Here’s How I Intend to Make You Feel

For the longest time I was blinded by my own good intentions.

I’d focus too much on what I’d meant others to feel and see, asking them to carry the weight of any miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation. They should be open to honest feedback, and not caught up in the specifics of how the message was delivered. They must know that we all value their hard work, never mind that it wasn’t as well-received as they’d hoped in that big meeting. And certainly they are filling in the blanks just the way I’d expect, even though we’ve not been in touch for a few weeks or months.

Well no, actually.

Good intentions are nice enough. They are certainly better than bad intentions. But, to quote that old saw, all you need is good intentions and a token (OK, a Metrocard swipe) to get a ride on the NYC subway.

The skill of leadership is the skill of mobilizing others to action. This starts with consistently, intentionally, and skillfully translating our right intentions to everyone else’s right experience.

If our message doesn’t land in the right way for different people – people who process information differently, people who show up differently, people who have different relationships to power and autonomy and to themselves – then that’s on us.

Shoveling

“Is this what it was like to live in Colonial times?” my 11-year old daughter asks, golden firelight flickering off her face in our living room on Wednesday night.

The power was out in our house and in our neighborhood, thanks to the late winter storm weighing down trees under layers of ice and wet, heavy snow.

I’d just arrived after my own three-hour saga from New York City – 20 miles away – thanks to a tree that hit and immobilized my train, stopping all service in both directions for the night.

We had a few flashlights, the kids were reading by candlelight, I was finally warming up, and my wife says, “Shoveling. We have to shovel, or it will freeze by morning. Let’s do it now.”

Never mind the exhaustion of the journey home, the temperature dropping in our house, eating by flashlight, or all that important worrying we had to do. Let’s shovel.

And she was right.

We trudge out into six inches of wet, nasty, heavy snow, do an hours’ worth of work, and it’s taken care of.

The only reason we did the tough, ugly job that needed to be done? Because she said “now.”

Sometimes we just need someone to speak that kind of truth, cut through it all and say “this, right now. This is the most important thing for us to do.”

Maybe that someone is you.

Maybe the time to put something hard and important at the top of the list is now.

Your team will follow. Even if it’s not, technically, “your team.”

What does the Hippo think?

I was in a meeting recently with a successful startup CEO who was sharing how he runs his teams for best results. He finished by by saying, “…and that way we make sure we don’t end up with ‘hippo’ decisions.”

And I thought, “Heavy decisions?” “Decisions that are big and more dangerous than they appear?”

No, “hippo” decisions are actually HIPPO decisions, ones in which the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion rules the day.

There are entire organizations and cultures built around HIPPO decision-making. You’ve worked at these sorts of places–maybe you do right now. In these cultures, in meeting after meeting everyone is holding their collective breath waiting for the HIPPO to speak. Or, whole conversations happen and ultimately the HIPPO tells everyone what she thinks of the conversation and tells us all what we’ll do next.

Some anti-HIPPO resources that might be useful: the original HBR article on Adaptive Leadership and the great +Acumen course that will help you learn and apply the concepts. A powerful book by General Stanley McChrystal on Teams of Teams.

The funny thing about HIPPO cultures is that they let everyone off the hook: you’d think the non-HIPPOS might feel frustrated that their voice isn’t being heard, but often it’s a relief to have someone else decide, to know that you’re just pitching in some thoughts and that someone else will be on the line.

(And to all you HIPPOs out there, while it’s possible that you’re consistently the smartest, most experienced, wisest person in the room in general, what are the chances that you’re the smartest, most experienced, wisest about all things all of the time?)

Lest we forget forget…hippos are the most dangerous animal on the Savannah.

Dyads

Criticizing or complementing?

Doubting or encouraging?

Analyzing or cheerleading?

Creating tension or diffusing tension?

Being easily influenced or holding firm?

Setting high expectations or letting it slide?

Driving to closure or being generative?

Adjusting based on others’ input or trusting our inner truth?

Demanding excellence at every moment or giving ourselves a break?

Stepping up or raising others up?

Laughing or crying?

The big con of school and of many jobs is the unspoken message that the way this works is: you learn a bunch of stuff—facts, figures, techniques, skills—and then you’re “good at your job.”

And then one day you open a new door and discover that the art of leadership isn’t about those kinds of skills. It is about how we can deploy, navigate and manage between and around these sorts of “ORs.”

We do this by becoming skillful at seemingly opposable dyads, so skillful that we can weave them together in unlikely ways.

We do this by fully embracing opposable attitudes, behaviors and orientations.

We do this by becoming nimble and flexible, while remaining clear and strong.

We do this, mostly, by showing up differently for different people in different situations, while also living a set of core truths, behaviors, and values.

No wonder(ing)

During my first proper summer internship, working in Washington DC, some colleagues and I got into a friendly argument over lunch about whether pinball was a game of skill.

To resolve this heated debate, we agreed that the “ayes” would have it if and only if we could prove, by the end of the working day, that there was such a thing as pinball competitions or tournaments.

