Tie Your Shoe

A long time ago, I was running a distance race on a college track team when I noticed my shoe was untied. The only reason I became aware of the problem was because my shoe was slipping at the heal and slowing me down. Buried in the middle of the pack, I had to decide whether to “make a pit stop” and tie my shoe or finish the race with the impediment. If I stopped to tie my shoe, I would fall behind. If I fought the slippage, I would have to perform at less than peak ability.  What would you do?

I tied my shoe.

These circumstances resurfaced recently when I listened to the challenges of a business development team that had recently experienced the departure of their charismatic leader to an exciting new role. One of the team’s managers had therefore been promoted to fulfill the succession gap and was doing her old job and her new job simultaneously as she figured out how to wedge recruitment into her overwhelmingly demanding schedule.

There were numerous talented candidates in the queue awaiting call backs in response to their resume submissions. But the intensity of the workload failed to elevate these calls to the top of the triage list. There were simply too many other priorities tugging at the sleeve of the new leader. The anxious candidates began to question the Human Resources etiquette of the organization despite the fact that the leader harbored the very best intentions to elevate recruitment to the top of her to-do list.
We always have the choice between prevention and repair. Our new leader might continue to work two jobs forever as the drain of energy justifies the failure to accomplish anything below the top of the triage list. Or…our new leader might consider a longer term solution by sacrificing some short term traction in exchange for the ability to engage at peak ability.
Tie your shoe.

Organizational Nirvana

Gallup’s recent employee engagement data paints a pessimistic picture of the modern workplace with more than seven out of ten workers either disengaged (“sleepwalking”) or actively disengaged (“toxic”). That leaves a courageous minority of passionate talent who would run through a wall for your organization. Lost in the metrics are the rare organizations that have devoted themselves to a culture of 100% engagement – no sleepwalkers or poison.

 One such team in Chicago’s western suburbs has spent the past two years seeking “organizational nirvana.” Organizational nirvana occurs when every member of the team is physically, emotionally, and intellectually committed to thriving in their role on behalf of the organization’s vision. No exceptions. Of course, the larger the team, the harder it is to achieve 100% engagement. Most organizations are satisfied with a 90/10 or even an 80/20 split. Most workplaces can manage around ten or twenty percent of their talent trying to undermine the mission. This keeps H.R. departments on their toes. 
The airline industry and, less successfully, the healthcare industry seeks zero-error. When mistakes occur, a blend of full disclosure, root cause analysis, and proactive risk reduction gets deployed to lessen the chance of the error being repeated. It is an eternal continuous improvement model. Some organizations apply the same approach to the recruitment, development, and retention of their talent. Only the engaged survive.
These teams exist. This is not a myth or a fantasy. Organizational nirvana happens by deliberate choice cascading from leadership throughout the culture. It’s rooted in aligned vision and realized by accountability. It grows with the energy of innovation and thrives with the resilience of adaptation. If you are in a position to shape such a team, get to work. If you dream of contributing to a team like this, join that leader or ignite your own.

Summer Elixir

The healing powers of summer are providing the annual elixir to teachers and school administrators everywhere. No matter how awful the internal politics of their workplaces last spring, August will usher a renewed sense of hope for the fall return to the classroom. Like a bad case of amnesia, the break will successfully numb these professionals from the unresolved violations of healthy organizational culture that exhausted them a few short months ago.

Schools are great symbols for the cycles of growth occurring in all workplaces. Everyone has the biorhythms of the academic year imprinted in their souls rooted in the first two decades of their lives. Hope springs eternal in the fall as Mother Nature is wrapping up her fiscal year while the world downshifts into neutral in the end of spring and starts planning vacations. Cycles spiral either positively or negatively as we either invest in solving challenges or sanction the continuation of struggle.

The Gallup organization recently published their latest data about dissatisfaction in the workplace illuminating record numbers of disengaged employees wanting to change jobs. This also means the number of passionately engaged employees has shrunk. As one teacher confided last spring, “I will not acknowledge, accept, or embrace the changes that have happened on my team. I am unhappy and all of my energy is going to be spent broadcasting my displeasure until everyone knows how I feel because they now feel the same way.” Unfortunately, this same energy would otherwise be spent on building effective professional learning communities for kids.

Elixirs, by their nature, are panaceas. They cure all ills. They provide remedies for broken relationships and dysfunctional teams. They begin by anchoring an appreciation for difference as a norm. Next, they sponsor respectful conflict so that all voices are managed with dignity. With this as a foundation, they empower ambitious goals and hold everyone accountable for follow-through. Elixirs then promise a better world through exploration, innovation, experimentation, curiosity, and smart risk-taking. Of course, this creates change. Effective elixirs enable teams to manage this change with poise and resilience so that their members can embrace the new circumstances and possibilities that lie ahead.

So, use what remains of your summer wisely. Finish recharging your batteries so you can come into the fall energized and engaged. It’s almost time to evolve the workplace culture to the next level. Will you be ready?

