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

Your Search for leadership

It was a perfect, sunny day on Aberdeen Creek just off the Chesapeake Bay.  There, in front of me, floating placidly, was a stand-up paddleboard. This was my first experience with a stand-up paddleboard. It looked unassuming but I was suspicious.  How do I approach the paddleboard? Can I really stand, paddle and propel myself across the water on this…board? The answer was yes. While it generally went well, in hindsight, the approach to the paddleboard was the same approach as tackling a new project, new office or new staff.

  1. Find stability first.
  2. Test it out.
  3. Fall off, laugh, get back on, try again.

Find stability first. Hmmm. How do I step onto this floating board without tumping (that’s a Texas term) myself into the Creek? I looked across and saw kids on junior boards and thought if they can do it surely I can, cautiously, I put both feet onto the board, spread them wide for a stable base, pushed off from the boat and just stood there. How did it feel? What stability did I notice? How precarious was I? For a few moments, just stand and observe.

It’s the same at the start of a new project.  You need to find your base at the start.  Do you understand the lay of the land? Have you met the key players and staff? Have you surveyed your environment? Do you understand the basics of the task? It’s only after you have a solid appreciation of the people, the situation and the work that you are ready to move forward.  First, create stability through understanding.

Test it out. After finding stability, I cautiously experimented with paddling. How do I go forward; how do I turn; how do I account for the wind; how do I get more speed? I tried this and that while gauging my progress down and around the creek.

Once you are oriented with your new project, then you start testing.  What approaches result in the most motivated staff? How do you build support with stakeholders? When you encounter resistance like the wind, what is the most effective way to manage that resistance? Over time, build a repertoire of techniques to use in heavy wind, light wind, and waves that hit you broadside. Also develop techniques to speed you forward when the waters are calm.  It takes practice, experimenting, and observation of the dos and don’ts that work in each situation.

Fall off, laugh, get back on and try again. It was going well. I felt stable; was making good progress; and was gaining confidence. That’s when I needed to turn. I tried a new technique (back paddling) and back paddled my way off the back of the board into the Creek. That gave me the opportunity to learn the skill of climbing back on board, regaining stability, standing and paddling again.

It is inevitable that some techniques and approaches that you try will not work.  The staff won’t respond well; the stakeholders revolt; progress goes backwards instead of forwards. That’s when you have a choice. I could have concluded that stand-up paddleboarding isn’t for me or I could try again.  You have the same choice.  Instead of reaching for the towel, you can say, “Well, THAT didn’t go well!  What could I have done differently? What have I learned?” Then you regain your bearings and chart a new course for the work. And it’s even better if you laugh at your mistake. After all, we all fall in the creek sometime.

Photo credit: epicstockmedia / 123RF Stock Photo



EmotionsIn leadership positions it’s inevitable that situations arise that generate an emotional reaction. Some emotions are low grade but others are like five-alarm fires. We are taught to control our emotions in the workplace to be credible, strong and unshakable. “Don’t let them see you sweat.” “There’s no place for feelings at work.” The emotionless approach is a badge of honor but it may hinder your leadership effectiveness. Here’s why.

Let’s say you are working with an employee to change the way their approach to management of a project. You’ve discussed it again and again. You think they understand then, out of the blue, they use the old approach. It isn’t a deal breaker for the project but it annoys you. How many times do you have to discuss this?

At that moment, the amygdala in your brain (your alarm bell) has gone off. They amygdala calls on long-term memory that confirms the many times you counseled the employee on this topic. The amygdala sends the alert that something has gone awry and it triggers an emotional reaction.

As the leader, you know that you don’t want to yell, stomp your feet or behave inappropriately. So what are your options?

Suppress your reaction. You fight the emotional reaction by reasoning with yourself. “I’m not going to let this get to me. It isn’t worth getting upset about. Don’t think about it. Let it go.” Have you noticed that the more you say, “I’m not going to think about this” the more you think about it? Exactly. Research validates that the harder you think about suppressing the emotion the more engaged the amygdala is. Suppression does not reduce the brain’s reactivity. Further, the energy you expend to suppress the reaction takes away the energy you need for memory. You are less effective due to the lack of resources for cognitive functioning of your brain.
Clearly, this doesn’t work so what does?

