Monday, April 23, 2018

How do leaders improve thinking and relating throughout an entire organization? - part #1

It was a lunch meeting and we were in a very quiet back corner of the restaurant. Major systems were under going change and this particular leader wanted to explore some ideas and thoughts about it all with me. Some of these changes were being done by choice, but others were being driven by outside influences. Standardization was going to be key to the new systems. Centralization and integration across “silos” was also critical to success. To make this all happen, financial investments and financial curtailments would have to be made. In particular, we were trying to think through what the organizational chart should look like three years from now given the current strategic plan. Lots of sugar packets, salt and pepper shakers and a ketchup bottle were involved in this time of sharing.

In the middle of this strategic level dialogue, I kept thinking of two insightful quotes:

“Begin with the end in mind.” - Stephen Covey

"The problem is never how to get new innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.” - Dee Hock, founder/CEO emeritus of Visa International

But in the end, I talked about the important work of Hermina Ibarra in her very thought-provoking book called Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). Here, she points out that to step up to leadership, you have to learn to think like a leader. 

Right now, we need more people who have learned how to think like a leader. We also need to recognize that this is a slow, but powerful journey. In particular, I pointed out to this individual that Ibarra believes that the way we think is a product of our past experiences. All of us need to understand more about a person’s history so we understand more about their “default” thinking patterns. If we, as leaders, want people to think and work in new ways, then we, as leaders, need to create new experiences. We have to understand that thinking and relating are interconnected.

One step in this process to create new mental maps and to refine old ones. The Dictionary defines mental maps as a mix of objective knowledge and subjective perceptions. From my perspective, it is all about how we frame things up. Aaron K. Olson and B. Keith Simerson in their book, Leading With Strategic Thinking: Four Ways Effective Leaders Gain Insight, Drive Change, and Get Results (Wiley, 2015) write that “In some ways, strategic thinking is like constructing a mental map that connects the current “here and now” to something, somewhere, or sometime in the future…. Just as a holistic perspective improves strategic thinking by ensuring that all factors are considered, it is also important to consider context…. Strategic thinking only matters if it leads to a purposeful action.”

Herminia Ibarra in the aforementioned book writes that “the only way to change how you think, therefore is to do different things.” As she continues, “This cycle of acting like a leader and then thinking like a leader - of change from the outside in - creates what I call outsight…. Doing things - rather than simply thinking about them - will increase your outsight on what leadership is all about.”

She believes “Outsight comes from a “tripod” of sources: new ways of doing your work (your job), new relationships (your network), and new ways of connecting to and engaging people (yourself)…. Sustainable change in your leadership capacity requires shifts on all three legs of the tripod.”

As Gregory Boyle writes in his book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (Simon & Schuster, 2017): “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”

For us here today, we need to remember the wisdom of Cal Newport who wrote in his book, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016): “Our brains … construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.”

Right now, the two most common leadership phrases I am hearing are these: “We inspect what we expect” and “What get measures gets done.” However, in the back of my mind are the words of a participant at a recent From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable when he shared “What get measured does not always matter.” 

Our problem as leaders is that we default to thinking “this” is like “that”, a habitual response to so many things. We forget what Margaret Wheatley wrote, “Habits save time: it’s easier to do the same thing, or think the same thing. Changing our mind takes attention and time.”

Marshall Goldsmith backed this up in his book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts - Becoming the Person You Want to Be, (Crown Business, 2015) when he wrote “Meaningful behavioral change is very hard to do” and “No one can make us change unless we truly want to change.” We as leaders forget that to understand a problem, you have to admit there is a problem.

In short, meaningful cognitive change is very hard to do. And no one can make us change unless we truly want to change. Therefore, we have to help people choose a non habitual response by helping them recognize that what we are dealing with currently is different than the past, and that a pre-defined solution may not be the answer.

This week ask yourself and your team these two questions: What are you paying attention to these days? and What is one of the biggest cognitive changes you’ve ever made? The answers to these two questions will help all of you move to the next level.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 16, 2018

What is the connection between organizational history, culture and meaningful work within successful organizations? - part #2

Recently, a long term client and I were reviewing their latest strategic plan. She had asked me to give her feedback about the current strategic plan and where problems will happen in the execution. Having done this for the last 4 strategic  plans, it was an interesting process. During the time we were together, we discussed lessons learned from many years of working together. The result of which was that I am more convinced than ever that we must start to teach and share organizational history. 

There are days we get so busy that we forget that by understanding history we understand what got us to this point. Teaching others about the past big picture and how that resulted in past strategic plans helps all involved understand that strategy is evolutionary. When we share our memories about that history, i.e. oral history, this builds clarity and ownership for our current choices.

