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

Your Search for perspective

We were having dinner at a friend’s house and admiring his family memorabilia neatly arrayed in the bookshelves. There were the kid’s sailing trophies, family photos, delicate antique demitasse cups and a bright blue tube. A bright blue tube? “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh….it’s a kaleidoscope,” my friend replied. “Here, try it.” As I turned the tube, colors swirled and twirled. Each small movement altered the view and each view was as lovely as the other.

Why can’t we bring a kaleidoscopic view of the world into our workplace and into our leadership? When it comes to new perspectives, your brain works against you. It’s easier on the brain to see the world, to see a person or to see a decision as you’ve always seen it. But, with a little effort, other views – just as relevant – become visible. It’s as though you slightly turn the kaleidoscope.

Here are three areas where a kaleidoscopic world view is particularly valuable to your leadership and life.

See personnel situations from several perspectives – A disgruntled employee complains to you about his co-worker who they “just can’t work with,” and the list of grievances starts. In that moment, their argument sounds reasonable and valid. But, when you ‘turn the kaleidoscope’, you can likely see opportunities for misunderstanding, miscommunication and differing opinions. There are at least two sides to every story. It’s best to, first, seek out other perspectives; second, help the employee see beyond their singular view, and perhaps facilitate a conversation that highlights varied views of the situation.

See options for big decisions –When faced with a big decision, the brain prefers familiar solutions because, for the brain, the familiar is a short cut that feels effortless. However, big decisions benefit from a kaleidoscopic view. Here’s a technique that I discovered in a Harvard Business Review. As you debate a big decision and your team comes up with the expected approach, ask, “Let’s pretend that this option is not available to us. If not this approach, then what could we do?” This is a simple and effective way to force a shifted perspective. It’s as though you turn the kaleidoscope. Plus, you can use the same question repeatedly until you have a range of options upon which to base the decision.

See that it’s not always personal – Whether it’s with family, friends or co-workers, situations inevitably arise where feelings get hurt or questions arise in your mind. An offhand comment makes you feel peeved and you think, “That was an insensitive remark.” Or, maybe you’re left out of a meeting and you wonder, “Did they leave me out on purpose? Is the boss trying to tell me something?” In those moments, turn the kaleidoscope to see another perspective. In my experience, these situations are almost always explained away when viewed from a different viewpoint. Before letting your mind run away with your first interpretation, shift your outlook to find a different interpretation – one that doesn’t have you at the center.

Kaleidoscopes remind us that there’s always another way to see the world. Even a small rotation shifts the image, shifts the interpretation, and shifts the options. As an insightful leader, you must see a variety of views. And maybe you’ll discover that, like the kaleidoscope, each view is beautiful in its own way.

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.

croissantIt was a few weeks before my husband, Mike, died. He woke from his nap snickering.  “What is it, Sweetie?”  He smiled and said he’d had a funny dream, “I was in a fight with a priest over my croissant.”

At the time, Mike was barely eating. I could coax him to eat a few bits of an almond croissant from the local bakery.  It wasn’t surprising that he would dream about eating a croissant.

“The priest was trying to steal my croissant,” he laughed.  Immediately, I came up with a story about the dream. I think – “Wow, that’s complex. The priest could be a symbol of the next life and the croissant a symbol of sustenance or even his soul. It seemed obvious and powerful to me.”

“Sweetie, that’s remarkable. Who won the fight?”

“I did,” he grinned and his eyes twinkled.

“Well, that’s good. What do you think the croissant represents?”

He was quiet, thoughtful and then, shrugging his shoulders dismissively he said, “Nothing in particular. It’s just a croissant.”

Have you ever made more of something than the situation warranted like I did with the croissant? All too frequently, we take a simple event and create something big out of it.

Maybe you are left out of a key meeting. You think, “Wow, why didn’t they invite me to that meeting?  They must not think I’m relevant to the discussion. Don’t they know that I’ve done all the background work on this? This really bothers me!” And before long, we have created a story that’s bigger than the real situation.

Maybe your boss seems disinterested and you are convinced that she doesn’t like you; doesn’t think your work is good; will never consider you for that promotion and on and on.

Or maybe a co-worker makes a comment that hits you the wrong way.  All too quickly, you think: “That was rude, he doesn’t like me, he is inconsiderate” or any number of attributes that you ascribe to the comment.

As we make the “croissant” into something bigger than it is, we fail to consider that the comment may have meant nothing at all. Maybe that co-worker’s dog chewed up the new rug that morning, their kid brought home a disappointing report card, or they didn’t sleep well the night before. Anything could contribute to their comment but we quickly develop a story around it about us.

