Comparisons: Your Leadership SuperpowerPeople unconsciously compare. As a leader, ask yourself: What comparisons are they making? If you know that, you can influence behavior.
You’re judging me. As you read, you’re evaluating whether what I say is true or false. You’re deciding whether I’m credible. You’re gauging my words against your experience to determine whether or not my advice will work for you.
Your people do the same to you. They judge every word you say and write, and every action you take. It’s constant and unconscious, and it’s hard-coded in their DNA to keep them safe.
And what’s behind it—the comparison—is a leadership superpower, if you know how to use it.
People constantly, actively, and unconsciously compare.
They compare your price to what you charged before, and to what they can get elsewhere. They compare their raise to what they read on Glassdoor. They compare your presentation to what they heard on the grapevine.
These comparative judgements affect behavior. People buy, join, quit, collaborate, adopt, undermine, and make deals based on those comparisons.
As you lead, ask yourself: What are they comparing this to? If you know the answer to that, you can create trust and influence behavior.
Comparisons help us gauge safety.
What’s your reaction to the picture above?
If you have been bitten by a dog, this picture is upsetting. If you love dogs, you might find the picture endearing, knowing that “mouthing” is a sign of attachment. You have compared this picture to your experience and responded based on that.
At Emerson Human Capital, we see it in business as well.
Research shows that the most successful source of new hires is referral. Why? Because the employer compares the candidate to the trusted employee. The candidate compares the company to their friend’s stories. Both the company and the candidate feel safer moving forward.
This is also true for sales. Sales people often look for referrals or “warm leads”—an introduction by a friend. They know that the buyer will assume their experience with the friend will be similar. That makes the sales conversation safe and increases the chances of succeeding.
If you want your team to feel safe, learn what they might be comparing against from their experience, and make sure it’s safe.
Comparisons determine value.
Let’s say you want to buy an airline ticket for your next vacation. You might find a United flight for $1,240. Then you check American. They have flights, but they require layovers. You go back to Google Flights and suddenly see the rates across all the airlines have gone up to $3,950. Now, the original price feels like a bargain. The $1,240 price didn’t change—what changed is the price you’re comparing against.
Reed Hasting, Co-CEO, employed this comparison strategy when he described Netflix’ performance on the July 19, 2022 earnings call.
“Looking at the quarter…we’re executing really well on the content side…we’re talking about losing 1 million instead of losing 2 million.”
Most people want to associate their initiative with something that’s good, to make it feel safe. However, negative comparisons are powerful when you need people to act.
For example, my parents had a beautiful RV they wanted to sell. The dealer so loved it, he kept it at the lot entrance to impress people as they arrived. The camper sat there for over a year. Finally, we asked him if he had another vehicle that was less appealing. He did. So we asked him to park our RV next to it, and price ours slightly lower. The camper sold within three days.
A value comparison is about changing the conversation.
It’s about taking a person from one reference point to another. Academics call this reframing. If you want your people to see value in what you’re doing, compare against something that shows value.
Comparisons help us learn new information.
When we learn something new, we compare it to what we already know. That helps us retain and recall information. When we don’t have a good comparison, we have to create a new category in our mind, which makes information much harder to learn.
Let’s say you plan to visit our office in a month. I tell you the office door code is 3120, but you cannot write it down. You may or may not remember that number. But, if I tell you it’s the Chicago area code with a zero, it’s more likely you will remember it. You have a way to hook the new data to something you already know.
If you want people to remember something important, compare it to or contrast it with something familiar.
Comparisons create expertise.
A novice understands a category. An expert understands differences between similar items within that category. For example, if I ask you to tell me what a fish is, you’ll probably say that it’s something that lives in water, uses gills to breathe, and fins to move. But an expert can identify a muskie from a salmon based on precise characteristics, like the shape of the tail, the color of the skin, the size of the eyes. An expert developed that expertise by learning the differences between fish.
If you want your team to be experts, help them understand precise differences.
Comparisons evoke emotion.
A vivid comparison will make dull data come to life. Let’s say you’re showing a financial report that shows a new business unit with great potential but poor performance. You can show graphs on a PowerPoint slide with arrows pointing up. But you capture imagination if you describe the new business unit as Rich Strike, the 80-to-1 come-from-behind winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The CEO of a food products company recently announced a reorganization. His goal was to normalize the reorganization. This company had multiple flavors of their products, which required them to change the configuration of their manufacturing lines every day. To employees, that was a normal, predictable operation. So, he compared the reorganization to reconfiguring a product line. It made what could feel frightening seem normal.
