leadership dot #3211: 10 items

When my sister and I visited our nephew during his freshman year of college we took him to Target and offered to buy him a few things. He demurred and insisted that he did not need anything. She looked at him and said: “We’re not leaving this store until you put 10 items into that cart!” With that statement, the clear expectations outweighed his hesitation over accepting our generosity.

I told that story to one of my coaching clients when she hesitated about asking a colleague to critique an event, fearing she would hear only good feedback that would not help her improve. I used the analogy of setting specific expectations — like 10 items in the cart — whereby upfront she asked for feedback that shared 3 things that went well, 3 things that could be improved, and 1 thing that really needs to be changed. By outlining clear parameters, it makes it harder not to comply with the request than to provide the requested action.

We mean well when we are overly-nice such as when we decline assistance or provide only positive comments, but in the end that doesn’t serve anyone well. Make it easy for people to overcome their hesitations by providing explicit expectations about the behavior you desire from them.

leadership dot #3210: synergy

President Biden said that he would use the “whole of government” to fight the pandemic and that saying has stuck with me. Put politics aside and consider the coordinated effort toward vaccinating 100 million people in two months. It involved mobilizing National Guard troops and members of the military, securing funding through Congress, engaging the Department of Defense in supply chain procurement, working with the CDC, Human Services, and OSHA; directing FEMA to set up community vaccination centers, mandating masks on public transportation, improving data dashboards and addressing health equity. No one person or entity could coordinate a project of this scope alone.

Think about what you could achieve if you directed the “whole of [your organization]” toward a singular effort. Universities could mobilize various factions toward a true push for student retention. Nonprofits could engage various constituent groups in a pervasive membership drive or fundraising campaign. Cities could coalesce around ending poverty or homelessness in their town.

Not only does “the whole” provide more labor and financial resources but bringing together diverse units provides the added bonus of new perspectives and solutions that would not be possible individually. We often are so busy being busy in our individual “cylinders of excellence” (Lisa Bender’s euphemism for silos) that we forget about the synergy and exponential gains that can be achieved by deep partnering toward a single goal.

leadership dot #3209: ex

Social media has made it harder to totally disengage from toxic people or organizations in our lives. Like the onlooker who can’t tear themselves away from gawking at a tragic accident, many find themselves repeatedly checking on the posts of their exes: whether they be old loves, estranged family, or former employers.

No good ever comes of this.

The posts lead to rants that tend to revolve around the theme of “Can you believe what ____ did?” Yes, yes I can. And, if you were truthful, you too could believe it — which is why they are “ex.”

People may be looking for closure, understanding, or vindication but it is rarely found. If you aren’t able to foster the relationship, let it go. Breaking up once is hard enough without reliving the pain over and over.

leadership dot #3208: highlight

Have you ever heard of the book World of Wonders? Probably not. Yet Barnes and Noble has named it their “Book of the Year.” As a result, it received prime display space, a special banner, and hype within its chain.

This book is one of hundreds (thousands?) that could have been given this arbitrary distinction. It doesn’t have the highest sales, most awards or any empirical difference. Someone just chose to highlight it.

What’s in your organization that deserves the spotlight? You don’t have to have external validation or even a rational reason why you choose something to be the “best of” or “favorite” or “____ of the year.” In a world full of excess information, help narrow the focus of your clientele to direct their attention in your favor.

leadership dot #3207: external

Some companies ignore what is happening in the external environment while other organizations embrace the changes. American Express falls into the latter category.

Instead of fighting the growing use of online money transfers, they have partnered with Venmo and PayPal to now allow you to “spend, send and split” all through the AmEx app. Customers are able to utilize all the features of electronic exchanges in a seamless process “with no app hopping.” Instead of fighting the shift to virtual instead of plastic, American Express made it easier to use the leading app payment services — and inserted themselves right in the middle of the transactions.

What is happening in your external environment? Look around and reassess what you consider to be “the competition.” Maybe they are just partners-in-waiting.

leadership dot #3206: a pause

This week, I’ve been involved in a series of meetings wrapping up a three-year project. Instead of the usual flurry of business and new tasks to tackle, it has been so nice to spend our time together in reflection of all that was accomplished. People are reminiscing, laughing, telling stories, and looking back with an uncharacteristic amount of pride.

We’re at the one-year mark for COVID, and that, too, deserves a bit of reflection about how it has impacted our lives. LeadStar has developed a brief booklet with some prompts to help you look back on the pandemic experience. Whether you write out your answers or discuss them over the dinner table or with friends, I would encourage you to pause to consider all you have lived through.