The process in our head goes like this:

  1. We take a situation and create a story.
  2. Then we imbue those in our story with characteristics that we’ve created to fit the story.
  3. And, we believe that we are right.

Before long we create a deep, complex, unflattering story when it was just a croissant. Instead,

  1. Consider all the possibilities for the situation. We all have many factors in our life that contribute to tone, word choice and attitude. Pause long enough before you create the story to take in the range of possibilities.
  2. Consider what you know about that person. How likely is it that they are truly being rude or inconsiderate? How likely is it that you’re really doing a bad job and your boss is dissatisfied? If there isn’t a pattern, then don’t create a story when it doesn’t fit.
  3. It’s not about you. We are each the centerpiece of the story in our heads but we are not likely to be the centerpiece of the story in other people’s heads, particularly in the workplace.

What are you making more of than needed? How can you look at the situation in a different light that gives people the benefit of the doubt? Remember, the croissant is probably just a croissant.

 

Photo Credit:  annete / 123RF Stock Photo

It started by mistake. As I pondered the topic for this newsletter, I picked up the kaleidoscope on my desk. It sits there to remind me to always see other perspectives. By mistake, I stared through the wrong end. Have you ever looked at the back end of a kaleidoscope? There is no swirl of color or dynamic image. Instead, you only see small fragments of colored bits.

The magic happens when those colored bits spin together into intricate designs. That’s when I realized that it’s the same for an insightful leader.  The colored bits are like their fundamental skills that swirl together to create deeper insights just as the kaleidoscope creates amazing images.

It’s those deeper insights that increase effectiveness and impact.

What then are the fundamental skills of an insightful leader? At the core, insightful leaders appreciate that leadership takes more than just data – it requires objective thinking and an appreciation of feelings – theirs and others. These leaders understand that they need basic skills to manage themselves and to understand other people – whether directing, inspiring, motivating or coaching. It’s not about being agreeable. It’s about being insightful.

After considering all that I learned through experience and through interviews with executives, here is a list of fundamental insightful leadership skills.

Try this Insightful Leader Quiz to assess your fundamental insight skills.

⧠      You understand the need to both think and feel at work.

⧠      You know your values.

⧠      You know and manage your biases.

⧠      You know and use your natural skills effectively.

⧠      You recognize when your natural skills get in the way.

⧠      You manage your blind spots.

⧠      You appreciate the value and limitations of data.

⧠      You listen for and manage both facts and feelings with others.

⧠      You wisely use email, phone or face to face communications

⧠      You know and manage your personal brand.

⧠      You use stories and visual language to connect with an audience.

⧠      You are aware of and manage triggering events for yourself and others.

⧠      You recognize and resolve your stuck stories.

⧠      You know when to decide and when to sleep on a big decision.

How did you do?  Are you comfortable that you have deep skill in a third, a half or more?

Perhaps this quiz struck you as overly introspective and self-focused. We’re more accustomed to thinking of leadership as vision setting, providing direction, establishing tone, managing change, influencing and motivating – all of which are outwardly focused. For sure, those are results of leadership like the beautiful, intricate images inside the kaleidoscope.  But, as with the kaleidoscope, you can’t achieve good leadership without fundamental skills (like the little bits inside the kaleidoscope). It’s the fundamental skills that you swirl together to create insightful leadership.

What fundamental skills do you most need to develop to be an insightful leader? Let me know and I’ll write more about these in future blogs.

I admit up front that I’m not good at recognizing the nuances of people. That’s why I want to share this tip with you. It helps me and it’s likely to be valuable to you, too.

My step-daughter, Linnea Miron, is the CEO of Real Wellness.  She and I talked about the challenges of truly understanding people – whether staff, clients, or partners – so that we more effectively work together. But the brain is designed to see the world from our perspective. It takes effort and energy to consider another’s viewpoint. She shared that her husband, Ricky Williams, when working with a client, uses a simple technique to coax his brain to shift perspective. With each person, he asks himself, “Who’s here?”

Think about the simple power in that question. Try it yourself. With each person you work with, divide “Who’s here?” into four parts.

