How to Not Burn Out in the Weeds

In the Weeds

The weeds are no place for a leader. We get lost and burnt out in the weeds, we all know this. But the weeds often feel taller than us, so we literally can’t see out of them. And if we get our heads above them for a moment all we see is more weeds like an endless prairie all the way to the horizon.

To see the big picture, for ourselves and for our team, we need to be able to raise our gaze above the weeds. But to do that we need some good weed cutters.

Every successful leader has their own collection of weed cutters. Here’s one of mine. It may seem too simple, but simple has great power.

I wear a hematite bracelet with a clasp made of two small magnets that hold the ends together around my wrist. The bracelet is a little tight, and I fidget with it repeatedly through the day.

Sometimes when I fidget with it the magnetic clasp separates for a moment and then snaps back together, catching a small fold of my skin between the two ends. Suddenly, in the midst of that momentary physical sensation, the weeds vanish. I stop and admire the bracelet, which I like a lot, and for that moment there’s just me and the bracelet, nothing else. No weeds.

When I look up from the bracelet I have two choices: let the weeds rise around me again, or take a breath and raise my gaze before the weeds have the chance to raise themselves.

It takes discipline to make the second choice. The weeds are strangely attractive, even comforting in a perverse sort of way. But if I raise my gaze instead, I often see that I’ve been working very hard and very effectively on the wrong thing. Or I suddenly have an experience like in the shower of seeing the answer to a problem. Or I feel the weight of worry fall away for a moment.

In that moment of open space, I can see clearly. And I can choose to stay in that open space for a while, to look at the big picture, to see the things the leader needs to see.

But without the weed cutter, I wouldn’t have given myself the chance to look.

A leader needs someone whispering in their ear all day, “Look up. Look up. Look up.” Seeing the big picture isn’t just a corporate retreat or strategic planning exercise. It’s a moment by moment discipline throughout the day, and it’s fractal. We need to see the big picture of this hour, this meeting, this report, as well as of the next quarter. So we need moment by moment reminders to get out of the weeds and look.

I have no one to whisper in my ear, but I have my bracelet. What have you got?

Sense perceptions like the pinch of the bracelet are excellent, and we all have sense perceptions already. But we usually see them as distractions. Instead, we can let them be small weed cutters that give us a moment to raise our gaze.

A loud noise, the sound of our heels as we walk, the feel of a chair when we sit down, all have the power to cut through our mental weediness and bring our mind into focus. Extending that moment with a deep breath or a good stretch is powerfully refreshing.

Our sense perceptions are also very real. They are a contrast to the shifting hopes and fears that wrap themselves around our plans, our problem-solving, our deadline-meeting, our whole forest of weeds we live in. This is why sensations can be so powerfully reassuring.

And sense perceptions connect us with our big, simple human experience. They are a momentary gateway to the bigger, unencumbered state of mind that is free of all the weeds.

Then we can decide which weeds, if any, really deserve our attention.

As a CEO I’ve worked with, at a private equity fund, says, “Few leaders effectively manage their own effectiveness. The two key things are having greater awareness to see more options, and greater insight into which option is the right one. When I’m just in reactive mode, responding to the stimulus of the moment, I don’t have the space to see as many options and can’t judge them as clearly. That’s a problem I need to avoid.”

For more weed-cutter techniques, see Claustrophobia and Space

Don’t Get Buy-In, It’s a Myth

The Myth of Buy-In

If you’re trying to get “buy-in,” you’ve already missed your chance to get genuine acceptance and engagement for whatever you’re trying to do.

That’s because when you’re in “buy-in” mode, you’re selling something. But you’ve only got one thing to sell, it can’t possibly fit everybody, the costs and features are completely inflexible, and the “buyers” don’t really have a choice.

It’s really more like getting people to pay taxes. No matter how great and real are the benefits our tax dollars bring us, no one gets excited about paying taxes.