People don’t change in response to data.
They change—they act differently—in response to how they feel about what you say. Your comparisons are a powerful tool because they impact the emotions that drive behavior.
Leaders create meaning by interpreting events, memorializing history, and describing a compelling future. Events are about meaning, and nothing helps people create meaning like a strategic comparison. To be effective, you need to know what people are conjuring up in their minds, and if necessary, change that reference point. You need the right comparison.
4 Actions Leaders Should Take to Prevent BurnoutStressed employees are simply not strong enough to deliver on organizational goals. Here's what leaders can do to prevent burnout.
If you were to ask a friend or family member how they’re feeling right now, their answer might be, “stressed,” “burnt out,” or “overwhelmed”. That’s what vacation is for, right? Well, two to four weeks of PTO is not enough to relieve the burnout employees are facing.
Just look at the numbers. Employees who say they very often or always experience burnout at work are:
- 63% more likely to take a sick day.
- 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.
- 6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job.4
Clearly, that stress is outpacing PTO’s ability to deal with it. Leaders often recognize this, but don’t know what to do about it.
Burnout Is a Business Problem
According to Webster’s dictionary, burnout is, “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.”1 The primary driver is occupational stress, but it’s not that simple. Other factors often contribute to burnout, including unrealistic work expectations, health issues, family caregiving responsibilities, and the uncertainty of environmental and societal change.
Over time, our “energy bank” that started with a healthy balance becomes overdrawn. We might experience physical and emotional effects like fatigue, attention problems, irritability, anxiety, and depression.
In this state, we can’t show up for work as our best selves.
We become pessimistic, defensive, apathetic, disengaged, and isolated. In fact, the norms of many workplaces keep us from being nipping burnout in the bud by speaking up and seeking help. Stressed employees are simply not strong enough to deliver on organizational goals.
What Leaders Can Do
- Lead. Take an active role in preventing and addressing burnout. Feeling seen and supported by leadership goes a long way.
- Streamline. Help employees work smarter, not harder. Promote reasonable workload management, through teaming, delegation, and flexible goals and metrics.
- Empower. Set clear goals and expectations in collaboration with individual employees. Make sure work expectations consider the risk of burnout. Use an ongoing development process that acknowledges the need to avoid burnout.
- Nurture. Prioritize holistic well-being. Recognize that employees with full, healthy lives perform better. Promoting health and happiness is a great investment in your workforce.
The play is proactive reduction of stress. The goal is a culture of balance that supports sustainably strong performance.
Maintaining MotivationWhat the heck does a road trip have to do with a work project? Surprisingly, they elicit similar thoughts and reactions. Here's what I learned.
What your road trip can teach you about project success.
I recently returned from vacation. My family and I joined many of our fellow Texans in the annual summer escape from the heat and ventured to the mountains of Colorado. Sure, we could have flown, but we decided to take to the road and enjoy the freedom that comes from being in control of the journey. As we drove, the experience started to remind me of a project.
The trip started out early on a Sunday morning. We were full of energy. The SUV was packed, YETIs were filled with coffee, snacks were at the ready, and teenage sons had their phones fully charged. Things were great, until they weren’t. After five hours of driving, with five more to go, my back started to hurt. My teenagers were bickering like eight-year-olds, and everyone was starving. I even heard a few “how much longer?” comments. I started having doubts…was driving the right decision? Images of the Griswold family flashed through my head.
Fast-forward another five hours: after stops for lunch, fuel, and restroom breaks we approached our day-one Texas Panhandle destination. We made it! As we approached the highway hotel and the end of the day’s journey, I felt new energy. Sure, we weren’t in Colorado yet, our stopping point was far from glamorous, and there was more driving the next day, but we all felt a sense of accomplishment.
We hit the road after a quick, mediocre, breakfast buffet at the hotel. The good news: the day 2 trek was only six hours; the bad news: the day 2 trek was six hours. Coming off a below-average night’s sleep in a crowded double queen room filled with road noise, I felt less than spectacular. Why did we do this again?