    1. What do you know about their life at this moment? This question helps you become more resonate with and sensitive to the factors influencing their thinking and behavior. For example, tomorrow I’ll see my friend, Page, for the first time since she visited her son at college. Their visit is likely to have left her heart full. That’s a good place to start. Maybe the person you talk with has recently changed jobs, has a new (awful) boss, gotten a promotion, was out with a sick baby, is leading a high-profile project, has a daughter leaving for college, just lost her beloved pet. Take a moment to ask yourself, “Who’s here and what’s happening in his life right now.” It shows your interest and creates connection which generates trust.
    2. What do you know about their personality? This is a key question that, when brought into your consciousness pays off in a big way. Think about it. What do you know about his communication style? Her work styles or nature? Maybe he is a big picture thinker, or maybe he loves knowing the details. Maybe she has a healthy ego or struggles with self-esteem. Maybe he takes pride in his work, is highly sensitive, is the life-of-the-party, is practical, or is a deep thinker. The list goes on. Here’s the dilemma, your brain wants him or her to be like YOU! But they aren’t. The more you appreciate who’s really here, the more you are likely to adapt your style and align the jobs with their skills.
    3. What do you know about their interests? This one may be easier for you. What are his hobbies? How does she spend her time? Perhaps he has a New England Patriots poster in his office, or a photo of a sailboat. Is there a Food and Wine magazine in her bag? Knowing something about her interests can provide a foothold for an easy conversation starter. Who’s here and what does he enjoy?
    4. What do you know about their background? The more you know about a person’s background the better you understand the filters through which she sees the world. Awareness of background influences provides insight into reactions, interpretations and pre-conceived ideas. For example, growing up in a small Texas town surrounded by farms, I struggle to understand the pressures of city dwellers just as they may struggle to understand the tragedy of drought. Who’s here? What’s their background and how does it influence their behavior?

Try exploring the power in, “Who’s here?” It gets you out of the way so that you can truly see the person right in front of you for who they are. I’ll be curious to know how it works for you!

You’ve been there: a dull presentation; a pointless meeting; a boring training program. And, maybe you’ve given a tedious presentation, presided over an unenthusiastic meeting or provided training when no one seemed engaged.  It doesn’t have to be that way and the fix is surprisingly easy. Here are four steps to creating engagement and retention in your audience.

  1. Purpose. In my experience, far too little time is spent clarifying purpose. For a meeting, what is the one action you want from the meeting or the participants?  For a presentation, what difference have you made for the audience one week or one month later?  For training, what difference have you made for the audience one year later? Maybe they leave with their perspective shifted in a meaningful way, or they behave differently, or they conduct their work in a new way. Whatever it is, the key to successful engagement is clarity on the outcome.
  2. Knowledge. Once you’re clear on the purpose, what knowledge does the participant need to achieve the purpose? They may require specific education, awareness of key facts or development of core skills. Identify the essential elements of learning they need to achieve the purpose.
  3. Application. Here’s the one big difference between what you did in the past and this new approach. For each element of knowledge from step 2, how can you help the participants (whether in a meeting, presentation or training) apply it in their work world? What questions can you ask to pique their interest? What discussion can you engage in that will cause them to think about application? When you present or run a meeting, it’s easy to think that you are the key person; however, the action is in the heads of the participants.  Your job is to get them to think. Learning happens in their heads when they apply the new idea to their world. Retention comes from application.
  4. Reflection. It seems counterintuitive but an excellent way to increase engagement and retention is to provide a few minutes of quiet time at the end of the presentation, meeting or training. Don’t misunderstand. This is not nap time or time to check emails. This is intentional time for the participant to think about their new understanding. Questions may include: What does this new knowledge mean to your work? What will you do differently? What new realization do you have about yourself or your world view? These questions make your content personal to them. When it’s personal to them, they care, and they remember.

The next time you have an important meeting, presentation or training, try these steps.  It is guaranteed to create engagement and retention because they do the thinking and that means they remember.

I was in my hometown of Smithville, Texas for the big Jamboree celebration. Jamboree includes a coronation, parade, dances and a livestock show and sale. For the livestock show, kids raise steers, pigs, goats, chickens and rabbits to be judged and sold. The two-year old granddaughter, Kyndall, of my childhood friend was fascinated by the rabbits. An eighth-grader holding a white bunny walked past and Kyndall was ON IT. She patted the rabbit, rubbed its ears and, in a moment of brilliance, she bent over to be at eye level with the rabbit as though she was communicating with it. It was an adorable moment that captured my attention. Here’s why.

In today’s world where email, instant messenger, LinkedIn messages and more are a predominant form of communication, the insightful leader understands the importance of relating person to person (or, for Kyndall, person to bunny). Here are three tips to be more relatable, particularly for high-stakes conversations.

