That’s a Great Question!

leadership developmentHow many times have you heard a speaker, moderator, or meeting leader say “that’s a great question” in response to some of the questions posed by someone in the audience or a team member in a staff meeting? If you had asked an earlier question that did not elicit that reaction, did you notice what thought raced through your mind when you heard it? If you did notice, it might have sounded something like “so what am I, chopped liver?”

Although I hear it quite regularly, I have no idea why people say “that’s a great question.”  More than likely it is an instant, automatic, and unexamined space filler response that gives the speaker time to gather his or her response, kind of like a pause button.  The problem is it pushes a judgment back on all members of the audience. and directs the audience’s attention back to the questioner, at least briefly.  For the person to whom the response was directed it is an acknowledgment. To everyone else it will occur as a put down. It invites comparisons and other unproductive internal dialogue.

In our work we focus on productive interactions and are highly sensitized to conversations that create connection and call forth creativity and collaboration.  Naturally, that also sensitizes us to conversations that at best don’t create openings, and at worst crush possibility.

If you don’t have the habit of using the “great question” phrase, hurray!  If you do have it, examine what drives your habit if you can. Invent a new approach that keeps you as the responsible party at that point in the dialogue while still giving yourself a pause to gather your thoughts, and practice it until you can trust yourself not to fall back in the heat of the moment.  So what might you substitute?

In some cases simply don’t say anything for a few seconds. Silence can show the audience that you are actually considering the question more deeply. On the phone where your audience can’t see your reflective expression, offer something like “let me think about t (or reflect on) that for a moment before I answer.”  Again, it communicates thoughtfulness and respect on your part and keeps you with ownership of the conversation.  It tells the audience that you connected and are considering the question, rather than merely spouting a pre-set message.  Your approach will actually build mutual trust and safety.

Take some time to self observe how you deal with answering questions and how you can demonstrate your respect for each and every person’s contributions.  Watch the openness grow and the creativity flow.

photo credit: WingedWolf via photopin cc

Do You Have Any Competitors?

leaders leadership business competitors business competitionIts interesting how often you can ask an entrepreneur if they have any competition and they will say, “no” or “not really.” They will be aware of others out in the marketplace, but believe that what they offer is totally unique, special, or different. They started their business because they saw an opportunity or a hole in the market place. They will also respond that “the market is so big and we only need a tiny percentage so we aren’t even impacted by the business cycle.” Because they look at their industry from an insiders perspective, the idea that they are totally unique may seem to be true. They may have come up with a unique product or service as Apple did when they essentially invented the smart phone category or they might be like the restaurateur who originates a food trend. Not surprisingly, “me toos” crop up incredibly quickly and often outdo the originators. Even more common now is the competition coming from “disruptors” from outside the industry.

There are two important dimensions to the issue of competitors that leaders must think about. First, its incredibly important to take the time to see your competition and the marketplace from a customers point-of-view as best you can. If you ask a potential customer whether or not you have competition, they will absolutely say “yes” because their perspective include choices and options that you probably have not have considered in the mix.

Customers don’t divide up the marketplace the same way that insiders do. They dont know and don’t care about the insider language and distinctions. They dont necessarily see, understand, or care about the details that the insiders care about when it comes to products and services. All a customer knows is that they have a problem, issue, or pain, and they want it solved. Is your product or service easily recognizable from their vantage point as the solution at the lowest cost/value point? If not, they will move on very quickly to a competitor.

The second dimension to be concerned about is – what is your real competitive advantage? When you ask an entrepreneur what their point-of-difference vs. the competition is, its amazing how often the answer is quite vague and actually fluffy. Something along the lines of, “well were the best,” or “we dont hard sell,” or “we have the best people.” While these features and benefits might be true, they are rarely what the customer is trying to buy.

Are you taking the time to find out why customers are really choosing your products or services, or maybe more importantly, why they are not? There are ways to get this information and its incumbent upon leaders to make the effort to find out these answers.