Leadership isn’t a sales job. In fact as a leader, you’re the one who should be buying. Buying the best ideas from your people at all levels. Buying the best customer service ideas from the people who spend their days on the phones with customers. Buying the best production ideas from the people who spend their days with their hands on the product. When people see their own ideas “bought” and promoted, you can’t get any better acceptance and engagement than that.

Southwest Airlines didn’t get its reputation as an iconic customer service company by getting its customer service people to buy in to a set of rules and procedures sold to them from above. The Southwest Airlines leadership let their customer service people do whatever they think is best to satisfy the individual customer they’re dealing with at any given moment. The leadership has bought in to the experience, the wisdom, the inter-personal-relations savvy of the people who do the job every day.

As James Conklin wrote recently in the Globe and Mail Business section,

“In a complex and fast-moving organization, the change leader’s role is often not about coming up with all of the answers and then figuring out how to persuade staff to go along with the change. Instead, it’s about creating opportunities to have conversations about worthwhile improvements. When you do this, some surprising and unintended consequences may surface that only a front-line professional could anticipate.”

The Zen sword masters say, “If you have to draw your sword, you’ve already lost the battle.” This isn’t because you’re going to lose the sword fight. It’s because the victorious leader knows how to work with a situation in advance to make battle unnecessary.

If you need people to buy-in to something, you’ve already lost the battle.

Read the whole Globe and Mail article by James Conklin.

What’s Generous Leadership Really? Not More Benefits

What's Needed?

Executives sometimes tell me, “I can’t afford to be any more generous than I already am. Benefits, pensions, perks, it’s huge. You want me to give even more? In today’s economy?”

No. That’s not what generous leadership means.

Generous leadership gives people what they need to thrive at work.

But generosity is also about what not to give. Not giving people what they don’t need, obstacles that hold them back from thriving, that’s just as important. Real generosity depends on knowing what’s needed and what’s not needed.

For example, an executive coaching client of mine is Director of Business Process and IT at Canada’s largest independent travel agency. He had been holding all-team meetings every two weeks where everyone reviewed what they were doing, what they needed help with, and he set direction for the next two weeks. These meetings gave collective clarity, support, guidance and accountability. Generous, right?

Except that the meetings weren’t what was really needed. They were just what the director’s predecessor had done. The meetings were too long, and sometimes focused on one issue that didn’t affect everyone, so they weren’t a good use of people’s time. People tended to report to the director, rather than discuss issues among themselves. The meetings were also too far apart to address the needs that came up between them. The meetings weren’t keeping the team in close enough contact with the director or with each other. Things fell through the cracks, and redundant or counter-productive work got done by different people who didn’t know what each other were doing.

Our coaching work involved an extensive inquiry into what the IT team thought was working and what wasn’t. As a result, the director scrapped the meetings, and instituted a daily morning “stand-up” for 15 minutes. The IT team literally stands up for the meeting, which helps keep it short. Everyone in turn gets a couple of minutes to say what they did yesterday, what they’re doing today, what problems they’re hitting. They can ask for or offer help, but those conversations happen after the standup, because they don’t involve everyone. People don’t report to the director, they report to each other. The director listens, and offers what he needs to, but isn’t directing the conversation.

This is what’s needed for this group. Everyone is aware of the whole team’s work every day, so no more redundant or counterproductive efforts, no more falling through the cracks. No one is bored because the problems that don’t involve them are being solved during the stand up itself. And everyone gets an informal chance to check in with each other, so they all feel more connected, more friendly and mutually supportive.

The director wasn’t suddenly pouring out great new generous gifts. His generosity was in taking the time to ask his team what they needed, and what they didn’t need, so they could thrive in their work. In a sense, by scrapping the bigger meetings he was giving them less. But less of what they didn’t need.

The three practices of generous leadership are generosity, curiosity, and less velocity. To be truly generous we have to be curious enough to find out what’s needed and what’s not. To practice that curiosity, we have to slow down enough to make time to ask, to explore, to reflect.


The Leadership of Learning

I'm curious

We usually accept that teaching others can be a generous thing to do. Being willing to learn from others can also be generous, and a powerful way to engage the best in them.