  1. Make eye contact. Kyndall got it right. She made every effort to make eye contact with the rabbit. You, too, must make every effort to make eye contact and that can only happen in person. Increasingly, the staff I work with seek to hide behind email, but an insightful leader meets in person and makes eye contact – for real. Yes, it’s easier to email but the personal touch makes all the difference. Force yourself, make the time, and make the effort to talk to your staff face-to-face and eye-to-eye. That’s how you connect as people.
  2. Use language that is relatable. Multisyllabic, pretentious (big, showy) words may make us feel educated but they create a barrier to communication. Recently, I assisted a client to craft an important communication to all employees in the company. We intentionally used words that are simple and understandable to all. You create connection via your communication. Think about the simplest terms you can use to communicate effectively. Simple, concise and clear are the recipe for relatability.
  3. Show your interest. Kyndall carefully ran her tiny fingers through the rabbit’s fur and over its ears. As I watched, it was clear that she loved the rabbit and the rabbit sat calmly under her touch. Your staff may not have soft ears and fluffy fur but you can still communicate your interest through sincere curiosity about their perspective and interest in their work life. How do you express your interest in your staff? What do you know about their thoughts and ideas? Do you inquire about their suggestions to improve their work? Like Kyndall’s rabbit, people respond to those who they sense are interested. What would your staff say about your level of interest in them?

Let’s learn from Kyndall and her rabbit. As insightful leaders, you can take a few simple steps to be more relatable to your staff. It’s pays off in dedication and the hard work that comes from feeling connected.

 

pavement markersIt happened just the other day. I was in Florida driving back from a training program just as the sun was getting low in the sky. Because I’m a transportation engineer I see things on the road that you may not. Glancing in my rear-view mirror, I saw them. The raised, reflective pavement markers. Have you ever noticed them?  They are small, raised bumps between the white dashes and they reflect white light at night with your headlights. But, if you happen to travel the wrong way on the road, they reflect red. You see a continuous line of red twinkling dots to tell you that you need to go the other way.

As the red dots sparkled in the evening sun, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were red twinkling dots to tell us we’re going the wrong way as leaders?” On second thought, perhaps there are.

The nagging feeling that gnaws in your gut. You know that feeling – it tells you that something’s not sitting right. Ignore that feeling at your peril. It’s your inner red twinkling dots trying to get your attention. Both my personal experience and interviews with executives say one consistent thing about the nagging feeling – pay attention. There’s something in your brain that’s trying to get through. Ask questions; probe your discomfort; dig in to understand why the tell-tale feeling has kicked in.  From a neuroscience perspective, the nagging feeling is something from your experience that’s trying to get your attention. Call it intuition or gut feel, but, whatever you call it, it has validity and deserves your attention. In fact, a friend who is an executive director of a trade association told me that she gages the wisdom of her decisions based on the nagging feeling. “The nagging feeling goes away when you make the right decision,” she says. It’s your internal warning system … if you pay attention to it.

Trusted colleagues who say, “You might want to think about that again.” The emphasis here is on “trusted.”  When someone I respect says, “uhhhh….you might reconsider that before you decide,” I’ve learned to reconsider before I decide. There’s only so much that you can see from your vantage point. Others may have a clearer perspective and see consequences and implications that you can’t.  They are your own personal red, twinkling dots. In fact, they can be so effective you should proactively cultivate them. As an important decision approaches, seek counsel from the wise people in your world. What perspective can they offer that you wouldn’t otherwise see?

What other red twinkling dots have you noticed that cause you to pause and take note before deciding? Share your experiences with me and the other readers so that we don’t make a wrong turn.

Photo credit: 3M

We were in Mikki William’s speaker school. The room was filled with accomplished professionals from a variety of businesses, each there for their unique reasons. One was Barbara. Tall and striking, Barbara’s goal was to overcome her anxiety about speaking. On day two, each of us were to stand in front of the room and tell a story using the techniques Mikki taught us. It was Barbara’s turn.  She demurred.  “No,” she said. “I’m not comfortable and my heart is pounding.  Besides, I don’t have a story to tell.”

“Oh yes you do!” we all replied. “You can do this!”  And she did.

