Expressing Authentic Appreciation

In our ever faster mleadership authentic appreciationoving results-focused business world of communication that is sometimes reduced to 140 characters or less, it is far too easy to go for days, weeks, months or in some cases years, without pausing to notice and recognize all there is to appreciate. From a leadership perspective it is easy to confuse social platitudes with what I'm calling “Authentic Appreciation.” For example, "Good job, Jane, you got that report out in record time," is fine and important feedback that recognizes and rewards performance. What it quite possibly overlooks is where Jane was coming from about doing the report, what sacrifices she may have made, the other team members she had to enroll to get the information she needed and a variety of other, human dimension aspects of Jane that she brought to her work.

At a deeper level, people want to be appreciated for who they are, for their commitment, their heart felt passion, and most of all to feel that their lives matter. To be able to authentically speak to that requires that you slow down enough to connect and observe another's circumstances, feelings and intentions. At its best, Authentic Appreciation requires you to allow yourself a heartfelt experience of another and the desire to capture that experience in a brief and sincere declaration made to that person and perhaps to a whole team. While your acknowledgement may still be made around observed behavior, it will be generated from your deeper experience. It will carry with it your appreciation and recognition of the person as well as the behavior.

The patience Authentic Appreciation requires may also serve as an intervention in your own tendency to be caught up in the rat race, the frustrations of work life, and the never ending emails and "could have done betters."

Start with focusing on what you can appreciate about yourself, especially if that brings up your internal dialogue about your own insufficiency. If you are unwilling to Authentically Appreciate yourself, it is very unlikely you will be able to Authentically Appreciate another, your environment, or life itself. Start a list of attributes you have that are worthy of appreciation. If you find it hard, unabashedly ask others to tell you. Odds are their list will be longer than yours!

We are approaching the season of giving thanks and enjoying each other more consciously than during the rest of the year. Too often the opportunity gets wasted or, at best, underutilized in the hustle and bustle of entertaining, gift giving, and socializing. Take some time in advance of holiday events to reflect on what you Authentically Appreciate about those around you and about life itself. Write down your notes, not to read out, but to remind you.

I will close with the last words we heard from one of my most beloved clients and Vistage members, Steve Haskell. He was in the process of passing on due to illness and after he slowly looked each one of us in the eye he asked, "do you guys know how beautiful clouds are?" It was such a striking statement, and so telling that in his final days, he was noticing the amazing things in life we often overlook or take for granted.

Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving holiday and hoping you take some time to notice the clouds…

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Disappointment as a Diagnostic

leadership disappointmentDisappointment can actually be a powerful tool. Whether you are disappointed in yourself, someone else, or in an outcome, investigating it more deeply can actually provide a powerful access to increasing your effectiveness and producing outcomes you might have thought were no longer possible. Webster’s defines disappointment as “the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one's hopes or expectations.” I have also heard it defined as “politically correct anger” which suggests a higher degree of intensity to the experience. In any case it is an emotional response that can shape your thoughts and behavior in unproductive ways. Viewing disappointment as a diagnostic offers a different perspective, and perhaps a different way to deal with it.

I am not suggesting to think positively, ignore your emotions, or deny them.  Allow yourself the freedom to experience your disappointment and pay attention to its source. Ask yourself “what happened…or didn’t happen?”

The issue with disappointment is that you can feel like a victim of other’s choices, actions, or lack of action, and that leaves you powerless to leverage what has happened in a positive way. As a leader, feeling victimized by your team is not a leadership stance. You need to investigate your disappointment. Did you plan well enough to anticipate all of the challenges you would face? Did you communicate in a complete way and listen intently to the doubts and concerns of the rest of the team? Were you sure that everyone involved fully understood the goal, bought into the commitment, understood what it would take to fulfill it, and align on it? Is the disappointment in an outcome, (or lack thereof), or in a particular team member? How is that disappointment impacting your relationship with that team member? What were you expecting from the other person? Did they really know about your expectations? Did they ever promise to fulfill them? Without letting them know and/or getting their promise to fulfill the particular outcome, you are left to complain about their failures.

Take some time to reflect on the source of your disappointment and consider the questions above. Investigate where things broke down and see if you can identify your role in it. See if you can let go of wanting to place blame on circumstances or others’ behavior and try to be as objective about yourself and others in what happened as possible. See if you can honestly identify the gaps in your communication that contributed to the situation.

