The Calm before the Storm

Merry Christmas!

During the next 12 days – most of us will be relaxing with family and friends; finishing up those few last minute tasks and doing a bit of clean-up up before January hits with full force.

If your business life is controlled by government regulations – you know that January is typically filled with a host of deadlines and government reporting.  If you are in finance – there are the calendar year reports, W-2s, 1099 Forms, and various quarterly/annual filings.  If you are in environmental – the list is very long.  Safety – there are injury and working hour statistics.  So you know that come January 2 – your “work” life doesn’t slowly come back – it is like hitting the accelerator pedal and it seems to get stuck.

So as leaders – we have to prepare to handle this avalanche of information, reports, tasks, and new year demands  – while at the same time help our colleagues, co-workers, subordinates, and families adjust.  What can we do?

You will find a host of articles discussing the usual – stress busting, get some quality sleep, break down the tasks into smaller action items, etc.  Everything you have heard before.  Some you have already built into your normal routines.  So you are thinking it is time for something different.  (Remember the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome.)

So here are some thoughts that might set you on a different track and increase productivity while helping you balance all of the demands:

1) Ditch the massive daily “to do” list – focus on accomplishing three to four key tasks per day.  I keep a master “to do” list with due dates and sub-tasks.  This master list is reviewed and  updated frequently.  But, my daily “to do” list is written out each evening as I close my day – with only three or four key items.  The makes you set priorities and allows time for interruptions.  It helps to focus. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to accomplish anything on a daily basis – and your “to do” list just seems to grow.  The shorter more focused list – allows you to make progress.

2) Take time for personal growth – even if it is only taking the time to read an inspirational quote.  Even this brief moment provides a bit of a recharge – particularly when you are stressed.  I have found that some quotes or messages seem to come at just the instant you need them.

3) Working longer does not necessarily accomplish anything.  While sometimes this cannot be avoided – you need to be aware that breaks are necessary.  When you are tired, stressed, etc. errors increase and you may find that you have increased your work load rather than improving your situation.  Take breaks or do a different task that  does not require the same mental effort.  For example:  you may do some of that filing or clearing of emails at the end of the day – rather than reviewing the production numbers.

4) Don’t try to implement all your new resolutions at once.  Work on one new habit at a time.  This allows the habit to take shape and mature.  Once it is a habit, it works for you and you can reap the benefits.

When you walk into the office on that day after your holiday vacation take a deep breath, focus and set off to have a wonderful 2014.

‘Tis the Season

December is a time of transition, chaos, stress, etc.  For some businesses – it means year end closings, annual reviews, paperwork, summaries, and goal setting.  For many educational institutions – it means finals, short terms and preparation for the spring session.  For families – it means holidays, family reunions, celebrations, etc.  In general your home life, work life and personal life takes on a surreal appearance.  Time is compressed or expanded to fit the particular situation and you really begin to feel like you live in a different dimension.

This of course results in irritability, stress, competition, forgetfulness, frustration, and maybe a little joy and wonder.  It is a difficult balancing act.  And, this of course doesn’t even figure in the political correctness police.  So, as a leader just how do you handle the various priorities and demands?

My first tip is – don’t wait to the last minute.  If you find yourself in this predicament this year.  Make it a top priority for next year or one of your New Year Resolutions, to not have a year-end pile up.  If you know that the accounts for the year have to be closed on Dec. 31 – start working on getting things lined up in October.  If year-end performance reviews are due in December, think about putting in check-in times throughout the year so these are short and unsurprising meetings.  Set timelines to get the year-end reports started early, so you only have to add in the last few numbers in December.  Make your year-end deadline Thanksgiving, so all you have to do is a bit of clean-up and you can have December to begin to focus on January instead.

OK – it is too late for that – what else can you do?

