Drama as a Strategy

Human beings are interesting creatures. It seems that when we have all or most of our needs met we’re the least productive. We become complacent with low energy levels, producing just enough to maintain the status quo. We’re capable of staying in that state for long periods as long as nothing challenges our stable course. When it does, we kick into gear with the energy to get back on course like a satellite in an unending orbit. Our best work, energy and innovation come not during the best of times but during the most difficult. Naturally, what applies to individuals applies to companies.

This concept is well understood by behavioral scientists. Our systems are wired to keep us just like we know ourselves to be. If we fall below our expectations we’ll find the energy and creativity to get back to normal, but not beyond. To move beyond what we’ve come to expect, we have to create a goal that has a level of passion and desire worthy of putting in the energy to achieve. In companies, without a compelling challenge, employees will start putting personal desires ahead of the group’s goals. This toxic combination of complacency and selfishness can only be overcome when a greater need overwhelms their personal agenda.

When group performance is the issue, leaders often respond with training, but seldom is capability the issue. No matter how good the training is, it’s useless until attitudes and behaviors change. Most of the problems you’re experiencing are behavioral and not skill based.

Crisis creates drama and drama drives action. I don’t mean the drama that exists around the water cooler but rather the drama we experience when our world is rocked and in some cases turned upside down. All too often this happens on its own but when it doesn’t and performance is lagging, leaders may need to create it to snap the group out of its lethargy. In many situations it’s beneficial to have an external problem to move forward and there’s seldom a shortage of real threats that can and should be responded to before they come ashore.

Great leaders constantly drive passion through stories. Stories are filled with drama and create an opportunity to align everyone around a common cause. They have the ability to weave together a vision, mission, values and strategy. Done right they’ll create the emotional grease to focus everyone on a unified cause that subordinates personal agendas. With the right story and passion, people will put themselves at risk, if necessary, to secure the group goal.

Managers often fail to sufficiently inspire people in the face of a challenge. Motivational speeches that don’t address the gravity of the situation leave employees complacent about the real threat. They respond like individuals who think they can ride out a hurricane only to become causalities of the storm because they underestimated the risk. People generally want more. They want the truth no matter how harsh it might be. A frank discussion of the potential risks engenders trust.

The problem is that many people confuse busyness and activity with a real sense of urgency. We can be engaged in a flurry of activities, few of which though are central to the organization’s success. Anxiety and fear will also produce action, but not necessarily productivity and sometimes can even create harmful activity. All this action can be exhausting for employees with little real change being accomplished in the business. Behind every attitude driving us forward is a rational business case aimed at the heart. Good initiatives fail when it’s all head and no heart.

Harvard professor and author, John Kotter in his book “A Sense of Urgency”, offers five key characteristics for business strategy aimed at the heart.

  1. Communicating the goal or need should create a human experience. Consider the when, where, how and why of the communication for impact.
  2. People should not only hear but see it in their mind’s eye. Visualization is important. They’re not only told, but should also experience and feel it.
  3. The delivery should be designed to create specific emotional reactions. Told the wrong way creates anxiety and fear. Told the right way creates inspiration, passion and efficacy.
  4. The detail is rarely needed to create movement. A call to arms is built around an emotion of patriotism, not the cold specifics of the situation and strategy.
  5. Lastly, the experience inevitably leads people to raise their expectations, to emotionally embrace goals beyond coping and maintaining.

Ultimately, it’s the drama, the difference between a meaningful aspiration our emotions long for and what we have that creates the need to move toward it. So, the next time you feel your organization is stuck in a dangerous malaise of complacency, thoughtfully consider how the right drama can unite and energize the group for action.

If you think your company’s performance might benefit from a little shot of drama, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Inspiring the Vision

There’s a story I like to tell to communicate the value of having a clear and articulated vision in a company. I ask my audience to imagine they’re in a contest to complete a jigsaw puzzle. There are two teams, A and B, and three rounds to the contest.