From this place of neutral observation and reflection you can course correct for the future.

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How Irrational Fear is Debilitating

leadership fearCurrently within our culture fear seems to be running rampant. Unfortunately, most of it seems to be some variation or another of the bogeyman. Fear can be empowering or debilitating to a leader. It can render you helpless to act, or worse, cause you to take really stupid actions that actually damage your situation instead of protecting you. Substantiated fear, for example when your reptilian brain has you jump back immediately at the sight of a snake, can be very healthy. Rational fear expressed as heightened awareness based on facts showing that you are facing threats, can focus your attention, accelerate your pace, increase your team's sense of connection, and increase your odds of successfully overcoming the challenge.

You will probably remember Captain Sully Sullenberger and his successful landing on the Hudson River in New York during a severe in-flight emergency in 2009. This situation is a practical example of rational fear. The flight crew got the information that their engines had shut down. They analyzed all data immediately, reviewed available landing sites, made a rational decision, and focused their attention on executing a safe landing for their passengers.

Irrational fear whether it be "communism" in the ‘50s, terrorism in its many incarnations in the last decade, or your own personal monster in the closet or under your bed, can be so out of proportion to the real facts and statistical odds as to be laughable unless you are the one who is freaking out. An extreme example occurred last weekend when a friend and I were attending an international conference in New York City. My friend arrived early and planned to stay with his brother well outside the city which he did on Friday night. As he left for the conference his sister-in-law announced that he was forbidden to return to the house that evening as there would be people from Africa at the conference and he would be bringing Ebola into their home. He would have to take his stuff and go find a hotel for the next two nights. The high drama on the news had driven this poor woman almost to hysteria.

Now, with no disrespect to anyone who has gotten this virulent and mostly fatal disease, the likelihood of my friend bringing it home that night was probably about that of being hit by a meteor. The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate how disproportionate a reaction can be and how the decisions that follow may not be good for you and the people around you.

One of our 2130 Operating Principles is "confront and deal with real issues." We call real issues the ones that no one will talk about and that are often really old. As a leader, the real issues arising from your own irrational fears will often show up as explosions of dominance or anger.  They may show up as decisions that make no sense to your team as they are driven by your need to protect yourself. They may show up as an unwillingness to engage in conversations when you feel threatened. Almost certainly any of these reactions are driven by deep-seated fears that are not at all supported by the facts and data in the present day.

Are you willing to courageously investigate reality and contrast the facts with your fears? Are you willing to confront and deal with the fears that have been sucking the joy and satisfaction out of your leadership? It's up to you.

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Are You Living Your Purpose or Are You Simply Busy?

leadership developmentbusyThats the armor everyone put on to pretend they had a purpose in the world.” -From the poem Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye as quoted in the Sept./Oct. ’14 issue of Spirituality & Health I don’t know about you, but that line landed dead center for me. I have been noticing the ever accelerating “busyness” in our clients’ lives and our own. Just because we can move faster and do more things today doesnt mean we should or that it is good for us, those around us, or life on the planet!

What if you only did a few things and those things were the most highly leveraged actions that would move you towards fulfilling your life’s purpose. Too busy to think about, let alone articulate your purpose? If so, you don’t have to question whether any of that busyness matters. You can just go on confusing action with meaningful results.

If your rebuttal is that you are busy fulfilling someone else’s commitments, for example the boss’s or the team you are on, have you looked to see if anything about that busyness fulfills your own purpose? If you are feeling very stressed out, good chance there is a big gap between your life’s purpose and the path you are on. You are out of balance, (balance being defined as being who you are and freely living your values in every area of your life).

Creating an intervention that has the strength to divert you from your current life to one that is consistent with your life’s purpose requires you to dig deeply into your purpose. I recommend asking the question “what is the intention that is wanting to use my life?” You may have to ask yourself that many times over and listen carefully to the soft voice that speaks to you about that.  You may even want to secure a coach/facilitator, take courses, commit yourself to learning to meditate, or consider other practices to build your contemplative capacities.