I have spent many hours over the course of my career sharing meals, cups of hot beverages and occasionally an adult beverage, discussing the past, the present and the future. I have listened to people’s journeys with the organization, and I have shared my own journey with the company. When people feel safe enough to share their story, the outcome of this depth of sharing is that we build bonds and we recognize that history is real rather than some distant past. 

What great leaders understand is the following written by James Kerr is his delightful book, Legacy: What The All Blacks Can Teach Us About The Business Of Life, Constable, 2013: “Leaders are storytellers. All great organizations are born from a compelling story. This central organizing thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.” This combination of understanding history and sharing oral history makes the work more meaningful. 

While reading The Christian Science Monitor Weekly last fall (I read a diverse collection of resources and find the essays in this weekly new magazine interesting), one section talked about how Millennials “put such a premium on pursing careers that hold meaning for them.” Nothing new here on one level.  

The same essay also reported that according to Gallup only 33 percent of US workers feel truly “engaged” while on the job. “That’s up modestly from 26 percent in 2000 and 28 percent in 2009. Some 16 percent of workers are disengaged or unhappy in their jobs, while fully half of the workforce is in a neutral zone, committed to essentially just showing up.” Another poll, by payroll firm ADP, finds that nearly two-thirds of US workers are actively or passively looking for other jobs.” Also no surprise on one level.

For leaders in key position the big question is the following: How do we respond to this news? Along with sharing our history which gives us perspective, I think we need to create new and more empowering stories. One problem we are experiencing right now is that we are letting others define our story. It is time we define our own story and write or renew the empowering parts of it.

As I teach in the From Vision to Action Leadership Training, successful leaders are architects of meaning. As Joel Kurtzman in his excellent book Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organizations to Achieve The Extraordinary, (Jossey-Bass 2010) points out: “Strategic leaders are people within organizations who plot the course... Strategic leaders generally can think far into the future...The best of these people understand where the future is going and how to get there.

The role of operational leaders is quite different from those of strategic leaders. Operational leaders make certain the trains run on time, the manufacturing processes are adequate, the logistics systems work, the technicians are well trained, and the the trucks are where they are supposed to be.... like strategic leaders, operational leaders are vital to an organization’s success.”

Leaders who are architects of meaning routinely confront paradoxes and wrestle with deep questions of identity and direction. They are comfortable asking the following questions:

- Who are we? 
- What do we believe or stand for?
- Where are we going?
- How are we going to get there?

Then, they seek shared answers to these questions on the strategic and operational levels. They remind all involved that each day we are building our legacy by what we are doing. The best leaders understand that we are constantly preparing the organization to be handed over to those who will follow us, hoping they will it do it even better.

The outcome of sharing past history and sharing our stories plus answering the above important questions is coherence, i.e. the quality of becoming integrated. And given all that is happening in the world right now, coherence is something we all need. This week, share your history and lessons learned with others. It will restore perspective and build connections in very important ways.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 9, 2018

What is the connection between organizational history, culture and meaningful work within successful organizations? - part #1

As we sat down for dinner, I realized that I had not seen her in quite a while.

“So how have you been?”, I asked her.

“Overwhelmed” was her response. “I’ve had to work on all four pillars of the organization, namely people, structure, systems and culture.”

“It’s been painful,” she continued. “These are good people. We are good people, but we have no control over all the changes that are taking place. It is waves upon waves of unforeseen variables and choices being made by people who do not realize the impact of their actions. It breaks my heart to lead through such difficulties.”

“I am so sorry you are having to go through this,” I responded.

And she wept quietly at the table. They were tears of grief, tears of anger about stuff over which she had no control, tears of letting go of control, tears to finally be with someone who gets the pain of leadership and tears of realization that it is going to get harder before it gets better.

Right now, life is dynamic, not linear. We can not control so much that is going on and yet we have to move forward together through the pain.

Since the Fall 2018 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, I have learned three important lessons. First, we need to pry ourselves away from screen time interactions and analysis, and reconnect with people, mission and meaningful work in person. Dashboards tell us some of the story but never the whole story. As Gregory Boyle in his exceptional book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (Simon & Schuster, 2017), reminds us: “Everything that counts can’t be counted.” There is a time and a place for fast leadership, but I believe we need to invest in slow leadership, namely the work of building and maintaining key relationship. Metrics help, but relationships are the foundation of successful action.

Second, we need to remember that deciding something and doing something are two different things. We have lost track of this in the work of fast leadership, particularly in our work with younger leaders. “I sent the e-mail” is not executing a decision.