In the first round, Team A is given the puzzle pieces and the correct cover. Team B is given the same puzzle pieces but the cover to another puzzle. The audience is asked to guess which team will complete the puzzle first. Team A is the chosen winner. In the second round, Team A is given the correct cover and Team B is given no cover at all. Again the audience identifies Team A as the fastest to complete the puzzle. Finally, in the third round, Team A again gets the correct cover and each member of Team B receives a different cover. Again, Team A is predicted to be the fastest. Then I ask the audience, which version of the puzzle game most closely resembles their company. Invariably, the common response is the third; everyone has a different cover to the puzzle.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common situation. Strategies fail or struggle because companies either don’t develop a compelling vision of what they aim to accomplish, or they fail to properly communicate the vision in a clear and consistent manner insuring that everyone is pulling together for the same outcome.

Employees by nature want to engage to make a difference. But it’s hard to experience intrinsic motivation when they don’t know where they’re going and how their effort contributes to a bigger purpose, the completion of the correct puzzle. Not only is the energy and motivation reduced, energy is being dissipated in different directions much like puzzle players arguing over the pieces they believe are part of their cover.

There are three important steps to having an organization embrace and pursue the leader’s vision.

  1. Clarify the vision – some leaders don’t know themselves what their picture actually looks like. Nothing extraordinary ever happened without a leader articulating a simple and clear vision. Neil Armstrong would never have made space history in 1969 had John F. Kennedy not planted into the mind of every American the vision of a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  The vision was so memorable that those of us who grew up at that time still recall it today. What vision of your organization will your employees remember long after they’re gone?
  1. Make it compelling – No one has ever thrown themselves into a vision of growing sales by 10 percent or cutting expenses. That’s not a vision; it’s a goal or outcome. It’s also not inspiring unless there’s a personal connection for the individual. For someone to get behind your vision it has to become their vision. Employees will pour themselves into a compelling opportunity not because they have to, but because they want to. When they do they are following the leader for their own desire to participate in the vision. Rationing in the US during World War II was a major inconvenience for our country but companies and individuals alike willingly sacrificed in ways almost unimaginable today in their contribution to the war effort. What about your vision would move your employees to sacrifice for your cause as Americans did during the war?
  1. Repeat the story often – Once, or even a few times, is never enough. Repetition matters in a big way. Hearing something occasionally reinforces with the follower that they’re hearing the leader’s vision. But hearing it often will eventually make it their vision. When it becomes their vision everything they do will be aimed at achieving it. To do that, employees need to hear it often, in different situations and from different individuals. When they start telling your story as if it were their story, you’re on your way to achieving your vision.

Make the story big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” These are the words of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (205). While his purpose was nefarious and destructive, the basic principle applies equally well to organizations seeking to fulfill their vision. A vision that benefits everyone is one most people can aspire to and support.  The process is simple but success rests in the execution.

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A Strategy of Character

In life there are people of good character you feel comfortable being around and others whom you feel less comfortable with. The same is true for companies. A company’s character and culture is rooted in its internalized values. When employees perceive the company as being of good character, there tends to be a positive attitude and culture in the company. Harvard Business Review conducted interviews with 4,700 customers and the employees of 63 businesses to measure the relationship between how a company’s character is perceived and the company’s overall success.  The results were interesting.

What they discovered was that companies are more likely to be growing if employees’ opinions of the company were better than the customers’ opinions. Similarly, sales were more likely to be falling if customers thought better of the company than its employees did. Their conclusion was that if companies invest in improving their employees’ views of their corporate character, those positive attitudes will rub off and boost customers’ opinions of the company and that will drive growth. In other words, if we take care of our employees, our employees will take care of our customer and when that happens, our customers will take care of the shareholders.

The question then is, if your company came to life as a human, what would be the attributes of its character? The list could be lengthy, but I’ve identified a few that when seen through the eyes of employees should provide a solid foundation of good internal character leading to positive customer outcomes.

  1. To be agreeable, even when not agreeing.

There is a difference between being agreeable and agreeing with someone. We can disagree with someone and still be sensitive to the needs of others. We should stand up for what’s right but avoid nitpicking and correcting the small things. Very few people are 100% wrong or right. Communication should not be a battle to win. When we do, we miss the opportunity to learn from another point of view and deepen our relationships with others.

  1. To be empathetic.

The ability to see a situation through someone else’s eyes is a valuable skill. It is one of the most important skills of a leader. Empathy is critical to leadership because it builds trust and without trust you’re not leading people, you’re managing them.