Make the effort to talk to outsiders. Ask your new employees and your customer service and sales people and be open to really hearing what they say about the marketplace. What are they hearing from your customers about the issues and problems they are facing? What are the questions they are asking? What are they really trying to buy? Learn how you can improve your products, services and how you are communicating about them. Ask people about who they see as your competitors, how those companies are reaching out to customers, and how are they presenting themselves. You might be surprised what you find out.

Is Your Attention on Yourself or Your Team?

executive leadership developmentResults-oriented leaders, particularly in our culture, are often driven by their own needs and wants. However, real power comes from providing the leadership that results from shared vision and shared focus.

A case in point, one of our clients was recently promoted to CEO. She has been asking how she can get her colleagues to want to work for her so she can lead the company to achieving its exciting vision. Suzanne, one of 2130’s co-founders, pointed out that the answer to her question is very unlikely to give her much access to the outcomes she is seeking. A much higher leverage conversation deals with focusing on enrolling everyone in focusing on the shared vision and unleashing their own creativity and self-generated accountability to fulfill the shared vision together.

A second very recent case involves an entrepreneur CEO client who is engaged in a startup, who has been attempting a type of alchemy. He has been trying to get his new technology company up and profitable with only his initial round of angel funding, thereby maximizing the return to his “true believer”investors. He has a high value product that requires a number of regulatory approvals, a clear marketing strategy, and well defined channels of distribution among other challenges. Even though the company is running on fumes, he has not been paid in months, and he is exhausted, initial market response keeps him believing that if he works harder he will be able to endure until his second round of funding is successful. And “therein lies the rub.

Second round funding sources seem to dance near the flame and then flit away, regulatory approvals that would open up new, additional sales channels grind on, and he has cut the team to the bone to try to survive until something breaks on either front. Now, he’s a very thoughtful and introspective guy with a very successful track record so when we really dug into “what’s the REAL issue here?he saw that his limiting belief is “I don’t deserve the money.A very painful and yet powerful insight that my experience has shown very few people are willing to experience, let alone share. As with the previous example, by reframing the issue he can now shift from trying unsuccessfully to enroll investors in him personally, to enrolling investors in the brilliance of the product and the company’s vision for the difference it will make to people’s health and well-being.

Similarly, in a recent Vistage Chair meeting one of our new Chairs was able to see that shifting his attention from his ability to succeed in the role was largely a function of focusing his attention on the success and well-being of his members and letting go of his concern for his own need for success.

Bottom line, if you are committed to being a highly effective and satisfied leader, do some reflection and be honest with yourself. Rigorously examine where you are focusing your attention. Are you hung up on your limiting beliefs about yourself and absorbed in your own success? (Be honest with yourself here.) Alternatively, are you creating an environment of mutual trust and safety, enrolling your team in the shared vision, and focusing your attention on how you can empower them to deliver the desired outcomes? Shifting your attention from your own success to the success of your team and your entire organization can help you be the leader you need to be.


Want to Change the Outcome? Give Your Brain an Assignment

mind thoughts leadership developmentHave you ever noticed that your mind is chock full of running monologues that are instant, automatic, and largely unexamined? These “thoughts”arise from what we refer to as your “Mental File Cabinet” and require no effort on your part to occur. They are patterns of thinking that started forming when you were very young and now run on auto-pilot.

The problem is, if you haven’t learned to self-observe, these thoughts will function as very unintended biases to both your listening and your speaking. These biases will very likely give you the outcomes that currently frustrate you, or even create upsets in others.

Effective leadership conversations, whether with an individual, your team, or a large audience require a shift to a more productive way of communicating with others.

Let’s start with your listening. Here are some of the more common automatic unproductive listening filters that people have:

  • Critical listening – “I’m listening for where you are incorrect.”
  • Solution listening–“I’m listening to give you advice and solve your problem.”
  • Impatient listening –“I’m listening for where I can jump in because I already know what you are going to say.”
  • Me too” listening–“I’m listening for where I can share how my story, my life, and my circumstances are just like yours.”
  • Competitive listening–“I’m listening for where I can one-up you or outdo you.”
  • Know-it-all listening–“I’m listening for where I can share my own expertise on this topic.”