Fast forward…Traci (my wife) offered to do much of the driving, and I dozed off while listening to music. We made it to our high-elevation destination by mid-afternoon. The mountains were spectacular, the condo was spacious with a great view, and we were walking distance from everything we needed. After a nice walk, a couple drinks, and a casual dinner with the family, all was well. It was worth it! We did it! We were ready to enjoy a week in the mountains. We even felt confident about the drive home at the end of the week.
What the heck does a road trip have to do with a project? Surprisingly, they elicit similar thoughts and reactions. Think about it. How do you feel at the beginning of a project? What about the middle? How does it feel when you hit a milestone or — even better — complete the project?
Most people are highly motivated at the beginning of a project. Sure, there is some nervous energy, but there is energy…natural energy! Leaders and team members are eager to get started and ready to take on whatever comes their way. Project leaders may even organize a kickoff event, complete with team dinner or celebration, to mark the occasion.
Change management practitioners should capitalize on the project beginning and design interventions that create even more “buzz.”
It’s a great time to seek out and engage the Innovators and Early Adopters in the organization. These people will be on board with the change and will build support from within the organization.
The middle is a slog. Middles are the time when people think, “Why did I sign up for this?” Project Managers and Change Managers must engineer wins to keep the team going. Maybe the project is organized in sprints. Sprints create natural milestones that team members rally around. Even better, they are often followed by “sprint retrospective” meetings to discuss what went well and what could be done better in the next sprint. Retrospectives give team members an opportunity to be heard and play a role in what happens next. This is essential to engagement, because people crave a sense of control.
Change Managers work with project managers to identify and create interim goals. We want team members to think “I was successful, and I can be successful again.” Interim goals feel more attainable than project completion. Team members are motivated when milestones or goals are met. They feel a boost.
Organizations should reward people when goals and milestones are met.
For example, “down days” (no meetings allowed), offsite events where the team completes a non-work activity together (e.g., a community service project), or spotlight awards – nominees are acknowledged and thanked by leadership and nominators are entered into a raffle for a prize.
Just as sprinters run a little faster at the end of the race, team members are motivated to push a little harder at the end. Natural energy abounds. Team members begin to evaluate the experience as a whole. Ends create a great opportunity to motivate through connection and impact. Are there photos of teamwork, quotes from stakeholders, events for sharing stories, or music that sums up the experience? Use them. Change and Project Managers must capitalize on desire to finish strong.
The element of time is powerful. Daniel Pink writes about this in his book, When. There are times when energy and motivation come naturally and times when they don’t. Change practitioners must intentionally capitalize on times of high performance and shore up points of lower performance. And travelers should plan their road trips accordingly.
Rehab Your Leadership TeamHigh impact teams result from meaningful work, not team-building exercises.
Use this four-part agenda to launch and support a strong, focused team.
We talk about the need to both perform and transform. If you only transform but don’t perform, you have no here and now. If you only perform but don’t transform, you have no future. — Frans van Houten, CEO of Royal Philips Electronics
A few years ago, a friend began a company turnaround. His first task: tell his executive team they would not receive bonuses due to missed goals, despite growing revenue and EBITDA.
The team had never met face-to-face. Some had been through three management changes; others were new hires. This is a surprisingly common problem. As Jon R. Katzenbach writes, “Even in the best of companies, a so-called top team seldom functions as a real team. The fact is, a team’s know-how and experience inevitably lose power and focus at the top of the corporate hierarchy. And simply labeling the leadership group a team does not make it one.”
My friend was up against this daunting challenge. He couldn’t afford to build a new team from scratch, so he asked for our help to build his team as they were running the company. They needed both performance, in the moment, and transformation to their vision for the future.
In preparation for our working sessions, we agreed on the following principle:
High impact teams result from meaningful work, not team-building exercises.
We met in a series of four meetings. Over the following two years, this team increased sales 50% and EBITDA 300%.
Meeting 1 Outcomes – Strategy and Working Agreements
The CEO had an overall vision for the turnaround. The team, shell-shocked from bad news, needed to hear it. Because they needed to jell quickly, we wanted them to explicitly agree on how they would work together.
At the first meeting, we:
- Defined the culture they wanted.
- Described the strategy using four key words and personal stories.
- Determined specific actions for the next 180 days.
- Agreed on how to work together.