Too often, we dash from one thing to the next without taking a moment for a well-deserved pause. It shouldn’t be that way. As I wrote yesterday, leaving space is a virtue (dot 3205). Make a few moments for reflection and create some meaning around life’s experiences.

leadership dot #3205: paragraph

We all know the value of ending one thought and starting a new paragraph when we’re writing but sometimes we forget that the same principle applies when speaking. It’s best when we pause, take a breath, and leave a bit of space before the next notion.

Too many times, I hear people forget this concept when they talk, maybe because they are nervous, feeling pressure to speak while they can get a word in online, or their over-enthusiasm for a topic turns into rambling. Whatever the reason, the end result is that their message becomes muddled together like one spoken block of solid text — causing listeners to become overwhelmed and tune out.

Delineating a paragraph, whether written or spoken, is an important communication tool. Give your words the space they need to be understood.

leadership dot #3204: why why why

We’ve all been with a youngster who repeatedly asks “Why?” to every answer you give. Nothing seems to satisfy their curiosity.

Many exasperated adults cut off the questioning but asking “why” is actually an invaluable skill that we should cultivate instead of extinguish. “Why” allows people to contextualize the actions, understand the back story behind a practice, and exposes the nonsensical rules that exist only because no one else has questioned them.

More importantly, “why” illuminates the meaning behind the action. Too many times, supervisors focus on the “how” of a change effort or the technical aspects of a task rather than sharing the “why” information that would provide a sense of purpose for those involved. Another common misstep is sharing the “why” and not continually reinforcing it, assuming that once is enough for people to internalize the rationale. It plays out when the first few minutes of a presentation describe the “why” but the remaining portion of the meeting and all subsequent communications are about the logistics of the changes and how to implement them. No wonder people resist!

Take a lesson from those toddlers and enhance your ratio of “why.” Share your purpose often and keep the reason behind a change in the forefront. If you don’t have a good answer to why you’re doing something, maybe you don’t have a good reason to do it.

leadership dot #3203: retrospect

I read with amusement a string of Twitter posts extolling the benefits of an online conference. Last year, everyone was lamenting that the in-person gathering was forced to be offered remotely, yet this year — amidst the largest attendance ever — people are fervently hoping that some element of virtual programming can continue in the future. My, how things have changed!

It’s not just with this conference either. The higher education community is wrestling with how to provide continued access to students when live learning returns in earnest. Remote workers are urging their employers to continue the practice at least in part. Personally, I’d love for the class I’m teaching this summer to stay online since it falls in the middle of my sister’s vacation and I’d like to join her family at the lake!

As people have become more comfortable with the remote set-up and tools their perspective has broadened to see the advantages of the platform rather than just the loss of in-person encounters. Don’t let this lesson be lost on you. Too often, we resemble Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, protesting that we don’t like something before we have really tried it. Maybe, just maybe, the pandemic has shown us a whole new way of connecting rather than taking it all from us.

leadership dot #3202: toggle

We’ve all heard about the benefits that come from focusing instead of multi-tasking but there is growing acknowledgement that too much single-minded concentration can be detrimental as well. According to psychologist Dr. Srini Pillay, “the brain does its best work when it’s allowed to toggle between focus and unfocus.” In his interview with NPR, Dr. PIllay said that an “overconsumer of brain fuel is overfocusing” and that the key is letting your mind wander.

For me, wandering is a slippery slope because I would have the tendency to wander for too long, but what I have found helpful is to alternate between doing work that requires serious brainpower (like writing or preparing a workshop) and those tasks that are less demanding (like putting together a PowerPoint or assembling handouts.) A colleague calls it switching between “mindful and mindless,” a strategy that she uses to accomplish her work.

We all have moments when our energy is less than peak. Rather than stare unproductively at a computer screen or blank page, it is best to move on to another task that matches our energy level. For example, some nights you write pages in your dissertation, while other nights you mindlessly enter citations into your reference list. At your best moments you deep dive into grant writing, while during low times you collect all the appendices that accompany the proposal. After concentrating on preparing your speech, you spend time completing your travel reports rather than moving directly into your next taxing project.

The notion of toggling between tasks not only fuels your brain, it provides you with some personal grace. You don’t always have to be working at full bore; you may actually increase your capacity through an irregular rhythm.

Source: Too much Focus is Draining. Here’s A Better Strategy. by Stephanie O’Neill and Audrey Nguyen, NPR.org, March 21, 2021.