If you discover that you have given up on this lifetime and are living as if this one is practice for the next one when you will be really purposeful, dig deeply into what that is about. Be ruthless with yourself about giving up the story you have been telling yourself about how this one is not going to turn out. Every powerful life has to be invented and re-invented in the middle of life and all its messy circumstances.

An old Zen saying is, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”  Consider that each day that you spend in the swirl is one less day you have on the planet to fulfill that intention. Consider that all your busyness is using up the irreplaceable world’s resource called “you.” Only you have been genetically programmed to deliver you, the purpose/intention that is your life. Get focused on unpacking the whole busyness drama and get on purpose.

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Escape Yourself

leadership developmentAs I write this, we are sailing a 28 mile crossing In the British Virgin Islands on a beautiful day with a steady wind and modest seas in a boat appropriately named "Escape Yourself." The length of the crossing and the steadiness of the sea conditions give me pause to consider the name of the boat assigned to us. At first I notice the immediate ways to read/hear the name:

  • Escape - escape what - my identity, the story I tell myself, the story I tell others?
  • Escape the necessity to defend my story or perhaps even buy it at all?
  • Escape, yourself - with a pause between the words it suggests going off by myself, escaping my circumstances, the usual cast of characters in my everyday life, my regular promises and commitments
  • Turning inward, escaping the mindset I bring to each of those areas of my life.

Does being "on vacation" with nothing but the seemingly infinite horizon, puffy white clouds, the rolling deep blue ocean and the wind in my hair to compete for my attention automatically unleash inner freedom? I think not. It's too easy to compartmentalize travel experiences as the set of experiences I hold as special separate from the rest of my life, a physical place I went for a brief time and let off steam.

To engage my own mindset, which includes my leadership beliefs, style, and methodologies I employ every day "back home," requires moving past the circumstances of the trip and into self-examination. After all, even the vastly simplified and yet impactful circumstances here on the ocean are still just that, circumstances.

One of the fundamental principles of our work at 2130 Partners and in our Productive Interactions workshops is that if you don't shift your mindset, changing what you say or do will not make much difference. The paradigm you create with your thinking gives you your reality and will shape the actions of those around you and produce the same old outcomes. Nice to point out and what are you supposed to do about that, right?

What the boat name has allowed me to consider is what the rocketeers of our day call "escape velocity" or the velocity required to escape our gravitational field. If I use my current beautiful and yet very simple circumstances to provoke examination of my own mindset versus my external circumstances, the gravity field of my own beliefs and judgments seems lessened. The possibility of reaching escape velocity or intervening in my historic leadership mindset offers opportunities for new perspectives, clarified vision, new commitments, and new experiences for myself and those in every dimension of my life.

I suggest you do not need to be floating in the ocean to intervene in your own historic leadership mindset. Examine what strategies you might employ to lower your escape velocity so that you can enter a new orbit. Are there teachers, coaches, spiritual communities, or readings that unleash your ability to be reflective?  It’s time to get going.

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.

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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

Leadership Development Part 2 – Your Listening

leadership developmentLast week I started a 3 part series on leadership development. In it, I said that, “in developing your leadership effectiveness you really only have 3 areas to impact – your thinking, your listening and your speaking. In this post, I will examine the second piece, your listening. This series was inspired by my recent work with Vistage Malaysia where I spoke to 15 different groups of executives in the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia area over a two week period.

One of the key pieces we worked on in accelerating their leadership development was asking them to pay attention to and understand how they listen. This is something we work on with all of our clients, because we have found most have never realized that you can strongly influence another person's experience and behavior simply by taking charge of the way you listen to them.

The way we worked on this was actually a fairly simple technique. In each session participants were asked to give their brains a particular assignment that set up how they would listen to their exercise partner’s sharing for 60 seconds. After a bit of practice, nearly all of the roughly 250 participants were able to cause a very positive or negative experience for their partners and all they did was listen. In addition they learned that they could pretty accurately hear and repeat the content, feelings, and intent in their partner's story in just one minute through this practice.

So why is this valuable for leadership? How many of you have seen members of your team coming toward you and thought, “oh not now, I don’t have time for this” or something along those lines? The reality is that as a leader, people need your perspective, input, approval and more. You can have much more effective and efficient conversations with your team if you learn how to manage your listening.