I’m guessing that when you read this list you may recognize using one or more of them. I’m also guessing you would not enjoy someone else listening to you that way.

The antidote to your instant, automatic, and generally unexamined listening is to give yourself a “brain assignment.” This is one of the practices that we at 2130 Partners call “simple and not easy.”It seems simple because all you have to do is tell your brain that the way you are going to listen to “Gina” the next time you engage with her is using the “Brain Priming Recipe”below. It’s not easy because you have unwittingly been practicing automatic brain priming from your Mental File cabinet for many years without realizing it and your brain truly has a mind of its own.

Here’s the “Brain Priming Recipe” that will get you the outcomes you intend after you have practiced:

1)    Observe your default thoughts and reactions about having conversations with Gina before you engage

2)    Plan your next conversation based on your intended outcome(s) for the conversation(s)

3)    Carefully examine how the outcome(s) differ from your past experience

4)    What are you willing to commit to for the outcome(s), even if it takes extensive listening first?

5)    Just prior to the next conversation, consciously prime your brain with its assignment –  the way you intend to listen and your commitment to the outcome of the conversation(s), that differs from past experiences.

6)    Begin listening carefully and patiently for the content, feelings and intent in Gina’s part of the dialogue

7)    Summon your courage, your willingness to surrender your control of the conversation, and stay engaged with Gina until you have produced the intended outcomes together.

You may well find yourself  having failed in your intent to listen in a particular way in favor of your past thoughts about conversations with Gina. For example, if you intend to have a conversation with Gina about failures to accomplish promised results and you really like Gina, your “I really like Gina and don’t want to hurt her feelings” thoughts may overtake the assignment you thought you had put in place for your next conversation. As you might guess, there are many, many thoughts in your Mental File Cabinet that may come up and intervene in your success.

The solution is to keep practicing! Learning to be present and connected takes time.

The Importance of Giving Direct and Effective Feedback

leadershipOne of the most common challenges I see among leaders is unwillingness to have difficult conversations. It is a very common issue for leaders to be unable to be direct with others about failures to perform and their roles in problems. I seldom see swift, effective feedback that communicates disappointment with another person’s behavior. The trouble is, none of us grow without pain.

The thing is, people are far more resilient than it seems. In fact, people aspiring to leadership will actively seek direct feedback, even if it hurts. I don’t have specific data about exactly what stops leaders from being direct, but after working with them for so many years my observation is that the issue is more about fear of being rejected, abandoned, or simply not knowing how to proceed that stops leaders from being as direct as they could be.

Direct conversations don’t have to be dreaded, awful experiences. Magic can show up when you are very committed to another person’s well-being and success and you deliver very direct and specific feedback about shortfalls. One of the “Operating Principles” we recommend using is “Be direct and sensitive.” The sensitive dimension speaks to the importance of staying connected with the other person and keeping your intention to contribute to them top of mind while you are providing feedback. Very direct communication is possible when connection is maintained.

If change is needed within your team, or from a specific team member it requires intervention in the current mindset and change does not generally happen without some form of resistance, upset, and pain.

However, it is actually insulting and/or demeaning to another person to assume they cannot handle the truth. I’m not saying they will be thrilled to hear it, but the vast majority of people come to work every day intending to be successful contributors. Almost no one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says “I’m going to be a jerk at work today.” Unfortunately, most of us have jerky things we do and no one ever tells us. They gossip around the water cooler instead and nothing changes.

The issue can become trickier with peers, e.g. leaders of other divisions and departments, etc. This can feel very risky in the sense that if I give you very direct feedback about your failures and shortcomings, you may think you can do the same back to me. The dynamic can play out as “I won’t call you on yours if you don’t call me on mine.”