Third, organizational culture, once established, can not be solved by reductionism. Trying to change group behaviors through individual goal setting, measurement and accountability will only work so far. We forget that our organizational culture reflects our collective behaviors. For example, you can not remove the ingredients within a baked cookie, i.e. the culture. You can not undo things to change things; you can not move backwards to make it better. Instead, you have to start over. This must be a re-founding by returning to our identity/purpose, reclaiming what we still believe in, a reclaiming of what gives meaning to what we are doing and what we aspire to be. It all depends on the values we embed at the start of this process.

Therefore, it is time for leaders in large and small organizations to engage in restorative processes. We must restore and/or build new processes where people feel confident and smart again. We need processes where we make sense of what formerly made us feel overwhelmed. We need experiences where “We are all in this together” takes on new meaning.

The first way to do this is to engage in more strategic dialogues. The goal of a strategic dialogue is to create strategic awareness, strategic understanding, and strategic perspective, which will result in better strategic choices and operational choices.

Strategic dialogues are a capacity building exercise. An effective strategic dialogue is the combination of three elements, namely education, awareness, and the building of commitment. Successful strategic dialogues are often facilitated so the leader or leaders can just focus on listening.

Within a strategic dialogue, focus on three areas. First, explore strategic context or if you do not like that word then use the words “strategic landscape.” Here, I encourage you to answer the question: Why are we moving forward? The big picture outside the organization needs to be explored and in particular, explain how the customer has and has not changed over time.

Second, explain strategic direction by answering the question, Where are we going? As leaders, we do this by connecting the why from above dialogue with the where of this question. In particular, explain how the company’s strategy has changed over time in order to meet the changing needs of our customers.

Third, explain the strategic nexus or philosophy by answering this question, How will we do this? Being mission-driven, and values-led means there needs to be  alignment and interconnection between mission, vision and core values with the current strategic plan. In particular, explain why the company’s mission and core values have not changed over time. 

For leaders to do the above successfully, they are going to need to get very good at the following two behaviors: sharing over telling and listening over responding. Now, some of you may be thinking what is the difference between sharing vs. telling and listening vs. responding? Mutual respect is one major difference. When leaders choose to share and listen during a strategic dialogue, there are no leaders or followers. There is no us vs. them. There is instead a collective we.

From my experience, this level of work requires leaders to utilize deep listening. This is a way of hearing in which we are fully present to what is happening in the moment without trying to control or judge it. We are hearing others with an open mind and a compassionate heart.

When we engage in restorative processes, we must engage in routine coaching in order to build capacity. From the person who is being coached, this means they are feeling heard. From the person who is doing the coaching, they must show up and be present. It is more transformational coaching rather than technical coaching. 

For coaching at this level to be successful, there needs to be the right environment for coaching. Many leaders think we are in sync with our environment, but actually it’s at war with us. As Marshall Goldsmith points out in his top-notch book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts - Becoming the Person You Want to Be, (Crown Business, 2015), we think we control our environment but in fact it controls us. Our environment changes us, and a changing environment will aways change us. Therefore, if we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us. And the result turns us into someone we do not recognize.

From my experience, the right coaching environment is one where certain elements are not changing, namely ample time, an uninterrupted space,  mutual respect, deep listening, two way dialogue, and active note taking.

Furthermore, when we engage in restorative processes, we must also engage in regular feedback. Feedback is vital to coaching. However, feedback is rarely given because it can make the coach and the person being coached uncomfortable. Returning to the aforementioned Goldsmith’s work, we forget that a coach is a follow-up mechanism. He or she instills accountability. At the highest level, a coach is a source of mediation, bridging the gap between the visionary Planner and short-sighted Doer in us. The Coach meshes our inner Planner with our inner Doer.

This week think deeply about strategic dialogues, restorative processes and how to take your coaching work to the next level. Given the dynamic world we are living in, this level of leadership is sorely needed.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 2, 2018

There Will Always Be A Trough Of Chaos

“Not again,” she reported to me. “Just when we think we are out of the trough of chaos, something happens and we are back into a new one or back into the old one. What are we supposed to do?”

I paused before I answered the question. Feeling like you are in perpetual trough of chaos can be quite depressing and very overwhelming. It can take the wind of our your sails, referencing an old New England term.

“There will always be a trough of chaos,” I responded. “But let’s pause and remember something. The trough of chaos is the result of a commitment to continual improvement. If a team, a division or a company wants to get better or to improve something, then there will be a trough of chaos. If a company recognizes that the market or their customer base has shifted or is shifting, then there will be a trough of chaos. If a company realizes that it’s core business model is no longer viable due to the rise of the digital economy, then there will be a trough of chaos. In short, there will always be a trough of chaos unless you are committed to perpetuating status quo for the rest of your company’s history.”

She looked out the window for a moment and then back at all of the piles on her desk. “We are committed to getting better. It is integral to the strategic nexus of this company. Therefore, I guess, we are going to have to frame up the trough of chaos as a normal part of our lives moving forward.”

