Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

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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.

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

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

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.