Consider the emotion. Thinking about emotional suppression doesn’t work but consciously examining your feelings does. Research shows that people who probe their feelings actually deactivate the amygdala. I know – it seems counterintuitive. But when you hold your emotion up to the light, roll it around, and give it a name, it validates the emotion and calms the amygdala. An added bonus is that the cognitive part of your brain remains online. Your memory is not impaired and you can more objectively view the situation and your options.

Reframe the situation. You can also reframe or reappraise the situation. In my experience, this works best after you name the emotion and calm the amygdala somewhat. Then you ask, “Is there another way of looking at this?” Your brain brings up the stored memory and context. However, just because you remember it doesn’t mean it’s accurate or exclusive. In this instance, perhaps the employee believed the situation was different and, therefore, warranted an altered approach. Or perhaps the employee is going through a difficult personal situation and their cognitive ability (and memory) is impaired. What are the other possibilities? Reframing the situation calms the amygdala and brings cognitive consideration to the situation.

When those emotional situations hit – stop trying to suppress the emotion. It only makes it worse. Instead, acknowledge the emotion, name it and ask if there are other ways to look at the situation. You will find yourself with a calmer frame of mind which enables you to choose the best response…the response worthy of a leader.



24551456 - wheelchair on a white background

I’m not a caretaker. I seem to have missed that gene even as a woman. But then came the diagnosis – lung cancer – again. It was my husband. Now, I would push his wheelchair into radiation; fetch whatever he needed, and run errands in the weeks until he passed away. As I dashed to and fro, it caused me to reflect on what I could learn from this since every experience holds a lesson, if we have the mind and heart to see it.

I am not a student of “servant leadership” but perhaps this is the lesson here. I haven’t always been a good servant leader because I focus so strongly on achieving a goal. Certainly, my ability to set goals and achieve them has been an element of my success. And yet, I think I missed something. Maybe my realization will resonate for you, too.

While my husband valiantly fought his disease, I fetched jackets, socks, water and pills because they were what he needed to reach his daily goals. As a leader, part of our job is to provide staff with those things they need to achieve their goals–training, support, resources, praise, coaching. It’s not that hard, really. You just have to pay attention with an attitude of a caretaker to their needs.

As I pushed my husband up and down ramps into the hospital, that too was like leadership. I held back the wheelchair on the down ramp so he didn’t roll headlong into the hydrangeas. And so we too hold back over-eager staff so that they are measured in their approach and don’t fall on their face. We may coach them so that they don’t over-extend their time and commitments.

On the up ramp I strained to roll him uphill to reach the top. Sometimes it took all my energy to push the chair over the uneven pathway like the threshold of a door or the bump in the sidewalk. It’s the same for our staff. It is sometimes hard to sustain the energy to push an employee to reach the top. There are always humps and bumps along the way that have to be overcome. To push, strain and encourage others on their way to the top are the roles of the leader.

While it is true that I’m not a natural caretaker, I came to feel the gratification of helping my husband be as comfortable as possible in his last days. It’s a good feeling and was worthy of the effort. As leaders, we have to keep in mind that the real work is being done by the other. The striving, trying, focus on the goal is the hard work of the employee. We simply provide a push, a steadying hand and we fetch the resources they need. It’s not about us; it’s about them. And we get to enjoy the gratification of being the servant leader.



EyesLook around. Take in everything that you see. There’s the stack of sticky notes with calls to be returned; a report that needs to be reviewed; the partially finished cost proposal for your big client; and a half-eaten sandwich sitting next to the book club book that you are half-way through (and the club meets tomorrow!). In less than a minute, you have observed this and so much more. Your eyes brought in reams of information into your brain. And that information continually flows in unless you interrupt it.

Now consider the amount of effort your brain makes to sort out all this information. The voice in your head is mentally sifting through papers, struggling with the to-do list, and admonishing you for leaving the dirty dish on your desk. (And, everyone else will have finished the book club book. You really should make an effort.) The brain processes and comments on all of these items because it sees them. While your brain makes all this effort, imagine what it’s not doing. It’s not finishing the cost proposal; it’s not reviewing the report; it’s not thinking about the calls that need to be returned. There is only so much vigor the brain has for high-energy, high-focused work.