  1. To be amicable in our disagreements.

Disagreements have a way of bringing out the worst in us. But when we’re amicable we make the choice to respond with a friendly, peaceable disposition and goodwill even when others would expect us to be unfriendly. Notwithstanding our own justification of the situation, it is our desire to act with kindness toward others.

  1. To be humble.

Humility is rooted in an attitude that the leader is as human as those they lead.  It says “I may not have the answer or know what to do in every situation, but by working together we’ll have the best opportunity to succeed.” A leader’s expression of humility makes them real to others around them.

  1. To be forgiving without lowering expectations.

High performance is enabled with a forgiving heart. I know how hopeless it can feel when we believe we’re being held to a standard of perfection. Good is never good enough. Holding others to that standard even with the best of intentions will eventually demoralize them. Forgiveness acknowledges the performance issue and then makes clear that it’s our goal to see the individual succeed with our full support and encouragement.

  1. To show gratitude.

When circumstances are heading in the wrong direction it can seem hard to see what’s going right, but something always is. This is a good time to be grateful. Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation and thankfulness despite our circumstances. It puts situations into perspective and when we can see the good in the bad, it becomes more difficult to complain and stay stuck in the negative.

  1. To be resilient.

The ability to bounce back from life’s downturns is a powerful tool for success. Even successful companies experience setbacks or problems, but they see them as temporary. Sometimes the best ideas emerge from our toughest situations. The sense of a community working together to solve a problem is a powerful thing. We are stronger together than we are alone, no matter what the obstacle. Resiliency is the quality that enables a team to bounce back from setbacks and adversity.

  1. To be optimistic.

Optimism is an attitude that expects circumstances will eventually work out for the good. An attitude of optimism can also positively affect mental and physical health. It is the fuel of resiliency. Optimism is a critical component to any team reaching its goals.

 So remember, none of us are perfect. People disappoint us and we are certain to disappoint others. This list does not necessarily guarantee success or harmony, but on the journey to success, character building through the pursuit of positive human virtues like those above, can make it a more rewarding experience for your employees, your customers and ultimately you.

If you’d like to strengthen the character of your organization, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Empathy – A Leader’s Greatest Gift

It’s the planning season for many companies. Hours will be spent evaluating past performance, strategies and market opportunities all for the purpose of creating an exciting and profitable future. Often that picture is one of success. A picture you’ve gotten so close to achieving, but which always seems to slip away sometime during the year. You tell yourself next year will be different. Plans will be detailed. Budgets will be prepared and presentations will be made in the hope that everyone will be dedicated to the work ahead.  So much depends on the enthusiastic commitment of all hands on deck to get there. Unfortunately, as we’ve often seen, we fall short of the level of support we need to achieve our goals. What’s missing?

I believe that support and engagement comes more from our employee’s response to leadership than it does from the vision and plans themselves. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” When it comes to running a company, you can try to communicate and engage all you want and you’ll get the smiles and nods you expect. But people will go back to doing their jobs as they always have until they know you truly care, and when they do, they’ll do just about anything to support you. One trait that communicates to others that you care is sincere empathy.

Empathy is a word we hear a lot, but you might be uncertain of its meaning. Empathy is often confused with sympathy. It does not mean you have to agree with how someone is feeling or can even relate to those feelings. Instead, empathy involves being aware of how someone might feel even when you can’t sympathize with them. If you can appreciate what another person is going through, even without agreeing, you’re displaying empathy. Empathy is critical to leadership because it builds trust and without trust you’re not leading people, you’re managing them.

Listening is certainly part of empathic leadership, but listening with empathy goes beyond the words. It involves trying to understand the other person and the emotion and feelings behind their words. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see it. Rather, it means you’re willing to try to see it through their eyes.  Empathic leadership is also non-judgmental. When we take the time to understand the needs of our people, we provide them with the support and safety they require to deal with the challenges or issues that might be holding them back from achieving their, and our goals.

Empathic leadership is also central to our being. Humans are by nature wired for sociability and attachment to others. We are driven to connect and care for those we interact with. You only need to turn on the television and hear about a natural disaster to feel the emotion and urgency to help others.