4 Easy Steps to Disable a Team

Breaking the spirit of a team is simple. Here are four easy steps to successfully halt the evolution of any team’s growth.

Step One

Avoid conflict at all costs. It doesn’t feel good and it requires considering other frames of reference. Take the easiest path to reach the goal with the least possible friction. Do not concern yourself with contrary opinions as they only create discomfort and slow the process.

Step Two

Steer away from commitments that require discipline. The real world has too many unforeseen obstacles to expect accountability. Those who are counting on the outcomes you promised will understand when things don’t go as planned. Lower the pressure and take it easy.

Step Three

Stick to what has worked in the past. Stretching limits leads to risk and risks lead to danger. Play it safe. You’re better off letting others make the mistakes and learning from their errors. Pushing innovation causes anxiety and stress inevitably forces change. Change hurts.

Step Four

Broadcast your dissatisfaction with anything that changes. Telegraph displeasure in a way that ensures the world will understand the depth of your pain. Wait as long as you can to begin solving the problem. Focus the majority of your energy on venting and experience the support of your peers when the contagiousness of your expression alters their moods until they become a perfect reflection of yours. Misery loves company.

You’ve done it! You’ve now successfully broken the spirit of your team. You’ve spared yourself the expenditure of investment. You’ve eluded the consequences of trust. You’ve shielded yourself from the fear of innovation. You’ve fended off any expectation to cope with change effectively. Nothing has been ventured. Nothing has been gained. The world stays exactly the same even though time has marched on. Phew!

77 Meetings

Four families. Four cities. Seventy-seven gatherings. Nobody imagined the depth of bond that would unfold when the original commitment to meet three times per year was made over twenty-five years ago. Yet, year after year, without exception, participants rotated from Chicago to Detroit to Cincinnati to Indianapolis to enjoy each new chapter of the group’s evolution.  What began as an assembly of eight young adults grew to three generations of thirty-four people spanning nearly sixty years in age.

Rarely does any team get the luxury of sustained membership over a quarter of a century. Most groups manage a rhythm of turnover commensurate with the nature of their industry. In the interpersonal space, divorce is sufficiently common to compete with the recruitment/retention cycles of any professional organization. Most teams normalize the greetings and departures of ever changing personnel moves. Stability in membership is the exception to the rule.

The multifamily team evolved from a common core. A complex collection of relationships thrive within this nucleus.  Each dyad has an anthology of pleasures and pains defining varying cycles of maturity. Accomplishment is celebrated and tragedy is soothed as the seasons wear on. Investment deepens. Trust is unconditional. Innovation sprouts unexpectedly. Distancing enables perspective and adjustment.

Teams are teams. Whether in the workplace, the neighborhood, or the family home, we are blessed with the richness of human connection.  Allow the magic of longevity to cast its spell on your relationships. Seventy-seven times.

Leading From Behind

In retrospect, the ambitious project was probably a test. The project manager’s boss wondered about his ability to lead from behind. In the past, his creative mind and boundless energy had distanced him from his teammates. Often, his pace and focus prohibited him from hearing feedback or seeing alternate perspectives. The test project would become a tipping point for his career since it could only be accomplished if he was able to empower the leadership of his peers. Not surprisingly, he got off on the wrong foot.

Innovation was his strength. New ideas jumped out of his head and were swiftly modeled for delegation and implementation. In previous projects, he could create chaos and then hand off accountability to those most influenced by the change. The IT guys would handle the technology challenges. Human Resources would sort out the people issues. Marketing would find a way to package and promote the new brand. Operations would design processes to support the new way of doing business. In the meantime, the project manager could dive into his next invention unaware of the fire drill he had ignited.

The test project required collaboration instead of delegation. The only way to move forward was to gather key information from experts. At first, the project manager’s peers were reluctant to play along. Recent history made them wonder who would perform the labor and who would receive the credit. With a deep breath and a dose of courage, one of his peers decided to speak up on behalf of the team. Respectfully, she laid out the evidence of his blind spot. She invited him to consider her frame of reference. Slowly, he lowered his guard and experienced the world through her eyes.

At first, he beat himself up for being oblivious to the impact of his single-minded focus on the people that mattered most to him. While he hadn’t intended to cause them pain, it was now clear that his actions had resulted in their struggle. Beyond taking accountability and offering an apology, all he could do was be different in the future. He asked his brave colleague if she would be willing to monitor his change effort and alert him of any transgressions in his new commitment to collaboration. She readily agreed.

His transformation was subtle but effective. In addition to the successful completion of the project, the buzz around the agency echoed the news of the project manager’s maturation. The project had been completed without chaos or fire drills. Everyone felt included and teammates shared recognition for a job well done. Most importantly, the quality of the outcome reflected the collective contribution of the entire team.

Reshuffling the Deck

She loved the company. The culture was an ideal fit with her natural enthusiasm and free-spirited personality. Autonomy was encouraged and rewarded. Compensation was competitive and there was plenty of room for growth. With a few notable exceptions, the majority of her co-workers shared the same level of engagement with their jobs. For the unhappy few, leaving was the only way to address the daily drain of the micro-managing supervisor whose oppressive behavior, for some reason, had remained below the radar of senior leadership.