Meeting 2 Outcomes — Momentum, Working Styles, and Profit
In the first 180 days, the team agreed on a new budget, met five new distributors, introduced three products, and hit their targets.
In this second meeting, we:
- Celebrated a successful quarter.
- Identified their preferred working styles and examined ways to adapt to their colleagues’ styles.
- Explored how to work with existing assets to increase profitability.
Meeting 3 Outcomes: A Visual Vision
People crave meaning. The most successful companies are clear on what they stand for, and why. Now that the team had worked together for a while, they were ready to clearly articulate their direction.
Here, we summarized their:
- Core Values – what they stand for
- Core Purpose – what they exist to do
- Aspirations – what they want to be
- Visual Vision – what the future looks like, in hindsight
Meeting 4 Outcomes: Focus, Goals, and Connection
The team was winning, clearly focused on a differentiator, and they had resolved factory capacity to increase profits. The CEO wanted them to sustain progress into the new year, create long term impact, and strengthen their connections as a high-functioning team.
- Examined how they accomplished what they did, and how to sustain it.
- Created steps to achieve their personal goals with the differentiator.
- Applied strategies to stay focused.
The CEO had inherited this collection of executives. Using a thoughtful structure, we created an experience that turned them into a team.
Leaders: Lean On Your Org Culture for the Tough TalksWhen you have challenging news to share, is there a right way? Yes! Here's how.
A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Messaging Go Down
Have you had to deliver any hard messages lately? If you lead a team or an organization, the answer is probably “Yes.” Maybe it’s your company’s vaccine mandate, safety protocols, rules about where and how to work, or covering employee shortages. When you have challenging news to share, is there a right way?
There is a right way, for your organization. The right way depends on your culture. In addition to the basics (be direct, transparent, and empathetic) your organizational culture points the way.
Why? Because culture is powerful. It’s the unconscious mechanism that drives decisions and work in your organization. Put another way, it’s your organization’s immune system.
Information and messages that fit the culture are accepted and absorbed, but content that doesn’t fit the culture is rejected.
What is your organization’s culture? Many people know the answer because their company has done some kind of culture assessment. But if you don’t have a definitive answer from a valid assessment instrument, you can often make an educated guess.
When we approach culture, we like to use the work of Carol Pearson. Pearson established culture archetypes – each one describes how the organization operates and presents itself to the world. Do you see your organization in any of the types below?
Organizations with this archetype have a strong belief in the importance of each individual and tend to single out those who distinguish themselves with their performance and accomplishments.
This archetype is manifested in the level of respect between the company and its employees. Lover organizations demonstrate direct communication and emotional honesty. They tend to manage by engagement, collaboration, support, and consensus.
The Jester archetype brings enjoyment and fun to the work environment. It is manifested in “lightness” in the interactions within the company and with its stakeholders. Jester organizations have a good work-life balance and emphasize celebration of holidays and milestones.
This is the most common archetype in western organizations. Members of Hero organizations believe in working hard to make the world a better place. Hero organizations usually have a cause and are able to enlist employees in working for it. This translates into vitality, competition, discipline, focus and determination. These organizations value and reward exceptional contributions.
Revolutionaries are troubleshooters and tangential thinkers. They look for the reasons why the glass is half empty. They are change agents looking for continuous improvements. Revolutionary organizations are able to make tough calls in challenging situations, such as dealing with non-performers.
Magician organizations run on transformative energy. Innovation, high energy, and flexibility are characteristics of the Magician. They are extremely adaptive and respond easily to changing markets and world conditions. Magicians are systems thinkers and natural change agents
Organizations of the Innocent archetype typically highly hierarchical with centralized power at the top. Management acts as a guardian and the company is seen as the provider of employees’ wellbeing. Employees trust management and seek guidance in their development. Learning is passive and directed by management. Innocent organizations tend not to depend on innovation to thrive.
Explorer organizations promote individuality, exploration, risk taking, and self-discovery. Employees take responsibility for their own development and use it to drive value at work. Explorer organizations tend to be flat and flexible, allowing individuals to work at their own rhythm and time.
The Sage organization is gathers knowledge and uses it in practical ways, achieving and demonstrating mastery. They establish centers of excellence that have real effect on the success of the organization. They consider learning to be an integral part of the work day. They value action learning and transformative learning practices.