There are several things that happen when people know their leaders care about them:

  • Empathy allows people to feel safe in their short-comings and instills a sense of personal responsibility
  • It creates the basis for higher expectations and the safety net required for people to reach for riskier goals
  • It encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind poor performance and creates credibility, understanding and cooperation for difficult performance conversations
  • Empathy allows leaders to build and develop deeper relationships with those they lead.

If your employees don’t feel they’re cared about by their leaders, they will always feel they have to look out for their own interests. On the other hand, with an empathic leader, the employee knows that their feelings won’t be overlooked or ignored. Like children, they may not always get their way and may even have to suffer the consequences of their choices and actions, but they never doubt that their leader cares about them and has their best interest in mind.

When it comes to the keys for successful leadership, empathy is not often mentioned. However, I think it’s one of those common sense human nature concepts that applies to everything we do. So, as you plan that exciting year ahead, ask yourself: “How do your people know you truly care about them? How does your culture and leadership style reinforce it?” If you’re serious about next year being the one that doesn’t get away, learn how it feels to walk in other people’s shoes.

If you’d like to discuss how you can become a more empathic leader, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Leadership Lessons From My Dog

If you have a pet you know they can claim a special place in your heart. A few weeks ago my wife and I experienced a loss in our family when after seventeen years, our little wiener dog, Gretchen, passed away. If you’ve grown close to a pet you know the hole that can leave in your heart.

Gretchen had a good life but it didn’t start out that way. We rescued her at age three from a breeder. After being a breeding mom, her usefulness was over. She lacked social skills and was the runt of the litter. When we discovered her, she was the only dog left to be adopted. She had been rejected by every other buyer, but we took her in. Despite her broken early life she blossomed into the most wonderful loving dog we could have hoped for. I realized that her story could be the story of many people I’ve been asked to lead in my career. But did I have the same compassion and patience with them that I had with her, or would I pass them by too?

As I processed her loss I thought of the many lessons and virtues she modeled for me. I began to think about how much we as leaders can learn from our loyal companions.  Without speaking a word she modeled lessons for us every day, lessons that could make our work environments and our worlds a better place if we’d just follow her examples. Here are a few she taught me that I’ll always remember.

Forgiveness – We mouth the words forgive and forget. But how often do we live it. Gretchen truly forgot. Her attitude toward us wasn’t based on past experiences. She knew how I felt about her and framed her response based on my potential, not my occasional failures. What she taught me was not to harbor grudges, but to lead individuals based on their potential, not just their past behavior. The only way to build deep and enduring relationships is to forgive and then forget.

Attitude of appreciation – While Gretchen’s desire was to always be with us, we left her most days as we headed off to work. Gretchen could have let us know how disappointed she was with us leaving her each day, but she didn’t. When we returned home, instead of displaying her displeasure, she celebrated our return with enthusiasm and an attitude of gratitude. How often, when we don’t get our way in business, do we find it in us to celebrate what we can of the situation?  Or do we complain to the boss or our coworkers? Maintaining the right attitude about our circumstances can make work and life a more positive experience for everyone.

Resilience – Gretchen came to us with a chip on her shoulder. Because of her upbringing she was distrustful of us and behaved badly in the beginning. But despite her shortcomings, we didn’t give up on her.  With coaching and nurturing she was able to overcome her negative behavior and gave up her victim mentality. Many people come into our lives and work groups who’ve had tough beginnings. Their personal lives or work experiences may have been one of hurt, loss, abandonment or abuse. It’s only natural that they would rebel and distrust. The easy path would be to give up on them, to fire fast and move on. But often, the toughest people can blossom into great individuals with the right coaching and nurturing. Certainly, don’t lower your standards and don’t ignore poor behavior, but sometimes we’ve got to step into the problem and invest ourselves in the “replaceables” to find the gems.

Gretchen was happiest when we were happy. She thrived on the attention and appreciation we gave her. She could feel that we really cared about her. In any work environment the highest principle is that it’s all about the people. If your people are purposefully engaged and believe you truly care about them they will do great things for you. They will walk through glass for you. I firmly believe that the more sincere appreciation you show, the harder people will work and the more loyal they will be.

As I worked through my loss, a friend sent me this note: “It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them, and every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” Great lessons to lead by. Great lessons to live by.

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