Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

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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.

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

Motivate & ManageIs there someone in your office who needs a little motivation?  Are you part of a team who you’d like to motivate to higher performance?  Do you need motivation? Or are you simply looking to continue your professional development growth?

No matter what your motivation, I invite you to join me for part 1 of a webinar, Motivate & Manage: Brain Friendly Techniques to Enhance Performance.  Here’s what makes this webinar different.

The webinar shows you how to use five brain “toggles” that can activate the threat or reward response.  Wouldn’t you rather be motivated by reward? We’ll talk about and work on ways to intentionally activate the reward response – whether you wish to motivate someone else or yourself.   In part 1, we’ll look at the role of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and the brain science behind it.  Then we’ll work with two of the five toggles that are particularly critical. In part 2, we’ll discuss the other three toggles.

I’m sure you’ve participated in webinars before but this one is different.  First, the program is based on research in neuroscience so that you understand how to use the brain’s natural functioning to enhance motivation.

Second, it is as much like an in-person session as possible. You’ll have a worksheet and will put down your own thoughts about how to apply these principles in your real-world setting.  You will leave with practical ways to use this work immediately.

Part 1 is on August 22nd at 4pm Eastern. Register now. Since this is the first webinar in my new series, part 1 is free. All you need to do is register and log in on August 22nd. I look forward to having you participate with us.

airplane

It started like any other flight. The memorized announcements, beverage service, and a few peanuts. With my head buried in my laptop, I became aware of a commotion two rows in front of me. A woman asked for help for her husband. The announcement over the speaker system was for doctors or nurses on board. Across the aisle from the husband needing help was a retired paramedic wearing an Orlando firefighter tee shirt. He was also an instructor for paramedics.

The problem unfolded quickly.  The man had a heart attack. Soon, he was lying in the aisle of the plane surrounded by a team: two doctors, two nurses and the paramedic who was organizing the work flow. For a half hour, they worked like a well-oiled team to save this man’s life, but they weren’t a well-oiled team. They didn’t even know each other’s’ names.  What caused them to function as a team so quickly and how can you use it?

 

Call to action. Any team needs a call to action. In this case, the call was clear and quick. A life needed saving. While your team may not be dealing with life and death situations, their call to action should be compelling enough to inspire interest and action.  If not, why bother?

Trust. This ad hoc team had no time for forming, storming and norming. They only had a one-word description of their credentials: nurse, doctor, paramedic. And that’s all they needed. They trusted each other’s skills. Yes, this was an emergency. Without creating an emergency, how do you create an atmosphere of trust?  Any good team must trust the others to uphold their role and be good at what they do.

Persistence. Rarely does anything go as planned. A good team continues their mission in spite of the challenges.  Teamwork is like water flowing around a rock in the middle of the stream. The effort flows around the challenge and keeps going.  Similarly, this team worked for 30 minutes to revive the man lying in the aisle. They never gave up and were administering an injection up until the moment we touched down in Las Vegas. They were committed to a positive outcome. Is your team just as committed?

Humility. Teams gel around the leader. In our case, the retired paramedic expertly called out instructions to coordinate the team. The doctor knelt next to my chair rummaging through the medical kit for anything they could use: syringes, tape, medication. The doctor and he worked hand-in-hand until the other paramedics met the plane at the gate. And then there was humility.  As the sick man was taken off the plane, the paramedic knelt in the aisle and crossed himself.  Then he crawled along the floor to pick up the debris and any sharp objects that may have been left behind. He literally crawled along the floor to do what needed to be done. Are you, as the leader this humble? Will you do – do you do – anything necessary to make the mission successful?

Appreciation. Once the heart attack patient was transported away, the plane erupted into applause. We had our very own heroes. As we clapped our appreciation, they didn’t seem to hear it.  They did what needed to be done.  Still, I believe they heard the gratitude. Are you expressing your appreciation for a job well done – even when it’s the job that needs to be done? Gratitude matters. Say thank you; applaud; dance a jig. Do whatever is needed to be appreciative.

I wish I could say that the heart attack victim survived but I fear that he didn’t. I suspect that we saw a life transition to the next one in the aisle of that plane. Personally, I’ve seen enough death over the last few months to last quite a while.  But this time, I had the privilege of observing a high-performing team in action. I’m grateful for their service and I’m grateful for the example they set for the rest of us.

paulprescott72 / 123RF Stock Photo