Follow this simple pathway to create outcomes that are not just more of the same that you have been experiencing:

1)      Select someone with whom it would be valuable for you to have more productive conversations

2)      Take careful note of the thoughts in your Mental File Cabinet regarding having conversations with that person, e.g., “every time we interact we end up arguing”

3)      Consciously create and practice productively listening to that person. You do this by “brain priming” or setting up how you will approach the conversation with something like, “I’m curious about and interested in how they see the issues we address.”

4)      Engage in a conversation for a desired outcome

5)      Listen for their content, feelings  and intention

6)      Keep practicing choosing the design of your listening for that person/conversation

It’s always good to start these practices with a person or situation that is not your biggest challenge. Start small. Pick someone that you would like to improve things with, and that seems achievable. As you develop your skill you can graduate to more challenging people and situations.

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Leadership Development Part 1 - Your Thinking

leadership developmentIn developing your leadership effectiveness you really only have 3 areas to impact - your thinking, your listening and your speaking. Since your thoughts shape your speaking and listening, that is your key leverage point, so let’s start there. Two recent events have reminded me of how completely our thoughts dominate and shape our experience and that, in turn, controls our leadership and relationship effectiveness. Before getting to the events let’s set some context. When delving into the arena of thoughts we like to talk about it by saying that each of us has what amounts to a Mental File Cabinet. Several characteristics of the ‘Mental File Cabinet” are:

1)    Filters: that color your world and are unique to you

2)    Storage: contents, essentially of memories and data, that are unique to you

3)    Filing: the contents stored have a system of cross-referencing and connection that is unique to you

4)    Retrieval: is selective, based on your filters, and is typically instant, automatic, and largely unexamined

The first recent event was an extended trip to Malaysia leading 14 workshops for Vistage groups of executives and two days of Vistage Chair workshops. The focus of that work involved examining how our thoughts set up our listening and speaking and that they are all we have as “tools” for growing our leadership and contributing to others’ growth and development. The second event was sharing by three clients who recently completed the Landmark Forum in which they are clearly seeing their lives and go-forward actions much differently.

From our perspective, it appears that the Landmark Forum has given these clients the ability to unpack their Mental File Cabinets, examine the unique contents and cross-references, and either discard or refile the contents in more productive ways. This offers them more opportunities to shape their thinking newly and thereby be able to alter their speaking and listening in more productive ways. They are able to rethink their “default actions” and redesign the bases of their relationships in a way that will set up new possibilities.

In working with the many wonderful folks in Malaysia, I used several of the “Essential Notions” from our book “Accelerate… including our “Productive Dialogue Zone” (also called the “Leadership Effectiveness Zone”) and our Leadership Choice Point model. We worked through applying those notions to real life situations to see how past frustrating outcomes might be altered with new thinking. We then practiced giving ourselves specific brain instructions to produce first unproductive and then unproductive listening. The objective was to notice how dramatically different the experience was for the person attempting to speak into that kind of listening. The results for both the speaker and listener were dramatic. The exercise is only effective, however, when the listener takes control of the way their Mental File Cabinet is organized, intervenes in the instant, automatic and heretofore unexamined ways they have been listening, and chooses their listening newly.

So what’s the payoff of unpacking my Mental File Cabinet? No matter what pathway you find for yourself, the challenge is to intervene in the instant, automatic and largely unexamined way that your brain has collected and stored information and how it gives it back to you as you attempt to negotiate any new situation. The folks at Conversant call it “fast past matching” by which they mean that when confronted with new information, your brain will do a very fast and often sloppy internal Google search. As soon as it has identified a “match” learning stops. If you can learn to be more observant then you have more choice, which then provides you with more options for moving forward.

If you are truly committed to your development as a leader, then finding your path to managing your thoughts and your thinking processes is really critical.

Leadership: The Role of the CEO

CEO leadershipLeadership and the qualities of good leaders are often debated and there is no single definition on which everyone seems to agree. Let’s narrow the focus to the role of the CEO. We really like our colleague Mary Marshall’s definition, “the role of the CEO is to grow the company and grow their people” – period. Related to that, she always counsels CEOs, “only do what you can only do.”