  • Be understanding – Most everyone is in a similar situation as you are.  Take the time to be polite, smile, and provide a word of encouragement.  Sometimes that is all that is necessary to make a person feel better.
  • Use your favorite stress buster – Go for a walk, enjoy the sights, take a deep breath.  I am sure that you have a stress buster that is your go to.  Use it – getting flustered only makes matters worse.
  • Do something nice for someone else – Studies are finding that this may be more beneficial than we know.  Even just helping someone pick up items that were dropped or pushing the button to the elevator when their hands are full helps both you and the person being helped.  It may be just the pick-me/you up that is needed.
  • Keep your sense of humor – Look for the irony, or humor in the situation.  You may even be able to laugh at yourself.
  • Use words like “please”, “thank you”, and “your welcome”. Manners count.
  • Get some rest.

Leadership begins with yourself.  You will be amazed at how these little things may change the entire atmosphere of your office, home or store.

And Winter is suddenly upon us…

Most of the U.S. is about to be gripped by winter weather throwing us headlong into the winter season, whether we like it or not.  These weather changes force most of us to change our normal routines, and may even have greater impacts like canceling events, trips, and completing specific tasks.  Yes, Mother Nature sometimes has to come out and announce that we aren’t always in charge.

 

For leaders, we can use this as a learning experience – finding leadership principals in a place where you least expect them and maybe even provide you with an opportunity to practice some new and/or rusty skills.  For example:

–          Adaptation – I once had a colleague that said they would never hire a person who did not at least play a video game at some point.  His reasoning was – that you can plan for several possibilities, but the game usually results in an unanticipated or an unexpected change that forces you to adapt.  Winter weather forces us to adapt to changing conditions, availability of resources, and sometimes how we have to accomplish the task. (How are you going to get that project done, if the network is down? Or, you can’t physically make it to the meeting in Chicago?)  As leaders we all have to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.  So, use this time to practice a bit – do you have a Plan B or C or D?

–          Reflection – When you are stuck in the airport due to a flight delay – how do you use that time?  Or, all of a sudden you don’t have to take that trip or go to that meeting – how do you fill the void?  You might take this time to do a bit of reflection.  As leaders, we need to build in time to our schedules to reflect on how things are going. What resources could have been better used?  Do you have the right tools?  Use these unexpected down times – to start practicing the art of reflection.

–          Listening – In the din of all the noise, preparation, and chaos of the season – there are times when the office is empty or you are walking to the car and snow has created a hush.  You might reach into your toolkit and really start listening to the important things.  Because of the noise you may have to really focus – thus you are practicing listening in the extreme.  Similarly when you get the extreme quiet – you need to focus on the individual sounds – again practicing listening at the opposite extreme.  Use this time to sharpen that underutilized skill.

I am sure you can find some other leadership skill opportunities – networking at holiday parties, practicing patience, and renewing a sense of excitement and wonder.  Take this opportunity to look for ways to improve your skills, while dealing with the challenges that life places in front of you.

Enjoy this time – it is a time of awakening and growth.

 

How do you handle …..?

As leaders, mentors, and sponsors; we are all faced with difficult situations.  Sometimes they are situations you are prepared and trained for like an accident, bomb threat, or process upset.  There are other situations where you aren’t or can’t even imagine how you could be prepared.  Examples of these catastrophic situations are the tsunami in Japan, the major typhoon in the Philippine’s. The emergency plans only went so far in these examples.  However for each of us, sometimes the unthinkable happens on a smaller scale – your boss is arrested for drug dealing or something worse, a colleague falsifies data which you have relied on for your grant or project proposal, your salesman promises that the production plant will meet the quality specification that will require violation of permit conditions, etc.

We all have a blind spot where we think that none of this can ever happen to me.  Yet, everyday there is the chance that this can happen to you.  In my personal history my greatest fear was being on the six o’clock news with an environmental incident.  Luckily for me, I had been planning for such an event, i.e. how would I handle the worst thing that could happen? Recently, this same type of thinking was presented in an anecdote by Canadian Astronaut Chris Hatfield.