“By the end of the working day.” Can you imagine such a thing? That it might be hard to get this sort of answer in five hours?

But it was the early 1990s, so we dutifully thumbed through the yellow pages, called up pinball shops, and eventually tracked down the answer (yes, with apologies to the taxpayers for our wasted time).

Today this would never happen. Being able “to Google” anything instantly means all knowledge is at our fingertips. Which feels like an unabashedly good thing until we discover that we’re letting our brains off the hook: our memories are actually getting worse.

Plus, kids who have grown up with devices in their hands exhibit shallower information-processing. It’s not surprising. Even around something as trivial as an argument about pinball, we had to do more than state our opinions and look up who was right: we had to imagine the steps we would take to solve the problem, and then walk down that path. Even for an argument about pinball, meta-cognition (thinking about how we would think about the answer) was a required behavior.

In terms of practicing the skills that ladder up to leadership, today’s instant-information world is losing the daily tension of not-knowing. We spend less time holding and exploring two equally-plausible outcomes. We have fewer genuine moments of “I wonder.”

Instant gratification is indeed gratifying, but let’s be careful not to forget what it feels like not to know. Let’s not atrophy our “how would I figure this out” muscle in a world in which it’s gotten so easy to figure out the easy stuff, yet the hard stuff looms as big and as complex as ever.

I’m not the best

Compared to everyone around me, I’m not the best thinker, writer, speaker, leader, organizer, coach, or blogger.

I’m not the best risk-taker, strategist, fundraiser, relationship manager, pipeline-generator, or closer.

Nor am I the best author, researcher, public speaker, project manager, course designer, facilitator, data analyzer, financial planner, business modeler, lean startup doer, creator, thinker, researcher or innovator.

The good news is, it is not my job to be the best.

My job, first and foremost, is to care the most.

Then I have to turn that caring into a willingness to put myself on the line.

Then I need to translate that into fierce dedication to follow-through, relentless commitment to outcomes, ongoing openness to learning, and strong orientation to partnership. I must be able to see where I know enough already, where I can learn things I need to learn, and where others will be better placed than I am to take parts of the work forward.

Someone else is always going to be better than I am, smarter, more experienced, or more capable in some way.

But my decisions about what I will do, what role I choose to play, what steps I will take next, where I choose to take the reins – these will never get out of the gate if they go through a “best at” filter.

The three things you do best

I’d finish introducing myself, I’d explained what Acumen did—mission, vision, strategy, successes.

The person across from me is focused, intense, and attentive. He nods. He looks me straight in the eye, and says, “That’s great. So tell me, what are the three things you do better than anyone, the three things you do best?”

What a great question.

Not “what do you do?” or “what do you do well?”  Not “what motivates you” or “what keeps you up at night?”

Cut through it all and tell me what your organization does better than any other.

You can imagine telescoping this question to multiple levels: your entire organization, your team, your freelance offering, you as a professional.

What are the three things you do best?

You need to know this if you’re going to write a mission statement, or a website, or an annual report.

You need to know it if you’re drafting your budget for next year or your five-year plan.

You can even imagine structuring an open 360 team review this way: get your team together, ask each person to describe what they think are the three things they do best, and ask each other member of the team to answer that question about everyone else, discuss.

On whatever level you choose to answer, it’s a cut-through-the-fat way to explain who you are, what you do, where you shine, and, most important of all, the promises you always keep.

What are the three things you do best?

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Note: one of the three things I do NOT do best (or at all) is figuring out how/whether to migrate my Feedblitz RSS feed to Feedburner, and simultaneously deciding if it’s high time to migrate this blog from WordPress.com to WordPress.org. If you (or someone you know) does either of these things best, could you email me to let me know? I could use some unbiased advice, especially since FeedBlitz has taken down its migration guide.

 

What to Make of the Wizard of Oz

We all know by now that there was really no wizard, even if he did keep Oz in thrall for quite a while. He was just a man behind a curtain with a bunch of gadgets, some flame-throwers, and a microphone.

Yet, in the last scene of The Wizard of Oz, he does, indeed, perform some magic.

The scene begins with Scarecrow demanding, “But what about the heart that you promised Tin Man, and the courage you promised Cowardly Lion?!” The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion then chime in, in unison, “and Scarecrow’s brain!”

Without missing a beat, the Wizard proceeds to produce three totems: a diploma conferring an honorary degree of ThD (Doctor of Thinkology) for the Scarecrow from the ‘Universitatus Commitiatum E Pluribus Unum;” a Triple Cross medal from the “Legion of Courage” for the Cowardly Lion; and a heart-shaped clock for the Tin Man.

Upon receiving his piece of paper, the Scarecrow recites the Pythagorean Theorem from memory. Upon being pinned with his medal, the Lion, miraculously, feels brave. The Tin Man’s ticking heart makes him believe in his capacity to love.

What happened in that moment of official conferral in which an object and a story from a “wizard” made them each believe in something that was within them all along?