Whether you are a CEO or have another role, how willing and able are you to test your approach against Mary’s counsel?  I recently encountered a CEO who often says, “I’m great at delegation. In fact, if I were going to write a book, it would be about how to delegate.” Yet, as the leader of an 8-figure organization, she was spending time on a job description for an open position, getting it into an email, and building a page on the company web site about the position. Surely her Marketing and HR people could have taken those tasks on! This situation illustrates both pieces of what we are talking about:

  • The CEO was certainly not growing her people by doing these tasks rather than eliciting their expertise and responsibility for getting them done.
  • While her attention and time were focused on these tasks, she was not able to address much more strategic issues.
  • She was doing tasks that multiple people could do vs. things only she could do.

Many business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders struggle with being “control freaks.” If you have built an organization, at some point you probably had to do much of the work yourself. If you are successful with those early stages and the organization grows, it can be extremely difficult to shift your focus and your habits. The behaviors that gave you success in the early going become your own limitations and a constraint on your organization’s growth.

Before you dismiss this as something you would never do look back to the quote from the CEO in question about delegating. She sees herself as a master at delegation to the point where she believes she could write a book about it. What if you think you are great at delegation, empowerment, and developing leaders and it simply is not true or at best you are very limited at this point in your career?

If you are really willing to challenge your own self-assessment, get feedback from people who will be direct with you.  Ask them to tell you about how you are doing on the following:

  • Are you growing your company? How are you doing it?
  • Are you growing your people? What concrete steps are you taking to do this?
  • Are you doing what only you can do? This one might be the hardest to explore and others’ perspectives may surprise you.

Ask yourself:

  • Go through your daily, weekly and monthly tasks. Is it really true that you can’t give more of them away to your team?
  • What are you going to stop doing? No kidding.

Do this homework and your effectiveness and your team’s growth will follow!

Leading With Heart

leading with heartTraditionally, high value has been placed on splitting or compartmentalizing “personal life” and work. There has been pressure in the workplace to behave rationally, productively and with focus – day in and day out. The message has been to shut out personal circumstances, emotions, and life experiences and be task and accomplishment oriented. For leaders, the expectation has been to be driven and a driving force for others, relentlessly pushing the business and the team forward. Within this framework there has been no room for emotions, emotional energy, and in some ways real humanity. This has been part of the gender divide in the work place – for many years women were considered too emotional to be leaders.

The fallacy in all of this is that all human beings experience emotions and emotional energy is a very powerful force. There are multiple consequences of being in denial of your own emotional circumstances:

  • If you can’t be with your own emotions, you can’t be with anybody else’s.
  • Denying, stuffing, repressing or suppressing emotions creates stress and takes a lot of energy. This means everything from undue emotional reactions to stressed out employees who wind up taking sick leave and filing stress claims.
  • If there are no methods or means within your own skill set or your organization’s culture to navigate emotions “below the water line,” there are a lot of issues and challenges that are festering and not addressed.

So what does it mean to lead with heart? Does it mean that every day needs to be full of the touchy-feely squishy stuff? Does it mean that you need to act as a therapist to your team and spend your days talking about their emotions? No, of course not. However, there are steps you can take that will create space for the power of emotions and, in turn, create very positive change:

  • Develop compassion as a value within yourself and your organization. Compassion is not sympathy or feeling sorry for each other. Allow yourself to see and acknowledge another’s circumstances, fears, worries, and concerns. This simple step will open the door to finding alternatives and positive solutions.
  • Recognize that connection to emotional energy varies greatly among people. Some people scan the world through the lens of emotional intelligence and it is one of their primary means of navigation. This is not, by definition, a bad thing. If you have team members who are on the more emotional end of the spectrum, instead of writing them off, use them as a bellwether for how your team is doing. If you are the one who is more tuned in to emotional energy, allow yourself to really face what you are seeing, hearing and feeling and mine that for valuable information and as a guide to action.
  • Make it safe for people to name where they are emotionally and also name the emotional impact of what might be happening in their workplace relationships. If people can simply say their truth and be heard, issues dissipate much more quickly than when they are ignored and fester.
  • Realize that your authentic willingness to listen does not mean you have to agree or fix it for another. Listening itself provides great value.

Consider what might happen if you expand your leadership and your organization’s culture to allow more heart. You might be surprised at the positive outcomes.