What do your team or your colleagues know that you don’t? Have you made an effort to find out? Are you helping to create a culture of curiosity and mutual support in which people expect to learn from each other up and across the organizational chart as well as down?

If you’re leading a team, it may feel a bit unsettling to encourage people who report to you to show that they know more than you do, but of course they do. We’re not omniscient. An excellent way to bring out the best in people is to ask them to teach or explain something, even in small ways through the day. Then make the effort to actually learn it and make use of it.

The point is not to make conversation or single out people with little “relationship” tricks. The point is to train yourself in the habit of learning from your team. It helps to ask about things you have some natural interest in, but you can also find ways of being genuinely interested in what each person can offer. You might be surprised at what you can learn, and from whom. Everyone has something to teach, though it may be submerged. You can create conditions for them to discover it and offer it. That’s what makes learning a leadership practice of generosity.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “learning organizations.” What that really means is organizations with a culture of curiosity and mutual support where everyone practices learning from each other in little ways every day. Then when the “organization” needs to learn, the people in it are already good at it, and know how to engage the full spectrum of their abilities, together.

Here are a couple of ideas. What works for you?

Curiosity practice – If you’re not naturally inclined to seek out what you can learn from your team and your colleagues, you can start with safe territory. For instance, if your child is doing a history project, ask people when they’re settling down to a meeting whether anyone knows about that historical period. Ask them a question your child is addressing, and let everyone hear the answer. Share the answer with your child, and report back what they say. Or if you’ve heard that one of your team members speaks another language, ask them to teach you some phrases. Actually learn the phrases, accept coaching on pronunciation, and play with those phrases when you see that person again. The possibilities for learning are many. You can be as creative as you like.

It matters less what you learn, and more that you are open to learning from everyone.

Putting-to-use practice – The more immediately practical kind of learning is the kind that directly benefits the team’s efforts. Do you have lunch and learn sessions where people can present or report to their colleagues on relevant topics in which they have particular expertise? If you do, set the example of asking questions, being careful not to sound as if you’re testing them. Is there something in the tactical plan you’re not clear on? Who can explain it? Let them explain it to you when others can hear too. In any situation, try to notice opportunities for people to show what they know in a useful way, and then help their teaching to emerge.


Finding Allies at Work

We can all use any allies we can get, right?. Work is challenging, and having to do everything alone, feeling that we have to make it all happen, this is exhausting. How can we find more allies to support our goals at work?

One way is to broaden our idea of what can be an ally. Not who, but what. With some thoughtful attention, we can make use of the situation around us as an ally to accomplish our goals for us.

For example, if we need to confront a difficult situation with people, we want everyone to come to the meeting with an open, flexible state of mind. The meeting room itself can be our ally in this.

Here’s how it works. If we walk into a room full of little gilt chairs with white cloth covers tied over their backs, or into a room with leather swivel chairs around a gleaming table, or into a room of stacking plastic chairs, we feel different in each room as soon as we walk in. The chairs alone have the ability to influence our state of mind. When we want to influence people’s state of mind, we can create conditions in the environment that can accomplish this goal for us. We miss an opportunity if we ignore the chairs.

Here’s a famous story.

Nelson Mandela needed to make peace with General Viljoen, an Afrikaner who led the militant white resistance to change in South Africa. After some work through intermediaries, the general was willing to meet and talk. He expected this meeting to be with himself and his allies on one side of a conference table, Mandela and his allies on the other, with a lot of intense disagreement and animosity, possibly leading to some concessions on one side or another.

Instead, Mandela invited the general to his own house. They sat near each other in comfortable chairs in Mandela’s living room, and Mandela himself served the general tea. Their human allies, who would in fact have been antagonists, waited in another room. By the end of the meeting the general had agreed to stop fighting.