As key talent accepted the offers of competitors, routine exit interviews unveiled a theme. Leaving was a difficult but necessary alternative to enduring the undermining effects of stifling management even though this supervisor was an aberration amongst otherwise empowering leadership. Soon, the undercurrent of dissatisfaction captured the attention of someone with decision authority in the organization. A small amount of investigation was all that was needed to diagnose the problem. The supervisor was not a bad human. He just lacked management skills.

Rearranging the organizational chart was relatively easy. Shifting reporting relationships enabled affected employees to be repositioned under a more mature and developed manager. It also permitted the less experienced manager to be placed under the mentorship of a seasoned leader known for her stewardship of the organization’s rich culture. If the young supervisor had the motivation and capacity to learn and grow, the opportunity would be ripe.

Play the hand you’re dealt. Finesse your strong cards, maximize the value of your weak ones, and keep an eye on the discard pile. Sometimes, reshuffling the deck opens some unexpected options.

The Generational Transmission of Wealth

The rising star was humbled by receiving an award named for a former rising star that had forged a legacy in the organization. Who knows, someday an award might be christened in her honor and bestowed upon one of her children’s peers. Succession moves in dynamic cycles as the wealth of knowledge is passed on and new leaders are created.

Hand-crafted recruitment and generous employee development feed sustainability. Starting with a clear understanding of mission and culture, talent is chosen with stewardship for the future. Identify a good fit. Assess strengths and opportunities. Invest resources in growth. Push the expectations to empower advancement. Reward performance and thank mistakes. Celebrate learning and pass the torch.

Succession planning is not complex. It takes a leap of faith that surrounding your rising stars with opportunities will eventually pay organizational dividends. Strong leaders give away their leadership. They dare their peers to improve upon the recipe. They populate their vision with brilliance.

Thousands of Lives

Although they impact thousands of lives, you’re unlikely to meet them face to face. Most of their waking hours are spent developing others who become your most trusted partners. Like your physician, minister, and attorney, your financial adviser is selected with care. The relationship is anchored in trust, accountability, talent, and character. Recently, thirty-six of the nation’s top financial advisers gathered in Milwaukee to strengthen their teams. Each leader represented a team of about twenty specialists whose group owns stewardship over the financial stability of thousands of lives.

With the security of this many families at stake, the price of admission to the two-day team effectiveness assessment and training workshop was courage. Along with a quick look at their strengths, team leaders were required to make a close inspection of their vulnerabilities. For some, a culture of collaboration was being undermined by the failure to appreciate the value of different perspectives. For others, the challenge of innovation was being neutralized by the wish to stay comfortable with common ground and the status quo. For still others, recent personnel changes had stymied their ability to refocus on their new circumstances with poise and resilience.

Vulnerability creates opportunity. Insight empowers action. By the end of the workshop, leaders had digested their assessment results and shared each other’s experience and expertise to forge action plans targeting measurable change in performance. Their interventions will happen quietly behind the scenes. The results will unfold in your living room. When your financial adviser sits down to discuss your family’s long term goals, he or she will be coming from a leader who has made a deliberate investment in supporting the mission, values, and development of his or her team.

One workshop. Two days. Thirty-six leaders. Five-hundred-plus financial services professionals. Thousands of lives.

The Music of Teams

The executive leadership team I coach on Friday mornings doesn’t always see eye-to-eye. Sometimes, a teammate opts out of the discussion when he or she isn’t getting their way. As a coach, I finesse a way to invite them back into the conversation. The musicians who gather in my basement on Friday nights find ways to collaborate without words. It’s a universal language. Sometimes there is harmony and other times there is dissonance. There is always communication. Fridays are full of lessons.

Imagine the outcome if we put musical instruments in the hands of the executive leadership team and equipped the musicians with business priorities. The leadership team might be forced to listen to the subtle dynamics arising from the instruments that didn’t sound like their own. A vocal member of the team might defer to a quieter teammate. A couple of teammates might seek improvisational harmony. Dissonance might get appreciated for the contrast it provides to the eventual resolution.

The musicians might be compelled to identify ambitious goals and the actions needed to achieve them. They might hold themselves and each other accountable for adequate practice and preparation. They would adapt to the expected and unexpected changes in their day with poise and resilience. Anchored in the rhythm and tone of their collaboration, they might be inspired to create something that makes the world a better place.

We live in an orchestra of exchange. If I am able to receive the gift of your creativity, I accept permission to express it in a way that does justice to your generosity. If you are willing to consider the position of my perspective, you are empowered to use it as a platform for your viewpoint. Occasionally we’ll take different parts and sometimes we’ll sing in unison. We can join the chorus or risk a solo. Others will judge the beauty of our music but we’ll be responsible for its creation.

It’s time to get the band back together.