Caregiver organizations exist in great part to provide for the wellbeing of their employees — from compensation and benefits to personal development. Caregiver organizations value cooperation and support for team members. This archetype is also manifested in care of the organization for the community, society, and world.
The Creator archetype values innovation and the creative process. Management and high-performing employees demonstrate imagination, artistry, and vision. Creator organizations do not value formality, bureaucracy, or the mundane parts of running a business.
Ruler organizations are all about maintaining order and creating harmony amidst chaos. They value responsibility and properly balancing resources. The organization and its individual employees run on decisions, authority, process, systems, goals, and strategies. The challenge for this organization is to balance decisiveness and direction unique situations and needs.
If you know which one best fits the culture of your organization (or the subculture of your division or team), you’ve got a key you can use to effectively deliver information.
So why not get a leg up on those tough communications? Embed these message themes, based on your culture.
Each of you is essential to our success. Here’s how you, personally, can play a role in this transition.
We feel strongly about this, and we know you do too. We will continue to work on this, together, so we don’t lose what’s so special about our organization.
Let’s get through this with our trademark humor and creativity, and then celebrate when we’re on the other side.
This change is the right thing to do. It will be hard for all of us, but it will make our organization (…community, world) a better place. Let’s focus on what it takes to get through this and come out stronger on the other side. If anyone can handle this, it’s us.
If we want big rewards, we have to constantly improve. That’s what this change is about. Not every organization could handle this, but we’re made of stronger stuff. We will come out better if we do the smart thing now.
We can do anything, and this is no different. We’re nimble and smart. It looks hard, but we have a unique solution that will transform us into an even better organization.
This will be a difficult transition, but don’t worry – we have a plan to get us through it. We will provide everything you need to be ok. When we are through this process, we’ll return to business as usual. Please reach out to management if you have any questions or concerns. We’re here for you.
We want to go places no other organization goes, so we’re ready to make a big move. It might be a tough journey, but we are made for this. We will learn a lot along the way, which will allow us to plot the course to even bigger heights.
We have a sound strategy, based on data, and we know it’s the smartest way forward. In your teams, you will be helping plot the course; you will gather information and lessons learned to hone our plans. This will inform our next wave of change, so we’re smarter as we go.
We’re doing this for a better company and community. It will be a tough journey, at times, but we’re in this together. Each of you will have a custom path through the change, so you finish the transition with new skills and a stronger team.
Get ready to move! We have a vision to share with you, and we think you’re going to be excited to get started. And we need your ideas, so work with your teams to bubble up the best and send them to your point people.
We have a strategy and a process for getting to our goal, but we need each of you to play your part. We will share step-by-step instructions so each of you knows exactly what to do during the transition. As we hit each milestone, we will report out and let you know our progress. Please talk to your manager with any questions on your role or the process.
The right messaging will help your change plans go down easy. People will recognize themselves, and the organization they belong to, in the communications. That’s half the battle.
Why Are Your Executives in the RoomTime for leadership sessions! Before you head into days-long meetings, ask yourselves: what question are you trying to answer?
Don’t schedule your strategic planning session until you figure this out.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Time for those leadership sessions we use to plan for the future. But before you clear those calendars and head into days-long meetings, ask yourselves: what question are you trying to answer?
We’ve helped many leadership teams plan for the following year. It’s surprising how many companies schedule an off-site or a series of working sessions without clarity on exactly what problem they’re trying to solve and what objectives they want to hit.
So before you schedule, figure out which questions you’re trying to answer.
- Who are we and where are we headed?
Every executive team must align around their purpose, vision, and values. But not every team knows how to align. It takes practice. The process builds relationships as team members discuss, work, collaborate, and agree on a singular view of the future.
This work might seem unnecessary; most organizations already have a purpose, vision, and values. But it’s worth asking whether these “truths” require revision. Triggers include acquisitions, changes in leadership, and significant market shifts.
- Are we organized to achieve our vision?
A good operating model is the blueprint of your organization, It shows all the key components that contribute to the organization’s value stream, including inputs, outputs, processes, metrics, and technology. It highlights the interdependencies within teams and processes and how they deliver value.
By constructing the model together, the leadership team develops a greater awareness and appreciation of all contributions and understands the importance of acting in unity.