The typical starting place for leadership improvement in this area would be to go start giving direct feedback to others. However, I am going to suggest a different place to start. Instead, start with yourself. Go ask for some tough, direct feedback on what drives other people nuts about you. It may sting, but it will give you insight on where you can improve and increase the effectiveness of your interactions. It will also give you perspective on effective, (and ineffective), ways to be direct with others.

No one will stop doing the dysfunctional things they don’t know they are doing. After you have spent a little time receiving feedback and observing how it lands with you, then take on giving more powerful feedback to others. If you can build this skill the results will definitely be worthwhile.

Leadership: Naming Problems

leadershipJohn Dewey said that “a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” My correlate to that is “a problem mis-named is a problem stuck!”

I often see Clients and Vistage members wrestling with an issue at great length with no visible progress. In fact, it often gets worse. They’ve named the issue, involved others in its resolution, and worked diligently without success.

A recent example is a firm that constantly struggles with cash and has pretty much used up their first round funding. The CEO has been talking about, and meeting with, his team to discuss their “financial crisis.” He has declared they must raise a new round of equity immediately and wants all of the team focused on cutting costs everywhere. One of the sharper executives, who has tired of the continued drama, shared the following view with me, “I’m deeply troubled about going to our investors for more money when, if nothing changes, we will burn through that cash as well!”

The real issue is that the company has a “sales crisis.” They have not clearly defined their distinct competitive advantage or core competence. They have not built reliable channels of distribution and their sales team is very ineffective. Unfortunately, by calling their problem a “financial crisis” and focusing everyone on raising money and dramatically cutting costs, the CEO is accelerating the very issue he has named.

I once heard wise advice that says “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” Translating that back to our definitions, when your perspective on a problem is not leading to breakthrough results, rename the issue. If this CEO called everyone together and declared a sales crisis, everyone could then bring their creative problem solving to each of the areas related to sales and determine what’s missing or not working. By developing a well-stated problem and supportable action plans for change that everyone can get behind, he could most likely get sales moving rather quickly. Additionally, his ability to raise added funds would be greatly enhanced. Potential investors would see that the company is in action on a viable plan and would be encouraged about the company’s future.

As you look at your own situation, where are things stuck or moving slowly? What are you complaining about without any changing occurring? How are you and your team talking about the problem? See if you can boil it down to a name or statement that describes your focus.

The antidote to your stuck problem is to dig under the issue with the inquiry “what’s underneath that?” Continue with this line of questioning – “OK, now what’s underneath that?” Stay with this until a new perspective opens up. You will know it’s a very new view because you will immediately start seeing opportunities for action. A whole new strategy may quickly emerge.

I will be so bold as to declare that a problem correctly named will call forth its own solutions!

Manage Your Brain or it Will Manage You

leadershipAs discussed in my recent blog series, all you really have to effect your leadership is your thinking, listening and speaking. An essential ingredient of growing yourself and your leadership is gaining self-awareness and the ability to self-observe and intervene while you are in the heat of the action. If you can’t self-observe, you can’t hear/see how you are thinking and communicating, and whether you are even connecting at all.If you can’t self-observe, you will be unable to give yourself a new brain assignment that self-corrects your instant, automatic and largely unexamined reactions.

In our work, we invite clients to consider their brain as a “Mental File Cabinetwhich stores every experience from every one of our five senses at every moment. The catch in that is that you have all sorts of filters, biases, and predispositions that severely limit what gets into your Mental File Cabinet. Further, your Mental File Cabinet has strange and unique filing procedures and cross-referencing.

When you encounter a new experience your senses provide a scan and the brain does a quick “Google Searchto find a match with what’s already in your Mental File Cabinet. For new information, the match may be rather sloppy and yet, the instant the match happens, learning stops. “I know what that is.”The trouble is, given your unique filters and the unreliability of the match of new things, you may be very disconnected from what is really being said and what’s going on, rendering you ineffective at best.