Of course it wasn’t just the living room chairs. Nelson Mandela had an extraordinarily powerful personality and great skill with people. But he was also known for his skill at gathering all the allies he could. The conference table would have been a further antagonist in the conversation, another barrier between them to be overcome. The comfy chairs, where the two men could sit together, were a disarming pacifier that allowed the general to feel, in his whole being, the sensation of peace, even before any negotiation began.

Or this one?Of course, the most disarming and pacifying room in the world would not have worked if the general had walked in and said, “I’m not meeting here. I’m not one of your neighbors over for an afternoon chat.” Mandela knew whom he was dealing with. He knew that protecting family and home life were the main concerns of both whites and blacks, and he used this to advantage by meeting in his own home, where the chairs could be his allies.

Who are you dealing with? Is your board room your ally in your encounter with them, or does the gleaming table become another barrier between you? What kind of chairs will be your allies in helping everyone adopt an open, flexible attitude? What kind of room? If you think you don’t have time to go down the street to hold the meeting at the local pub, how much time will the pub save you by changing everyone’s state of mind for you?

We have more allies than we think, if we take time to consider what, not just who, they are.

May 2015 be a year of health, openness and flexibility for us all.


Would you please help me for a short, one click moment?

For 2015 I’m refining the basic marketing language for what I do. Please tell me if the descriptions below make you want to say, “I need that. Tell me more.” Your intuition about this question will be a really big help to me in seeing how to grow my business.

Just click the number of your choice below. (If you want to choose more than one, just come back to this email after the first.)

Choice 1 – “I work with leaders to achieve two essential goals: Better performance and deeper commitment for your people, and greater mastery of your own personal practice of leadership.”

Choice 2 – “I help executives and influencers change people’s attitude, because attitude changes everything.”

Choice 3 – “I help leaders lead their people, and themselves, to bring their personal best to work.”

Choice 4 – None of the above really make we want to say, “Tell me more.”

How to Make the Mark that Matters

How can you un-encumber your day from all the marks that other people are trying to make on it, and make your own mark instead, the mark that matters? Here’s a short video blog, and if you want some practical ways to make space in your day for the mark that matters, there’s a free pdf download.

Download simple practices you can do at work.

The Secret to Expressing Your Opinion as a Leader

Too Big an OpinionWe’ve all experienced a discussion that’s supposed to be open-ended and elicit the real opinions of the team, but where everyone shuts up as soon as the boss expresses their own opinion

This is a hard trap for a boss to get out of. A truly safe team environment, where people are comfortable expressing contrary ideas, is the epitome of the high-functioning team. But it’s also a hard environment to create.

Here’s an example of how one of my coaching clients used the right kind of language to let his opinion as boss be part of the mix, without letting it dominate. This is based on the Deep Democracy work of Myrna Lewis, and it’s a technique that works as well for a team member as for the boss.

The discussion was about what to do together as an office at Christmas. The boss thought everyone would exchange Secret Santa gifts and have lunch together as they had in past years. But one man told about his friend in another office where everyone gave a donation to a charity they chose together, instead of spending money on themselves. He felt that was more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

The boss didn’t agree with that idea. He supported charities that he had a strong emotional connection with. His gift-giving felt like a personal matter that he didn’t want made part of an office discussion. He was confident that some others in the team felt the same, and he thought he had a duty to let any objections be expressed.

But how to get those objections heard? He knew if he just baldly stated his negative opinion that would shut the idea down just because he’s the boss. He also felt that others in the group might be uncomfortable publicly going against the moral implication of the “spirit of Christmas.”

So this is what he said:

“I’m personally of two minds about what to do. I can see the power of all of us getting behind a good cause together at this time of year, and sharing our generosity. That feels good. I also have a bit of a question about how my charitable giving and my work go together, because charity is something really personal for me. Does anyone else feel a little of those two sides?”

A couple of people did. They spoke also about wanting to keep their donations separate from work. The discussion continued without the ED saying anything more, and it became obvious that, while the giving idea had appeal, most of the team preferred to continue to do what they’d done in past years

This approach worked because it’s always true that if one person in a group has a thought about something, someone else in the group has the same thought. Even when something seems unanimous, some aspect of the contrary thought will be present in more than one person.