“Yes. Working through a trough of chaos is not a bad thing; it is a normal thing.”

“Thanks for pointing this out to me.”

“My pleasure. That’s why you and visit on a regular basis.”

This week, come to peace that if you want to continually get better at what you do, there will always be a trough of chaos.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 26, 2018

Leverage the Power of the Strategic Nexus

We were eating lunch at the most delightful coffee shop. There were papers and reports spread out across the table. There were graphs and charts poking out from a file folder, and there was a line of sugar packets reflecting a possible new way of organizing the division so it could be more nimble and agile.

She looked up at me from the line of sugar packets as I pulled out a paper with their mission, vision and core values on it. “I think we need to review this document,” I said. “We have to be sure that what we are discussing is in alignment with this page.”

She nodded and said “Yes. It always comes back to the strategic nexus.”

I smiled. She was right.

In the trough of chaos, it is easy to forget the strategic nexus. We are often focused on dealing with resistance, endless problems and making sure everything is still on track given the strategic plan. With our heads down and pushing forward, we rarely pause for reflection.

However, the best leaders routinely pull out the strategic nexus and review it. First, they make sure they are not compromising the mission, vision and core values. They understand that this is the foundation of all that gets done. It is the non-negotiable elements of the organization.

Second, they review the strategic plan. Tactical action can at times be so consuming that we forget where we are going and why. The strategic plan offers direction and metrics to measure progress. These are vital to overall success of the company.

During these interesting times, make sure you are routinely checking your company’s strategic nexus. It will provide on-going clarity and focus. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 19, 2018

Support Creates Resilience

At the bottom of the trough of chaos, people struggle. They are working hard, trying to stay focused and hoping that they are making progress. Day after day old problems come back and new problems present themselves. People can be come pretty burned out by all of it, and start to wonder if trying so hard is really worth it. They question the goals, the strategy, the company and, sometimes, even themselves. The trough of chaos can have a high price.

But when I visit with leaders and their teams, veterans of living through multiple troughs of chaos, I learn one simple and powerful lesson. They have worked hard to support each other through thick and thin. This is not a one time thing, but something that has gradually been built over time. Common language and a common understanding about mission help. Being trustworthy with each other, and building team level trust has taken place because they have defined acceptable group norms and behaviors in alignment with organizational core values. They also have developed a shared mindset, knowledge, experiences, and common identity amongst themselves. 

And they haven’t done the above once and moved on to other things, they have done it over and over. They do it whether they are in the trough of chaos or not in the trough of chaos. They have done it when old team members have left and they have done it when new people have joined their team. By supporting each other in this manner, they have created resilience and perspective, which is a powerful combination when working through the trough of chaos in interesting times.

This week, reflect first on whether or not your team role models a healthy level of support for each other. Next, figure out if you can define the team’s shared mindset. If you can not do this, then it is time to build it. And finally, reflect on whether or not your team celebrates the achievement of short term wins at a collective level or an individual level. With this information in mind, sit down with your team and discuss your findings. It could be the turning point for a whole new level of focus and outcomes in your organization.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 12, 2018

Making Progress is Powerful

We were seated in the Board room when she looked up from her notes and said, “Now that is an interesting perspective. You’ve got me thinking. So, planned short term wins really make a difference?”

“Yes, they do,” I replied. “When people know they are making progress on a daily basis and can measure it within a reasonable time frame, this creates forward momentum. When they achieve a planned short term win, e.g. hitting a number on a predetermined date, this deepens their commitment and creates confidence in the team and in the goal.”

“I have seen this with kids in school,” she continued. “When a students sets a stretch goal and can achieve a particular score or mastery along the way, they have more commitment to keep learning the new material.”

“Exactly. And employees need the same thing. The critics will say some thing can not be done, but those who are achieving consistent short term wins can point to the progress they are making. They can connect effort with desired outcomes.”

“So why are people in leadership positions not developing more planned short term wins every day?”

“I don’t think that it has occurred to them,” I responded. “In the eyes of many leaders, a goal is binary, namely done or not done. There is nothing but the two extremes. However exceptional leaders, particularly ones who are living and working in interesting times and working through an extended trough of chaos, recognize that working on a goal in the midst of difficult times often is an exercise in frustration and constant interruptions. But by setting smaller goals or short term wins, referencing the work of John Kotter, people realize that step by step they are moving forward, and making a difference. It takes time to create planned short term wins, but it is worth the effort.”

This, week map out the short term wins you want to achieve in 2018. Share them with others and then collectively start working on making them happen. Over time and with patience, you will emerge from the trough of chaos with a better team and a better organization.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257