“The person who is most present to the way that it is and the way that it isn’t will emerge as the leader regardless of who is in charge.”- Unknown

Reframe your relationship with your “File Cabinetfrom automatically reacting to thoughts arising from your past records to being in charge and managing your File Cabinet intentionally. In a recent article and YouTube video Deepak Chopra stated: “The truth is that each of us is the user of our brain, and as with any mechanism, the user’s intention makes all the difference.Applying our 2130 Partners Operating Principles also provides a basis for intentional mental re-framing.

Start listening to the thoughts that run through your head as you speak and especially as you listen to others. Notice what they say and even keep notes for a while until you get good at it. We call this self-observation. Begin to develop your ability to articulate what’s in your heart and soul about your world. What kind of relationships do you intend to have with your team? What are the desired qualities of your relationship with your significant other and other family members?

Now engage with others by starting with your intention. You may say it, particularly at first, or just think it to “set your mind straight”as my mom used to say. Notice when you start to veer off course, catch, and correct.  Manage your brain with your declared intentions. With practice it will rewire and begin to reshape your words and actions. Enjoy how quickly your effectiveness grows.

Leadership: Integrating Your Inner and Outer Worlds

leadershipIt seems to me that the bulk of what passes for leadership development currently is actually training to improve your ability to be someone else. By that I mean training to fit yourself into what the world seems to want. The issue isn’t confined to just leadership training. Reading resumes has become almost worthless because counselors have taught most people to write them in a way that claims credit for all sorts of spectacular results and uses lots of key words that show up in headhunter searches.

Author, speaker and workshop leader David Whyte offers the following perspective: “…human beings have never had the luxury of choosing between an untouched and interior foundational self and the necessities and often overwhelming revelations of the outer world.”

Since effective leadership is so dependent on trust, how will you get people to trust you if you don’t put all or at least most all of your cards on the table? How much of what you call “yourself” are you willing to make available to others? Easily said and not so easily done.

What if you committed yourself to be all you can be? To be fully self-expressed and let the world choose how much it wants of you? Does that question scare you to death? Does it bring up “what if nobody wants what I have to offer when I am just me?”

I have recently been reminded of two situations where a firm was willing to hear what a young person said they were interested in, wanted to work on, and thought would be valuable for the firm. While no one understood it at the time, both firms were really on to something. In fact, one of these two people is now President of his very successful firm. One of the keys to their current success is what he has brought to the firm’s strategy as he did what he loved, the way he loved to do it. I suspect we will see much more of this evolutionary process over the next couple of decades as the millennials assume leadership.

If you are willing to get to work on integrating “your interior foundational self” and the “outer world” start sharing things that you may have been unwilling to share before, especially about your fears and concerns, your dreams and aspirations, and things you love in life. We have been doing this in one of my Vistage groups using collages to spark the inner self and then sharing what the collage means to us as a way to facilitate putting language to expressing the inner self.

The more you share and find that you don’t “get your vote cancelled,” the more your confidence will build. Further, you will start attracting the kind of people who appreciate who you really are and shedding those entanglements in your life that aren’t for the real you.

I personally aspire to Janice Joplijn’s line “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” For me that means if I have nothing to hide, I’m totally free…a delightful place to be!

What’s Possible in Giving up Old Stories?

leadership developmentDavid Whyte asks the beautiful question, “what if that story I have been telling myself is not true anymore?”Complementary to that question, I often reflect on what’s available in my life as a result of having given up old stories, most of which had me as a victim at the center at the time I told the story the first time.

My wife Suzanne and I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to experience a marvelous “payoff”from having given up our various stories about the people we were previously married to, the events around the end of those marriages, and the other people who were involved in various ways at the time.

Suzanne and I had a major two week speaking project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and two hours before leaving for our flight over, Suzanne fell and broke her ankle and we found ourselves together in the ER at a local hospital. We had major decisions to make and no time to think about it. She was in major pain and we didn’t know what was going to be involved. On the other side we had big promises at stake on a project we had been planning with the folks in Malaysia for the last year.