I recently discovered an easy and powerful technique that increased my ability to focus and bring creative attention to my work: closing my eyes. Shutting down the massive input from your eyes frees the brain to focus, process and integrate information without the distraction of the dirty coffee cup that you really should go wash out right now.

Here are the steps to put this technique to work for you.
1. Define. Identify one top priority project that needs your focused attention and creative thinking.
2. Prime. Review the information you already have about this project: where you are in the process, what are the next steps, and where are you stuck. Basically, you are pre-loading or priming your brain with information that you want it to hold in working memory. This is the information that is immediately accessible to your brain.
3. Focus. Identify what you need next, or the question you need answered. Maybe it’s how to approach a problem or person; the structure of the next chapter of the report you have to write; or how to address a client’s unique needs. You tell your brain where you want it to focus.
4. Sit. Find a quiet spot where you can sit comfortably. Use the timer on your phone and set it for 5 to 8 minutes. Now, close your eyes. Go on…close them. You’re peaking! Okay – you can keep them open until you finish this article. When you sit with your eyes closed for even a few minutes, you will find that your brain works more efficiently. It integrates the primed information, your focused topic and other knowledge stored deep within your brain to bring you new ideas or new ways of thinking.

Without the plethora of distractions flying in from your eyes, the brain has more juice to apply to solving your problem. The brain more easily and creatively assembles information and brings insights to you. And it only takes five minutes.

I use this technique when I need clarity on a troubling problem or when switching from one intensive task to another. It has not failed me yet. I walk away from this short interlude with new ideas, new approaches and with refreshed energy. Try it. You, too, will find that this is a leadership tool worth five minutes.



8.2_-_Labyrinth_-_Chartres_layoutA leader sets the course for the organization. And while that can be challenging, even more of a challenge is retaining focus on that course. Each day brings new twists and turns that can distract, dissuade, and undermine the pathway to a goal. It takes discipline to hold the course and it takes courage to believe that eventually the goal can be reached.

To my surprise, these are the lessons that I learned walking a labyrinth. There was a small group of us who met on a hot afternoon behind St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, Maryland. St. Luke’s hosts a labyrinth that is available to the public. Before I say more, let’s make sure we have a common understanding. You see, a labyrinth is not a maze. A maze has many paths some of which are dead ends. Labyrinths have a single winding path in and a single path out. Originating as early as the Bronze Age, they are intended as a meditative experience. You mindlessly follow the path looking a few steps in front of your feet. Along the way your thinking brain attends to the path which allows other parts of the brain to process worries, hurt, fears, or whatever it needs. The St. Luke’s labyrinth is grass with pavers outlining the pathway.
Why is a labyrinth walk relevant to leadership?

1. There’s no direct path. It seemed straightforward: start at the beginning and walk to the center. The first few steps were directly toward the center. Ahhh…it felt good to be headed for the goal – just as it feels good when we start an initiative in our organization. But then…a hard right turn and I was headed away from the center. Has that ever happened to your big initiative? You have just started and something pops up that distracts you from the plan. In the labyrinth, the discipline was to stay focused and not stop, look around nervously and question. “Does this path really lead to the center?” That creates doubt and wastes time and energy. It’s the same at work, when distractions show up, focus and keep moving.

2. The goal seems close and then far. As I twisted and turned through the labyrinth, I got close to the center. Immediately, my brain thought, “Oh, we’re almost there!” Then a U-turn and a few steps and I was at the far side of the labyrinth. “How did that happen?” my brain complained. The same happens when working toward a big goal. You are almost “there” when a situation changes and the goal suddenly seems distance…again. The discipline is to keep going. One foot in front of the other and trust that in time, the goal will be attained. This is the discipline of perseverance that every leader needs.

3. The pathway is uneven. Scanning across the grassy labyrinth before starting, it looked lush and soft. I decided to walk bare-footed to better connect with the ground. Soon I realize that looks can be deceiving. Under my feet the path was sometimes soft and cool, hard and dusty, or prickly and sharp. How many times have you started on a new project thinking, “This will be a piece of cake!” It turns out to be harder than it looks. Parts of the project are uncomfortable and sticky; other parts feel like a slog through a desert with no sustenance. And yet, like in the labyrinth, we keep going no matter the terrain. That’s the discipline of a leader – to move forward through all environments.