More confusing still, what do we make of the Wizard who gave them trinkets that transformed the stories they told themselves about themselves, and which, therefore, transformed how they showed up in the world?  Is he a pure charlatan or, as he claims, “a very good man, just a very bad wizard.”

And, before we get too far down the path of asking whether placeboes really work, let’s remind ourselves that every degree or fellowship or job title is nothing more or less than conferring of an official title and set of expectations, and these things are no more or less real than Scarecrow’s fake degree.

Sure, some of these things – degrees from prestigious schools, time spent working at blue chip firms – do communicate that we’ve gone through rigorous selection criteria, been exposed to certain curricula or training, been socialized in a particular way, and jumped through other sorts of hoops. But it is far too easy to get lulled into the belief that each rung up the ladder of life requires us to be picked by someone else. While it’s true that each prestigious marker that we collect opens certain doors, it’s a siren’s song to be tricked into believing that it is someone else’s job to decide when you are worth praise, recognition, and the right to lead.

I’ve known too many amazing people in the social sector who need “just one more” degree, fellowship, or job in a fancy mainstream firm, after which they’ll finally have everything they need to make the difference they hope to make in the world.

The truth is that the opportunities for you to lead are too many and too urgent, the gatekeepers often don’t know what to look for, and what makes the most difference is that terrifying moment when you realize that the important stuff doesn’t come after you get your next medal, piece of paper or ticking heart: it’s already there inside of you.

A place to practice

The only way to improve performance is through a consistent practice of self-diagnosis, reassessment, and behavior change.

The prerequisites are the belief that we have the capacity to change and grow, and the realization that we have not yet reached our full potential.

This work is sustained by trusted allies who are willing and able to give us astute feedback.

It is steeled by our willingness to hear these allies’ truths, even when they feel like criticism.

And, as we hear these truths, and as we see ourselves and our behaviors more clearly, we must, ever so slowly, start acting differently.

But where to act differently? How to act differently? How does this process actually work?

Part of the answer is within the intentional groups we are part of, ones in which we commit to supporting one another’s growth as leaders. For example, both the Acumen Fellows programs and +Acumen courses are run in groups. We have found, like many before us, the tremendous power of cohorts who embark on a shared journey. A skillful facilitator coupled with a group that is willing to invest in a process of group formation can create a holding environment that can be transformative.

The more obvious tools in this process are the bonds of friendship and trust built in these cohorts. Sometimes these groups also evolve into places where open and honest feedback becomes the norm. Most useful, but often hardest to achieve, is for members to use a cohort as a testing ground for new leadership behaviors.

Cohort groups (or, indeed, any group doing intentional work together) are fertile ground for thoughtful, deliberate experimentation of new behaviors. If trust exists, if recrimination is unlikely, and if you’re willing to be a bit brave, you can (like at summer camp) show up in a new way in any of these cohort groups.

What does this look like? It’s as simple as this: if you’re someone more comfortable jumping to solutions, you can choose to spend your time with the group listening more deeply. If you’re averse to conflict you make the choice to step into the fray. If you like to raise your hands first you can see what happens when you give more space to others. If you’re someone who’s afraid to offend you can work on freely speaking your mind. You start as simply as this, and build from there.

It can help to think of the group as a practice ground, a place to break a new leadership behavior into its component parts and try it on for size. Just as a swimmer would never adjust her stroke at an Olympic qualifying meet, and a tennis player wouldn’t mess with the toss on his serve in the first round of a major tournament, we cannot expect ourselves to be suddenly bolder and more truthful when our salary, or our job, is on the line. Nor should we try to have our first courageous conversation when our bosses’ boss in in from abroad for one day.

Instead, we can jerkily try new leadership moves on for size in our cohort group, putting aside our natural desire for approval, or status, or recognition, or safety in service of learning behaviors we ultimately want to utilize successfully with our teams, our Boards, our business partners, or our bosses.

This is not easy to do. We tend to walk the deep trenches carved by the patterns of our own behaviors, hemming ourselves in with the expectations we’ve created in ourselves and in others about how we are going to act.

The peer groups we are already part of, or that we choose to create, are the best place to start breaking out of these old ruts

They

They didn’t listen.

They didn’t understand.

They are too set in their ways.

They are too persuaded by that one person.

They don’t trust me enough.

They don’t share my vision.

They don’t know what I know.

They aren’t willing to go out on a limb with me.

Yes, it’s possible that the world would be a better place if everyone just listened to you and did what you thought was best. Each and every time. Forever.

Or it’s possible that you’re ready to step up to a different yardstick, one in which you set aside excuses and start trafficking in results.

Because those you aim to serve don’t care who’s to blame, they care about what you are able to do, about what your organization provides to them and whether it makes a real difference in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start asking “I” questions: how could I have been more persuasive, more engaging, more understanding, or more supportive? How could I have partnered better, listened more deeply, made it safer to take that risk, told a better story, gone above and beyond a bit more? What am I not willing to do, what beliefs and values and stories am I not willing to let go of, in service of our work?

Oh, and lest we forget, to everyone else, each of us is just another “they.”