “Oh no! She’s dissatisfied with my work!” When the real situation is that she’s exhausted after landing at 1am.  Or a team member doesn’t get a deliverable in on time and you think, “NOW what are we going to do? He let us down.” But the real situation is that this team member was in the hospital emergency room all night with his kid’s asthma. The range of options is innumerable and we can’t image them all. Instead we create a story that usually includes us and believe it.

Those stories are destructive and stress inducing. It only takes a bit of perspective to put the stories in their rightful place which is to eliminate them.

  • Take in the situation. When disappointed or upset by a situation, take it in without judgment, and take a breath to slow down the mental storytelling that’s gearing up.
  • Detach you from the situation. When you hear the story beginning in your mind, remind yourself that the situation is not likely about you and that there is more going on than you know.
  • Reframe the situation. Remind yourself of the vast range of options that could be impacting this situation. Your assumptions are bound to be wrong and likely unfair. Open up to the possibilities.

I made my flight that day but only because person after person graciously allowed me through. They will never know the story of that day. And we may never know the real stories behind each situation we encounter but we can take a broader and kinder view that allows for options beyond our imagination.


marish / 123RF Stock Photo

DecisionsI’m intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.


brain wiring

You’re wired to see what you already believe. It’s a simple statement but the implications for decision-making are complex. What you already believe is built layer upon layer from your experiences which create a filter through which you see the world. Good decision-making relies on understanding how your brain’s filter colors perception and influences interpretation.

The brain is designed to be efficient and make good use of its energy.  The most energy efficient approach is for the brain to take in information around you and make it fit into your personal filter system. It may not be 100% correct, but it is efficient.  Take for example what happened to me last Christmas.

First, a word about my filter. My dad was a band director in the local high school in our small Texas town which was not a hot-bed of culture.  In our household, talk was not of cattle and farm equipment but of music.  I was the only 4th grader in town who could pick out an oboe by sight or sound.  Now fast-forward to last Christmas. I was driving past our local Salvation Army building.  Think about the Salvation Army particularly around the holidays. On this cold morning, there was a sign outside their local headquarters that read, “Bell ringers needed.”

“Wow.” I thought. “I didn’t know the Salvation Army had a bell choir! That sounds like fun.  I wonder when they meet?” I was a mile down the road before my brain began to register, “….Wait a minute. Bell ringers? Salvation Army? Oh….not a bell choir.”   My brain was wired to see what it already believed.

Now take that characteristic of the brain into decision-making.   Your brain is designed to create meaning from what it experiences based on your history. For example, if you interview someone who grew up in an environment similar to yours, your brain will naturally endow them with attributes from your experience which may not reflect their reality. You may also interview someone from a different background or culture. Your brain naturally doesn’t connect with them as easily. It may feel more effortful.

As a leader who makes tough decisions, you must be aware of and vigilant to this natural tendency. If not, you will only hire people you relate to, you can underestimate key trends that your brain doesn’t register, and you may ignore input from staff you if you don’t relate to them.

So how do you counteract your brain’s predisposition to see what you already believe.

  1. Seek out information from those with differing backgrounds. A male leader I interviewed said that he purposefully seeks input from women leaders because they “connect the dots better than men. They see things relationally where I don’t.” He forces his brain to see a situation differently. You can gather input across gender, race, and cultural differences as ways to broaden perspective. Also, talk with those who come from a different career path or different industry. This opens up new habits of thinking.
  2. Challenge your assumptions. Your brain is constantly making assumptions in order to be efficient. Get into the practice of noticing and challenging your assumptions.  This is good practice for your staff, too. Calling out assumptions forces them and you to think more deeply about the connections the brain is making about a situation. How can you make the phrase, “challenge the assumption,” a standard part of discussion?
  3. Force consideration of a different solution. When making a decision, ask yourself what would you do if your preferred approach was not available?  The preferred approach is likely aligned with your brain’s history. Take that option off the table for the sake of discussion and exploration.  Once again, you force the brain to look beyond its own filters for options that it discarded because they don’t fit the pattern.

Your brain is designed to quickly and easily match patterns and create meaning. That serves you well in many cases. In fact, we couldn’t function if we had to reevaluate every situation during the day.  However, leaders and managers need to be aware that their brain is wired to see what it already believes.  For key decisions, take the extra time, use the additional energy and force the brain to look beyond its historical boundaries. Decision-making will improve, and your brain will be broadened for the next time.

New Year's Resolutions



Each year we make them and break them in short order.  Why continue to do the same thing over and over?  Your New Year’s resolution doesn’t have to be hard or frustrating. This year, make your resolutions meaningful, achievable and impactful.  How? Try this…

  1. Identify one thing that would feel good and would make a difference.
  2. Write it down and keep it in plain view.
  3. Track your progress each week.

Let’s look at each step.

1. What is one thing that, if accomplished, would feel good to you?  I use the word “feel” intentionally. All too often, we focus on the activities that we think we should. What you think is less motivating than how you feel.  What would feel good to you? Saving for a great vacation, taking a class in your favorite hobby, spending more time with charity work, improving your fitness level, working on the project that you care about? Pick one.

For me, I resolve to reinvigorate my meditation practice.  In the past, I meditated regularly and found it to be calming and provide regular insights into my work and life, but I allowed work to take over. I feel that a regular mediation practice would be a positive addition to my life and work.

2. Next, write it down. There is power that comes from conceiving a new resolution. There is even greater power that comes from writing it down– by hand.  Creating the written goal, I find, activates a creative process of crafting the idea. Be specific so that you know when you achieve the goal. Further, I suggest that you place it in multiple places where you will bump into it.  The constant reminder is key.

Here’s what I wrote on several sticky notes. “I am meditating five times per week for 10 minutes plus once on the weekend for 20 minutes.” I will place one sticky note on the computer screen in my office; one on the nightstand next to my bed; and one on the kitchen counter where all the stuff in the house accumulates. I also have an app on my phone that contains my to-do list so that I must check it off or cancel it every day.

3. Now you need accountability. How can you track your progress on a regular basis? If your resolution is monetary, what can you measure (amount saved each week, perhaps)? If you have a fitness goal, what specifically can you track (number of steps, days at the gym)? If you want to spend more time on the big project, school, community or with your family, what can you quantify (number of hours allocated)? Once you identify the accountability metric, define how to track it. You might use a calendar to note the weekly progress; record it in your phone; add it to the sticky note.  You need to see the progress or lack of progress.

For example, I have a large calendar in my office to track speaking and consulting events.  I make a tick mark each day when I meditate and add them at the end of the week.  I get a mental pat-on-the-back each time I achieve my resolution.

Your New Year’s resolution is not just a resolution – you are rewiring your brain to create a new habit.  It takes repetition. The resolution gets you started and the habit keeps you going.  Let’s all get started with a New Year that feels right!