Again, you probably already have an operating model. Or do you? Many of our clients are surprised to discover they don’t have it documented, and certainly not accessible to the company or used as guidance for day-to-day work. Even a strong operating model is worth refreshing every few years.
- How do we get there?
“There” is wherever you plan to go—the mission, the vision, the operating model… Businesses thrive when the organization knows what it wants to achieve and by when. Every company should have a roadmap.
Executives are responsible for identifying the high-level “what and when.” The session should include representatives of key business functions to determine the “how.”
- What is our message to the organization?
If an organization must change in any way, it needs a message. As the executive team creates the message frame—the four key words that anchor the message—they clarify and align on the change.
The message frame ensures all leaders and advocates tell the same compelling story, consistently and authentically, without relying on written materials or PowerPoint decks. Each communicator customizes the story with details and data that mean something to that particular audience—this is what gets your entire organization pulling in the same direction.
- How should we work together?
We all have natural patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Effective teams understand how these patterns impact the overall team dynamic and how to use the strengths of their members to deliver results and move the organization forward. Smart teams create working agreements that take into account different working styles and reduce conflict. Agreements should be simple and direct, created by the team, and present at all meetings.
One of our favorite tools to craft these agreements: the Clifton Strengthfinder™ Survey. We work with a team to find each member’s unique contributions and leverage them in service of the strategy. Then we define team agreements, taking working styles and culture into consideration.
- How do we sharpen our performance?
To make improvements in business processes, org structure, and behaviors, leaders need to know what’s working and what’s not. A working session can pinpoint what should change, and determine how.
Some of the tools we use as a first step: 1) SWOT analysis, which identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and 2) the Start, Stop, Continue exercise. Then we take those findings, prioritize, and plan implementation.
Many executive teams blend these types of sessions into something custom that works for them. What’s most important is clarity—understanding your problem, the process you will use, and the outcomes you want—before you start.
Jump-starting Facilitative LeadershipThe magic of facilitative leadership lies in how we get people thinking and talking in a way that helps the organization move.
Lead • er • ship (noun)
The action of influencing or directing a group of people or an organization
Fa • cil • i • tate (verb)
- to make easier
- help move forward (an action)
- assist the progress of
Early in my career, I was working with a team of engineers in Phoenix. Their communication with other teams were a dysfunctional political minefield. Specifically, poor collaboration with their marketing team was impeding their business goals. They needed help. They asked me to improve the way they communicated their software updates so that the marketing team could get the right information out to clients before a launch and promote new features, improving sales.
I planned a 1:00 pm on-site meeting on a sunny day in July. About an hour before the meeting, I ran an errand. I parked my car for a quick in-and-out. When I hopped back in my car, it wouldn’t start. The battery was dead, a casualty of the Arizona summer. I was totally stuck, and sweating. And beginning to freak out. I was at the mercy of anyone willing to lend aid, and jumper cables, in the scorching heat.
By the time I got back to the office, I just had a few minutes to prepare before the meeting started. One look in the mirror confirmed that I needed to explain my appearance—my face was shiny with sweat; my hair had frizzed up. I was a mess. I was thinking, “How am I going to explain this?”
Here’s what came to me: As a facilitator, I’m like those jumper cables. We have a hot, sticky situation between two parties who can’t find a way to move toward their destination. And I’m here to make the right connections that will jump-start their performance.
The magic of facilitation lies in how we get people thinking and talking in a way that helps the organization move.
Over the years, this metaphor has occurred to me often. But not necessarily when I was in a room “facilitating.” It applied to most of my challenges as a leader.
Finding a way through the biggest leadership challenges I’ve faced has always involved facilitating a group of people toward a business goal. The value of my skills in strategy, management, and planning pale in comparison to the value of good facilitation.
Here are some of the “jumper cables” a good facilitative leader employs:
- The Power of Inquiry. Leaders should use the organization as a source of wisdom, experience, expertise, and insight. Skilled leaders know how to draw out the best from the team.
- The Power of Improvisation. Good leaders are nimble; they foster creativity and innovation, so the organization can respond to challenges with strength. For example, behaviors from improvisational comedy — like “yes, and,” “make your partner look good,” and “making random connections” – create synergy and bubble-up the best ideas.
- The Power of Process. It takes patience and experience to trust the process of collaboration. It’s not the shortest path to a result, but it does produce the best result.