The discipline of the labyrinth is powerful for leaders: continuing on when the path seems convoluted or leading away rather than toward the goal; and continuing when the path gets rough. But that’s the job.



infotuition-opening-1000px

He worked fast and it was mesmerizing to watch.

I was speaking at Asbury Communities on leadership decision-making using infotuition. As I spoke, Bruce drew.  Bruce is an illustrator who graphically records programs as they unfold.  It is remarkable to watch him work. His approach is an artistic metaphor for leaders.  Here’s what Bruce taught me.

Plan Ahead.  Working with huge 4’x8’white boards, Bruce thoughtfully planned ahead before starting to draw.  He studied the content before arriving and had an understanding of the key points and the milestones in my program. He knew what to listen for as he drew. This gave him a feel for how much content would fit on a board and how to space out the work. It’s the same for those who lead.  You don’t have complete clarity about exactly how the future will unfold. Still, you must study enough to have a sense for the major indicators and milestones to watch for.  It’s a plan of what to watch for as you go. That’s how it was for Bruce.  He had a general feel for how the program would unfold and he adapted as he went.  Leaders, too, must adapt as they go. They must make their best guess in the moment, plan ahead and be ready to adapt in the moment.

Listening.  Bruce’s ability to illustrate matched his listening skills.  He wasn’t attending to his own thoughts and judgments; he was listening to me and to the dialog from the audience.  He didn’t impose his interpretation; rather, he reflected what he heard from us. Leaders must also be good listeners.  You have to intently listen to others in order to create a well-balanced picture of a situation or decision. Leaders truly hear what others have to say, and allow diverse perspectives to color their opinion and final decision. Like Bruce’s drawing, the result emerges as a combination of input from the group.

Clear Message. When each segment of the program was complete, Bruce spent a few minutes to refine what he’d captured and enhanced it visually.  This final step aided the viewer to more easily view and appreciate his work. In the many interviews I conducted with leaders, they have a note-worthy ability to simplify a message so that the receiver grasps and relates to the concept.  That’s not so different from Bruce. He had to represent what he heard in a way that others saw themselves in the illustration and they related to it.  A complicated, jumbled message will not resonate, connect or be received well by the observer.  The art of clarity and simplification is a key attribute for a successful leader.  An executive friend once told me, “If I can’t explain it, I can’t sell it.” And so it is for leaders.

On the surface, Bruce’s work looks like art but dig under the surface and you find that he planned, listened and represented a conversation so it would be memorable and relevant to others.  That’s what an artful leader does. Plan ahead, listen to others and skillfully interpret the message. When it’s done well, it’s mesmerizing.

Illustration by  Bruce Van Patter/Crowley & Co.



 

5434786_mThe big day was approaching. By “big day” I don’t mean election day (which can’t come soon enough) or a wedding day, I mean the Super Bowl-THE big day for U.S. sports fans. To be clear, I am not a U.S. sports fan, but even people like me watch the Super Bowl. My friend is a casual watcher of football but then on the lead up to Super Bowl he turns into a hardcore fan. He keeps up with all the latest news and even bets on the playoffs at https://www.fanduel.com/nfl-playoffs-super-bowl! It’s just something the Superbowl does to you. Not because of the game (maybe for the nachos and hot wings), but for the commercials. This year there was even a special television program recapping the top 50 Super Bowl commercials.

What’s your favorite Super Bowl commercial. …..got it? Maybe it’s the Mean Joe Green Coca-Cola commercial from years ago. Perhaps the one with the little boy dressed like Darth Vader who uses “The Force” to start his dad’s VW (my personal favorite); or the Cindy Crawford Pepsi commercial. Whatever the commercial, it is clear that watching them is almost as much of a spectacle as the game itself. No wonder so many look for the best cable options they can find (like these Dish TV Packages click here to see what’s available) well before the date comes up so they can enjoy the spectacle at home.

Super Bowl commercials have much to teach us about how to connect with and motivate people. We have a habit of relying solely on money and promotions to be the key motivators. They are referred to as extrinsic motivators. They work to a point. We underestimate the power of intrinsic motivators – those attributes of the job that makes us feel good about helping others and make us feel that we are using our skills well.