So as a leader we can afford to hold back from heavy handed opinions because some part of our opinion is always held by at least one other person. If we can open the door for that person to speak, we can foster a genuine conversation in a way that might be stymied if we expressed the opinion ourselves

In this case the ED opened that door with a light touch, not by asserting his opinion, but by expressing uncertainty about the two sides. This put both sides of the question on the table without weighting either one. Then his question, “Does anyone else …?” got the discussion going on an unbiased basis, and the real opinions of the team came out.

Anyone can do this, boss or not. When we’re afraid to go against what seems to be the favoured idea, we can open the door to a fuller discussion by acknowledging the potential of the favoured idea, and adding, “and I have a question about …,” or “and I’m wondering about this aspect …,” or “and part of me feels uncertain about …,” or some other light touch suggestion of an alternative view. By then asking, “I wonder if anyone else has any of that concern?” we open the door.

If the goal is a truly open discussion, the leader’s job is to open all the doors that need to be opened, but in a way that doesn’t kick people through any one of them.

The Mirror-Like World

The world in the morningGood morning everyone!

The child is born, the candles are lit, the days grow longer again. The celebrations are soon over, and it’s time to enjoy ourselves.

At sea, the sun rises from the edge of the world and the ship’s crew rises with it. We scrub the decks and polish the brass before breakfast. When the ship is clean and shiny, she becomes a worthy mirror for the new day, a mirror that reflects back to us the best we each have to offer.

In the city, my cooking pot is clean and bright, and my oatmeal bowl is patterned in blue. There is a chip in the rim, which fits my thumb nicely, and brings a moment of sharpness and attention when I touch it.

In  the dojo, the Aikido master Wendy Palmer works with her Japanese teacher to bring the fullness of herself to her training. Her teacher cries out to her, “I want to see your NOBLE. I want to see your AWESOME. I want to see your SHINY.”

BrightOur noble awesome shiny is with us always, of course. But when it’s hard to find, the world can be our mirror. Polishing our brass, cleaning our pot, touching the sharpness of real things, whatever we do to make the world bright and vivid makes life mirror-like. The mirror commands us, and the command is, “See this noble awesome shiny. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourSELF.”

When this command is hard to give, the mirror-like world can give it for us.

I wish you all a new year full of your most noble awesome shiny.

The Mirror-Like World as New Year’s Ally

The vivid world

Good morning everyone!

The child is born, the candles are lit, the days grow longer again. The celebrations are soon over, and it’s time to enjoy ourselves.

At sea, the sun rises from the edge of the world and the ship’s crew rises with it. We scrub the decks and polish the brass before breakfast. When the ship is clean and shiny, she becomes a worthy mirror for the new day, a mirror that reflects back to us the best we each have to offer.

In the city, my cooking pot is clean and bright, and my oatmeal bowl is patterned in blue. There is a chip in the rim, which fits my thumb nicely, and brings a moment of sharpness and attention when I touch it.

In  the dojo, the Aikido master Wendy Palmer works with her Japanese teacher to bring the fullness of herself to her training. Her teacher cries out to her, “I want to see your NOBLE. I want to see your AWESOME. I want to see your SHINY.”

Shinning the mirrorOur noble awesome shiny is with us always, of course. But when it’s hard to find, the world can be our mirror. Polishing our brass, cleaning our pot, touching the sharpness of real things, whatever we do to make the world bright and vivid makes life mirror-like. The mirror commands us, and the command is, “See this noble awesome shiny. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourSELF.”

When this command is hard to give, the mirror-like world can give it for us.

I wish you all a new year full of your most noble awesome shiny.

How To Get People To Do Things

The Conversation Roadmap

Here’s part of a conversation roadmap for talking with people about what they need to accomplish. The idea of the “roadmap” is that if you make yourself familiar ahead of time with the conversational territory you might encounter, then you won’t get lost no matter what direction the conversation takes.