When we jump-start productive work with groups of people, we all get stronger. That’s what leadership is all about.
Refreshing Leadership Meetings in 2021Meetings have such a bad reputation, especially among busy executives. But if you do it right, they’ll accept your next invite with a smile.
Facilitate the hell out of your next executive session
Leave them wanting more. Is that even possible with a meeting? People want fewer meetings, right? Or maybe you’re doing it wrong.
2021 is the perfect opportunity for a reset. Next time you facilitate an executive meeting, make it a satisfying experience: effective, focused, respectful, and even fun.
- Do your research. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like the participants realizing you don’t know enough to run the meeting. Don’t make them stop and educate you. Make sure you’re rock-solid on the facts, figures, and history you need.
That starts with the Why. After you think you’re clear on the goals of the session, ask the participants. Send each one a personal invitation and ask them to answer one question:
“Why do you think we need this meeting?”
This will surface misunderstandings so you can resolve them before everyone shows up. It also gives each attendee some buy in – it’s a trick of psychology; you’re getting them on the record saying it’s important.
- Focus. We all know “Begin with the end in mind,” and that’s right. Start the session by confirming the goal. Here are a few more tips:
Limit attendees. In The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven Rogelberg says the ideal size is seven participants. AND that decision-making effectiveness decreases 10% with each additional attendee! Balance your need to have all the right decision-makers in the room with the value of your outcomes.
Limit devices. I once sat in an exec meeting next to a new team member who kept his laptop open. I was the only one who could see that he wasn’t taking notes; he was reading the news, checking stock performance, and watching hockey highlights on mute. (I swear.) He didn’t last long in the company. Either the meeting is important or it’s not. If it’s not, then cancel it. If it is, then silence phones and close the laptops. If someone gets a call and has to take it, stop the meeting for a break. This has the double-whammy of respecting the call-taker (because you can’t continue without her) and pressuring her to get off the phone fast.
Use a “parking lot.” When someone goes off topic, stop, reset, and document that point on a flipchart page, whiteboard, or notes window. Promise not to lose that thread and follow up after the meeting.
- Limit session time. “I don’t need time. I need a deadline.” ~ Edward Kennedy Ellington. Duke was right— time limits work. Rogelberg and others recommend scheduling hour-long meetings for 50 minutes. If you truly need more time, break it into 50-minute sessions with specific milestone goals for each. And chunking up your process lets you use another technique…
- Delay decisions. Why do we say “I want to sleep on it?” Because it works. Time for reflection and synthesis yields better ideas. We’ve all sent that follow-up email saying, “Hey, I just had another idea” or “We didn’t have time to cover this, but…”
So design that into your session. Up front, explain that you will make no firm decisions at the end of any one meeting. Everyone will go away, let their “back burner” brilliance work, and come back together to confirm. This works well if you have broken your process into multiple short sessions. Assign a milestone goal for Session One, then use the first ten minutes of Session Two to play back tentative decisions, bring in new info, and make a final call.
- One up, one down. This concept comes from the military, but I know it as a best practice in my kids’ Montessori preschool. Each class had two teachers managing 25 kids working independently or in small groups. Rather than the goat rodeo you might expect, the classroom worked beautifully. “One up, one down” meant that when one teacher was focused on teaching students (in a chair or on the floor) the other should be standing, with a view of the whole group.
In an exec session, there should be at least one person focused on documenting, fixing, or providing support; the other should have eyes on the room, to manage the discussion and progress.
- Document, document, document. Executives have zero time for your shenanigans. They don’t want to repeat themselves, argue about what was said last time, or struggle to understand what’s going on. So make sure you collect and replay all essential information.
Record faithfully. If it’s ok with participants, record the audio and/or video of your meeting. That’s the only fool-proof way to make sure you know what happened. If you can’t do that, take copious notes. And commit to being the historian, calling up meeting minutes, inputs, and outputs in real time when asked. Use these to produce executive summaries at milestones and at the end of the process.
Dampen the politics. Sometimes it matters who’s talking. Junior participants might not hold the floor as long, or might get a quick rebuttal. But when you record and play back what happened, you can give all good content equal weight, removing any hierarchical barriers to a good idea.