The people who rushed to the hospital and came to the rescue were Suzanne’s previous husband and his current wife. He agreed to help me get Suzanne’s car home and she stepped in to stay with Suzanne through what became a long afternoon and night of pain and surgery.  This support allowed me to leave without knowing what was going to evolve for Suzanne’s repair. In addition, it allowed the two of us to keep our promise and deliver most of the work in Kuala Lumpur over the next two weeks. Their commitment contributed hugely to our wellbeing but also to delivering value to nearly 250 business leaders in Malaysia. In addition, they brought meals to Suzanne at home as she convalesced over the next week until other family members could step in.

What strikes me most is the gap between these extraordinary acts of service by two people who are totally family in our lives and the way many no longer married people tell their stories – “you know, that witch, that…(fill in your choice of derogatory terms we have all heard).” At best, people refer to “my ex”as opposed to the mother or father of our children. The loss of possibility leaves all involved deeply short-changed.

I once, while I was still grieving, heard it said “if you don’t love them now, you never did.”On closer examination I find that to be at or near the center of unwillingness to give up that old story. If I admit to myself that I love them, how do I explain what happened to us, the pain we and others close to us experienced at the time, and why we are not together. Well, what if you give that up and work on letting go of your old stories in favor of love, life, and possibility?

photo credit: Marcus Hansson via photopin cc

Leadership Development Part 3 – Your Speaking

leadership developmentEffective leadership requires intentional thinking, listening and speaking. In the past two weeks I have covered thinking and listening and today I will focus on the more commonly discussed dimension – speaking.

As a leader, what you communicate, how, and when is critical to your organization. It will be impossible to cover all the facets of this here in a short blog, but there are some keys to keep in mind:

  •  What you communicate with your words, body language and attitude often has unintended consequences.
  •  Being aware and responsible for the “emotional wake” you leave behind you is essential to staying connected with your team.
  •  Curiosity and inquiry are more effective than domination, negativity, and ignoring.

Let’s explore each of these starting with the unintended consequences.

Unintended Consequences

Each of us has a different point-of-view, perspective and understanding of the world. (For more on this see my blog on the enneagram.) What’s extremely obvious and clear to you isn’t even making it on the radar of some of your team members. And if it is, it could easily be misunderstood and create unexpected consequences. Now these could be positive or negative, but the point is, as a leader, what you say will create an outcome. Because for the most part we are on “automatic pilot” our behaviors and speech are typically instant reactions and largely unexamined. This means your comments may yield outcomes far different than your intentions.

Emotional Wake

The term “emotional wake“ was coined by Fierce Conversations and we think it’s critical for leaders. As a leader, your position in the group has more authority and more impact and the emotions that go along with your words are greatly amplified. It is difficult to overestimate the wake you leave behind you. It’s important that you become more aware of the type of wake you leave. Cleaning up the unconscious emotional additions to your messages will positively impact how well your team functions when you are not there. That, in turn, will increase their effectiveness in reaching the goals and “Yonder Star” you are sharing with them.

Curiosity and Inquiry

If your communications demonstrate vulnerability, openness, and interest, they will invite dialogue about what your team is up to and how they see things. You are more likely to gain insight into their focus, why they are making the choices they are making, and their real priorities. You are much more likely to inspire creativity, innovation, and collaboration. The opposite will happen if you speak in an assumptive or punitive way. People will start to hide things from you, will be afraid of you, and dysfunctional dynamics will take root within your team and organization.

If you are ready, start investigating your own speaking style. First, try to be more reflective and intentional before going into meetings about the outcomes you want to have and how your attitude will impact your team. Second, try speaking less and being more curious. See what you can discover about how people have been hearing you and how this has been impacting their priorities and actions. You might be surprised at what you find out.

photo credit: Baltic Development Forum via photopin cc

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