The roadmap technique gives you structure for planning what kinds of things to say and not say, what the other person might say, and map out your responses. How do you steer back to the main road from any detours or dead ends, and how do you not throw up roadblocks or take people down the wrong road yourself?

For starters, don’t say, “Here’s what I need you to do.” We don’t motivate people with our needs. We motivate people with their needs.

We should have already taken the trouble to know what motivates each individual we work with, with questions like, “What gives you the greatest motivation here?”

Then we might say, “Here’s another chance to do the kind of work you did on your last (report, design, whatever). I’m confident you can do as good a job or better on this.”

Or maybe it’s, “Here’s something where I think you can really shine, step beyond how people see you now and show everyone what you’ve got.”

Whatever way we find to start, the next key question, after explaining the task, is this: “What do you think?”

It’s an open-ended invitation, and we have to say it with genuine curiosity. Then we follow their lead. We express interest in their view of the way forward, discuss the steps they suggest taking, share their concerns. The conversation is about them, their views, and so on. Many roads can lead to the same destination. Which one is best for them?

Along the way we don’t give directions. We ask questions. “What do you think Joe’s reaction to that will be?” “Do you see a way we can make those resources available?” “How will this fit with your other deadline on project Y?” And so on.

Ideally we’ll have anticipated their concerns and are ready with the right questions for any issue they don’t raise themselves. Our questions can allow the person to give themselves the directions we might have been tempted to give them ourselves. People listen to themselves much better than they listen to us.

If something is still clearly missing and we have to tell them, we don’t say, “Here’s what you need to understand,” or “Here’s what you’re missing.” That subtly emphasizes their inability rather than their ability. It’s a roadblock to their self-direction.

We say, “Here’s what I experienced in a similar situation.” Or, “Here’s something you might look into.” Something that has a tone of colleagues sharing information.

We also don’t say, “I’m here to support you. Come to me for any help you need.” That effectively takes responsibility and ownership away from them. We don’t offer them an “open door” that invites them to interrupt us with a question whenever they don’t want to make a decision.

Instead we might say, “I know you have the experience, the judgment, and the tenacity to do this. All I ask is that we check in together regularly so we can be sure you’re getting all the big picture information from me that you need.” These check-ins are of course the chance to correct the course, assess the competence, expect accountability and so on. But the check-ins start with, “What parts are going well? What are your next steps?” “What’s getting in your way?” We give people the chance to bring up any shortcomings themselves, before we do.

But what about real resistance? What route do we use then?

At the start we said, “What do you think?” We may have to probe here, to invite resistance early. We might even say, “I’m not sure if this is your personal first choice for a project right now.” Or, “I can see that this task might have some downsides for you.” Then we wait, but with a warm, sympathetic attention. We make it safe for people to raise an objection. We’re not laying a trap.

If someone does raise an objection, however small, we say, “Tell me more about that.” If it’s an objection we think others may share, we can ask the group, “Who else feels a little of what Joe’s talking about?”

We let people feel heard. More importantly, we actually hear them. And then we ask, “What would make this work better for you?” People may have surprisingly useful suggestions that will improve the effort significantly.

And finally, when objections remain, we say, “I’m sorry this isn’t exactly how you want it to go. But we have to proceed. What do you need now to go along?” This is a powerful question. It acknowledges resistance, and invites goodwill anyway. And it opens the door for mutual accommodation.

This approach takes time, yes. We may be tempted to say, because we have other fires to fight, “I need this next week and I don’t really care what you think about it. It’s you’re job, get on it.” But that is guaranteed to start yet another fire we’ll just have to put out in the end.

This is an “eyes in, fingers out” approach. and it may make some leaders nervous. But setting things up so we can keep our fingers out saves time in the end. It preempts resistance, and it builds capacity in the people we work with. It builds our own leadership capacity too.

(Questions about resistance used here come from the Deep Democracy work of Myrna Lewis.)

For more roadmaps for difficult conversations, click here.