Chris Hatfield was working with some individuals when they learned that Elton John was coming to their area.  They decided that they could use his fame as a International Space Station commander to meet Elton John.  He related this story – what was the worst thing that could happen?  Elton John would met them and learn that he plays guitar and had played David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” on the space station, and would ask him to come up on stage and play something with him.  The likely candidate song would be “Rocket Man”.  So, he went home and learned the song.  Ultimately, he was prepared when just such a scenario played out.

While most of us would never think of Chris Hatfield’s situation as the worst thing that could happen, it does illustrate how we as leaders can prepare.  In my case, I had media training, and knew what I would be up against both internally within the company and externally with the reporters and the regulatory agencies.  No I did not have a specific plan ahead of time, but I knew how to buy those precious minutes that allowed us to pull a team together and develop a plan.

It is how we have prepared, even if it is not for the specific event, and how we “act” that defines us as leaders.  I have put act in quotes because there are many situations where we may have the best plans, and training but fail to act that gets us into trouble.  This is generally referred to as analysis paralysis or there are so many contingency plans – we don’t know which one to use.

So, these are my personal tips for preparing for the worst:

1) Define your worst.  What is the worst thing that can happen?  Some things are not under your control, but do you have an action plan for your worst?  You might also ask you what is keeping you awake at night?  This may help you define your worst.

2) What resources are at your disposal if the worst should happen?  If your worst is that your house may burn down in a wildfire – where would you go?  Who would you contact?  What insurance is in place? How would you communicate with family?  The list could go on.  From a professional level, what would you do if your company went bankrupt? What is your plan B?

3) What training do you have that you can utilize if the worst should happen?  In my case, it was media training.  In someone else’s, it may be logistics or counseling.  If you don’t have the skills currently, you might consider working on them or making sure that you have someone or some reference that you can access in the event of  worst happening.

4) What is your moral compass?  Let’s look at the worst being someone has falsified data or made a false reporting to a regulatory agency or maybe you are being asked to do something you feel is unethical or dishonest.  What are you going to do?  How are you going to balance the request with your personal values.  From my personal history, I found it to be quite liberating when I knew that I could find employment somewhere else if needed, e.g. I might be laid off, or I was fired.  I knew that I had a Plan B and could implement it.  Granted – I may have to make some significant changes in my lifestyle but I knew I would be alright.  Each individual has to assess this situation personally and discuss it with your life partner if necessary, but you need to know where your line is drawn.

5) Know your support system.  This is different than the resource item above as this relates to you as a leader.  No matter which path you take during that situation; someone is likely to second guess or point out your errors.  Even if history evaluates it as the most “perfect” of ways to respond, there will always be the advantage of hindsight and having more information than you had at the time.  You will have to act based on the information that you have at that point in time and based on your best analysis of the situation.  Because of this, there is and will be an emotional toll on you as a leader.  You will need to have someone to discuss your feelings, and be a sounding board.  You will need this personal support.

As we deal with events sometimes difficult and sometimes catastrophic, each of us has to make what we feel are the right decisions at the time.  Mistakes are likely to be made and hopefully there will be an opportunity to address those mistakes or that the mistakes don’t make the situation worse.  We have to assess and act based upon that assessment.  And, we have to evaluate our personal skills as well as those around us.  These five tips are not a “silver bullet” but they can help you to prepare and build up your personal emergency  response kit .

Leadership and Life Lessons in the most unlikely places

A posting that I read today reminded me of unusual places where I have learned life lessons.  Over time I have had some interesting “mentors” in the form of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, the Who’s from Horton hears a Who, Ursula from the Little Mermaid, Wylie E. Coyote, and I could continue.

Think about it – you probably have floating around in your head little snippets of sage advice from a movie, a meme, cartoon, a little kid, or a sign in the grocery store.  These little snippets at times are more profound than volumes of Leadership or Self-Help books.  Another good read about life lessons is from Robert Fulghum – “All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten.”

The posting today was about a broken iPhone that helped the author think about being prepared not only for the next iPhone – but for her career.  I have found over time – that if we are willing to look at the humor of a situation or even just step back and consider the overall lesson – one can find great insight.