What neuroscience now shows is that intrinsic motivators such as doing work that benefits others activates the brain’s reward system.[i] As researchers Jesse Newton and Josh Davis state, “Management by objectives is a far more limited mental schema than management by aspiration.”

Consider Budweiser commercials. Budweiser had more commercials in the top 50 Super Bowls ads than any other company. With that many ads, we must be motivated to buy their beer because we know their high-quality ingredients and the details of their brewing process. Or not. Think about the content of Budweiser’s high-priced ads. For the most part, Budweiser devoted the most expensive television advertising opportunity to horses and puppies. Let me repeat that – horses and puppies. Why would they do that?

Budweiser like other savvy communicators (that’s what advertising is) understands that we (the brain) respond well to stories with emotional connections to the things we care about. Those horses and puppies are guaranteed to create an “aww” response. These are intrinsic motivators that motivate from inside.

As you consider your staff, what types of motivation do you rely on? Is all about the bonus at the end of the year or the promise of a promotion? If yes, you may be thinking, “Why is that not enough?” Easy. There are no horses and puppies.

I’m not saying you should stop bonuses or promotions…please don’t. I am saying don’t limit yourself to that. Add in a generous helping of intrinsic motivators. Recognize exceptional levels of effort and explicitly point out how that effort results in something good for others and for the company. Praise acts of kindness and collaboration when a team supports each other for the good of the whole. Their brains already are feeling good. You make the brain’s reward circuits dance with recognition.

We can do this if we shift our thinking. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have bonuses and promotions – we should. And, we need horses and

[i] Newton, Jesse and Davis, Josh. Three Secrets of Organizational Effectiveness.



01-18Last week, I participated in my first speaker showcase. More than 20 speakers provided ten minutes of their program to a room full of 200 meeting planners. Hearing different a motivational christian speaker throughout the day it brought nerves on. It was like speed dating for speakers. I practiced and prepared like crazy for my ten minutes. But I was unprepared for the onslaught of speakers.
There were those with boisterous bravado, theatrical hijinks, and yelling into the microphone. They had the audience laughing and clapping. “Uh-oh,” I thought. I began to doubt my program. Was I loud enough? Was I funny enough? Was I dramatic enough? What could I do to be more like them? Continue reading

By the time I arrived, she was groggy, clammy and complaining of chest pains. The emergency management technicians (EMTs) drove up to my mother’s house in spite of me giving them the wrong address. Red lights reflected off the windows as they pulled into the driveway. Later that night we learned that she had a mild heart attack from which she recovered within a few days, thanks to expert care.

As I reflect back on the events of that evening, I’m struck by the EMTs’ ability to meld a logical, data-driven process with careful listening, collaboration, and full attention. We can learn from their approach for our business dealings.

First, let’s look at the logical, data-driving process they employed.

Context and careful listening. Two young men with pounds of equipment walked into my mother’s house. “Tell us what happened,” they said. We explained the situation and her medical history. Throughout, they listened intently while looking me straight in the eye. They asked clarifying questions and repeated the situation back to me to ensure they were clear.

Collect data and monitor with full attention. Once they understood the situation, they started data collection and monitoring of blood pressure, EKGs, and pulse rate. They checked the data several times to confirm their findings. With more questions about her history, they established a picture of her immediate health with the data to back it up. They were 100% focused on and attentive to her and her reactions: Did this this hurt? Is that uncomfortable? Excuse me as I attach the EKG leads. All attention was on her. There were no distractions.

Decide with collaboration. Now they were armed with context, data and trends. It was enough to make a decision about a prudent course of action. They discussed their recommendation with me along with the reasons. The top priority was the best care for her. We collaborated on the options with a common goal. Soon, we were loaded into a helicopter on our way to a large hospital in Austin. Within 30 minutes, my mother was in a skilled ER undergoing a full gamut of tests and treatments.