Nervously, Barbara stood in front of a room full of accomplished business people and told her story. Her story? It was about her anxiety around speaking this morning.  First, she had asked her husband what story to tell. “Tell them about your trip to Panama and what happened there,” he said. She didn’t think that story was appropriate. She asked her best friend, “You should definitely tell them about Ecuador. They’ll love that one!”  No. She didn’t like that one either. She mused about telling us her experience dog sledding.  None seemed like the best story.  Instead, she told us a story about not having a story. It was masterful. By the time she finished, we were engaged, laughing, and on our feet. And, she taught us about bravery.

As insightful leaders, you will face situations that make you feel uncomfortable and unsure. In those moments:

  1. Gather support from others. Talk about the challenge to people that you trust, just as Barbara sought input from those close to her. Whether she took their suggestions or not, talking generates ideas in your own mind. It helps you see perspectives that you may not otherwise notice. Those discussions give you time to reflect.  Depending on your situation, you may not wish to talk to those within your organization. Use your network of peers as a safe place to engage in dialog about new and unsettling challenges.  Mikki works with Vistage which provides this type of environment for senior staff and executives.
  2. Own the discomfort. Barbara never tried to hide her discomfort. She owned it. Studies in neuroscience show that acknowledging fear and uncertainty help calm the threat response in the brain more effectively than denying the unease. I recommend talking to yourself about the discomfort. “What is it about this situation that makes me feel uncomfortable?” “Why am I hesitating?” Unravel your feelings by probing and naming them. As my friend says, “Name it to tame it.”
  3. Step into it anyway. Take a deep breath, decide on your first step and take it. There’s nothing like action to quell uncertainty. I have a quote on my wall that says, “Fear fades in the face of action.” Each step forward creates more and more certainty. Maybe the situation will go great and maybe it won’t. In either case, you grow and learn for the next time.  Because, as an insightful leader, there will always be a next time.

Mikki’s speaker school was an excellent learning environment for speaking, business and, unexpectedly, bravery. Thank you to Barbara for modeling bravery in action.  I don’t know about you, but I want to hear about dog sledding!

Copyright: shalamov / 123RF Stock Photo

Do you remember what it was like to fold a paper airplane? You fold the corners in on an angle so that there is a pointy end; fold the sides down into wings and there it is. A sheet of paper transformed into an airplane. And it flew! Well,…mostly.

Now, unfold the airplane and what do you see? The paper no longer lays flat; it retains the creases. Then, using the same paper, fold a new airplane but with the pointy end on the other side. You’ll find that the creases work against you. The paper fights your efforts because it already has a shape and it wants to keep its original shape. That’s the dilemma with habits from the perspective of the brain.

Think of your office. What habits are embedded in the organization that are no longer serving the organization?  The habits will show up as processes, routines (formal or informal) and ways of doing business. The organization has folded its own paper airplane and the creases in the paper are pronounced. For example, a team I managed years ago, learned over the years to put every new roadway sign or pavement marking through a long, arduous process guaranteed to take years. The individual and organizational brain was folded into a specific paper airplane and the creases were deeply formed. If we were to introduce innovation in the process, we had to unfold the old airplane and refold a new plane on top of the old one. Just as with the paper, the brain resists new folds.  So, what’s an insightful manager to do? Think like a paper airplane.

Commit. To develop a new habit, commit to it.  Refold the paper airplane with conviction; otherwise, the paper defaults into the hold pattern. You must be clear and specific about the behavior you wish to see. Make it as easy as possible for their brains to take the new pathways because the brain prefers the old paths – just as the paper more easily falls into the original folds. In my example, the team talked at length about a new streamlined process: how it would look, what steps were included; what decisions would be made along the way. Commit to the new habit.

Focus. You can’t remake every habit so focus on a high impact one. Remaking a habit is hard work. It requires considerable brain energy to use new pathways. Consequently, you are more likely to be successful if you focus on one change at a time. This allows the brain to use all available energy to remember the new approach and choose it.

Repeat and reward. Creating new habits requires effort and repetition.  If you refold a paper airplane in a new way, you may run a fingernail along the new creases so that the paper more easily follows the new path. It’s the same for creating new habits with your staff. Reinforce, reward, and repeat the new habits over and over and over until you’re tired of hearing yourself talk it. Then you may be getting through. You, as the astute leader, must maintain the vision and constantly talk about the new approach.

So, go ahead. Grab a piece of paper and make a paper airplane. You know you want to!  As you do, think about a new habit that would benefit your organization. With each fold of the paper, consider the behavior do you want to see. Can you articulate it? How will you reinforce it every day for months and years? It takes commitment, focus, repetition and reward to bring about the new habit.  But once you have it – you’ll fly!

 

Copyright: nnudoo / 123RF Stock Photo