For example:  in my own personal life there have been serendipitous events that have resulted in finding the proper direction – i.e. the choice between engineering and fundamental science.  Chance meetings where ideas are planted and opportunities to share expand beyond initial comprehension. Real life demonstrations of flexibility and balance during presentations (the time when my children rearranged my slides on a talk about work/life balance).

I am sure that each person can point to events where looking back the event was simple – but the result profound.  The spark of insight helped to develop the course of your life.  These events need to be celebrated and recognized.

Today’s Leadership Insights

As previously mentioned, finding your own personal leadership style requires some self-discovery.  Julie Bawden Davis – posted a blog a couple of days ago titled “What the best leaders know about themselves.” https://www.openforum.com/articles/what-the-best-leaders-understand-about-themselves/?extlink=of-syndication-sb-p

In this blog – she captures some of the fundamental questions that you need to know about yourself.  The interesting thing is – while these things are something that impact our actions – we may not have formally articulated them in our own minds, or in words – be it oral or written in a journal. 

If a friend or interviewer were to ask you – “What energizes you about your work?” – Could you immediately come up with an articulate coherent answer?  Do you have your elevator speech ready for this one?  

If you wrote the answer down today – would it change as you thought about it over the next week?  I would suggest that you try it and see what happens.  Of course as we grow and hit different stages of life – there will be some modification to how we answer each of these questions – but fundamentally there is a sense of what drives you personally.  How you approach the world – your fundamental self.

We need to nurture and understand that fundamental self.  We need to feed it.  We need to allow it to grow and expand.  We need to know what hurts or kills it.  This type of exercise helps you focus on those things. 

Leadership is Dynamic and Takes Practice

Each day – we need a little pep talk.  Whether we just say to ourselves – here is the plan for the day.  Or we read a motivational quote, or read a short article.  We need that bit of refresher.  One of my leadership courses – called it recharging.  But, everyone needs a bit of focus on nurturing our inner voice.

Here are a couple of quick pep talks for today!

http://www.scottcochrane.com/index.php/2013/10/21/how-leaders-know-when-to-be-an-optimist-realist-or-pessimist/

https://www.openforum.com/articles/boston-red-sox-john-farrell-business-leadership/?extlink=of-syndication-sb-p

http://leadchangegroup.com/lessons-learned-from-messy-leadership/

Welcome to Leadership in Practice

Just when you think you have a handle on things in your career – wham!  something happens and you have to adapt.  Yet, the skills that you develop over your career – whether you are just beginning, have 25 years, or even 50 years – will help you make what ever change is necessary.

These necessary skills aren’t taught in the classroom in the traditional sense.  These skills are taught one-on-one through mentoring relationships and practice in various settings.  You have probably found that there are safe places to practice these skills – within the family, informal groups, and volunteer organizations – and not so safe places – within the workplace.  These skills are related to your leadership acumen.

Every one has some level of “leadership” skill.  Yet leadership is made up of a number of skills that combined define your personal leadership style, success, and comfort.  There are multiple smaller individual skills such as networking, communication, technical knowledge, understanding personality types, reading of body language, etc. Developing these individual skills refine your personal leadership style.  And, continued development and practice are essential to your career advancement and personal growth – and ultimately your definition of success.

Over the past 25 years, I have been collecting leadership articles, tips, and tools of the trade.  There is a great deal of research and experience that goes along with much of this information.  This research has been done by experts such as the Gallup Organization, and other Leadership Institutes.  There are scholarly articles in the business literature like the Harvard Business Review.  Leadership advice can be found in children’s literature, movies, and even the daily newspaper.

But, what I have found is that leadership is developed and communicated through mentoring relationships, practice, and a sense of self.  Through out my career, I have tried to communicate elements of ways to enhance your leadership skills as well as the fundamental “nuggets” or “essentials” that are needed to help you in your personal career path.

Hopefully, this blog – will help to communicate these lessons and provide links to useful material.  There will be humor, frustrations, and mishaps shared.  But, the idea is to present leadership as not as a concept but as something you do everyday.  Hopefully, it will help you refine your personal style and let you learn from the experience of others.