Perhaps you are thinking that there is nothing remarkable in this scenario. Consider for a moment what didn’t happen. We essentially had a “business” meeting in the living room but it was unlike most business meetings. In our meeting, we did not step on each other’s sentences trying to be the next to speak. We didn’t interrupting each other in our zeal to communicate our idea. No one insisted that their idea was the best way forward. No one pretended to listen while also checking their cell phone.
All of us would benefit from using these three principles practiced by EMTs to improve meetings and their outcome.

• Listening. Each person listens to the other with the intention to understand – truly understand. There are few interruptions because each person seeks to grasp the points of view of the others. It is common to hear, “Let me repeat that back to make sure I understand.”
• Collaboration. Everyone collaborates respectfully by taking advantage of what the others bring to the situation. Each person has unique perspectives and points of view. Imagine the wisdom available in the room if all of it is accessed in the discussion. Cooperation only works when each person is open to the ideas of others and release the strangle-hold on their own idea.
• Attention. Everyone is fully present in the moment without distractions. Research shows that accuracy reduces by as much as 50% for both tasks when multi-tasking. Can you afford to reduce the quality of the meeting by that much in order to check emails or text? That should not be okay for any of us. It certainly would not have worked for my mother’s health. With full attention, all participants can work toward a common goal without the need to push a particular point of view.

Imagine what a business meeting would be like if we adhered to this effective meeting agenda in every business meeting. Imagine the collaborative energy, the focused attention and the ability to find the most productive solution that takes advantage of everyone’s skills. EMTs may not be the CEO of a company or earning the big bucks in a corporate environment but, there’s a lot we can learn from EMTs about the value of listening, collaboration and attention. If you don’t believe me, just ask my mother.



In leadership positions it’s inevitable that situations arise that generate an emotional reaction. Some emotions are low grade but others are like five-alarm fires. We are taught to control our emotions in the workplace to be credible, strong and unshakable. “Don’t let them see you sweat.” “There’s no place for feelings at work.” The emotionless approach is a badge of honor but it may hinder your leadership effectiveness. Here’s why.

Let’s say you are working with an employee to change the way their approach to management of a project. You’ve discussed it again and again. You think they understand then, out of the blue, they use the old approach. It isn’t a deal breaker for the project but it annoys you. How many times do you have to discuss this?

At that moment, the amygdala in your brain (your alarm bell) has gone off. They amygdala calls on long-term memory that confirms the many times you counseled the employee on this topic. The amygdala sends the alert that something has gone awry and it triggers an emotional reaction.

As the leader, you know that you don’t want to yell, stomp your feet or behave inappropriately. So what are your options?

Suppress your reaction. You fight the emotional reaction by reasoning with yourself. “I’m not going to let this get to me. It isn’t worth getting upset about. Don’t think about it. Let it go.” Have you noticed that the more you say, “I’m not going to think about this” the more you think about it? Exactly. Research validates that the harder you think about suppressing the emotion the more engaged the amygdala is. Suppression does not reduce the brain’s reactivity. Further, the energy you expend to suppress the reaction takes away the energy you need for memory. You are less effective due to the lack of resources for cognitive functioning of your brain.
Clearly, this doesn’t work so what does?

Consider the emotion. Thinking about emotional suppression doesn’t work but consciously examining your feelings does. Research shows that people who probe their feelings actually deactivate the amygdala. I know – it seems counterintuitive. But when you hold your emotion up to the light, roll it around, and give it a name, it validates the emotion and calms the amygdala. An added bonus is that the cognitive part of your brain remains online. Your memory is not impaired and you can more objectively view the situation and your options.

Reframe the situation. You can also reframe or reappraise the situation. In my experience, this works best after you name the emotion and calm the amygdala somewhat. Then you ask, “Is there another way of looking at this?” Your brain brings up the stored memory and context. However, just because you remember it doesn’t mean it’s accurate or exclusive. In this instance, perhaps the employee believed the situation was different and, therefore, warranted an altered approach. Or perhaps the employee is going through a difficult personal situation and their cognitive ability (and memory) is impaired. What are the other possibilities? Reframing the situation calms the amygdala and brings cognitive consideration to the situation.

When those emotional situations hit – stop trying to suppress the emotion. It only makes it worse. Instead, acknowledge the emotion, name it and ask if there are other ways to look at the situation. You will find yourself with a calmer frame of mind which enables you to choose the best response…the response worthy of a leader.