- All brains matter. People process and retain information differently, so provide as many channels as you can. We default to bullet points and flow charts, with a voice-over from the facilitator. But that’s not the only way. Consider these:
Silent reading. Give the group information to read as an input to your discussion. Some people think better when eyes aren’t on them and people aren’t speaking.
Listening. The growth of podcasts and video books has revealed a segment of people who love to learn with their ears, minus other distractions. Use audio content in the session or as pre-work.
Video. Moving pictures really work for some people, especially with retention. Video has it all: sound, images, and verbal content.
Graphic documentation. This is a powerful way to capture ideas and decisions. Use a graphic artist to illustrate content in real time; you’ll end up with a graphic that conveys more than a list of bullet points ever could. Graphic documentation is a great touchstone to use after the meeting—post your graphic in a space where people can revisit it and use it to communicate to a wider audience.
- Be tenacious. Even the best outputs can evaporate after you all leave the room. People ignore emails, crises emerge, and enthusiasm fades over time. Don’t let go. Set milestones for feedback, new meetings, and other next steps. Get commitment before you leave the room. If necessary, unblock the logjams with one-on-one conversations over time.
- Lighten up. Why so serious? We can accomplish real work and have fun at the same time. We recently asked an exec team to come up with their own theme songs. Each member chose their own song, then they composed a song to represent themselves as a team, real-time. We captured and produced their work of art after the session. It was a good time, but it wasn’t just a good time—it surfaced and confirmed their strengths and cohesion. Think about how to brighten up your session. Use stunning graphics, gamify your process, or use a new environment for the meeting. Fun doesn’t have to get in the way—bake it into the work.
Meetings have such a bad reputation, especially among busy executives. But if you do it right, they’ll accept your next invite with a smile.
How to Be a Facilitative Leader“Leadership is a choice, not a position.”
We are all familiar with the typical autocratic leadership style — the “my way or the highway” mentality. But it’s not the only way to lead.
Well-known business author, Stephen Covey said, “Leadership is a choice, not a position.” Covey is suggesting not only that leadership doesn’t have to come from the top down, but that we can all act as leaders, regardless of our role or title. I’d like to suggest that each of us can become a facilitative leader.
Four Tenets of Facilitative Leadership
Facilitative leadership is all about maximizing others’ contributions. There are four behavior characteristics of a facilitative leader.
- Actively listening and seeking to understand. This includes things like listening intently…asking questions…and paraphrasing what you heard.
- Providing clarity and purpose. Facilitative leaders identify the problem that needs to be solved. They ask and seek answers to “Why are we doing this? Where are we trying to go? Do you know what you’re trying to achieve? Does the team know the objective?”
- Connecting the dots. This means making sense of all the pieces of the project or work effort, and connecting all the players (project team, sponsors, business stakeholders, change agents, etc.). How does one area impact another? What can one member do to support another’s performance? What do different teams need to know about each other and their processes or goals? A facilitative leader stimulates creative thinking through brainstorming, communication, and other activities that connect the elements of a team or organization.
- Influencing collaboration. This involves getting all the players to work together to solve a problem — encouraging group participation. Facilitative leaders manage contrasting perspectives and opinions to minimize conflict among members of a group. For example, they design inclusive group processes that honor individuals’ different learning and participation styles, opening up the space for the more quiet individuals.
Can you be a facilitative leader—even though you’re not the boss and have a specific team and role—and still remain neutral and fair? Yes, you can.
- Asking clarifying questions doesn’t put you on one side of the fence or the other.
- Bringing all the key players into the meeting doesn’t make you biased.
- Ensuring that all meeting participants have an opportunity to share their thoughts, does not mean you’re leaning one way or another.
Neutrality does not mean inaction or passiveness. Neutral facilitative leadership can surface solutions that make the team stronger and help reach organizational goals.
Can you be a facilitative leader?
Many of you are already facilitators. If you’re a project manager, business analyst, change lead, or process improvement specialist, you are a facilitator of change and action. Practicing the four tenets of a facilitative leader can move you from being “merely” a facilitator to being a respected facilitative leader.
And it matters. Because facilitative leaders:
- Get everyone on the same page by applying an integrated lens.
- Draw from the strengths of all team members and impacted areas of the business.
- Gather divergent views and facts before deciding on a plan of action.
- Obtain greater commitment and buy-in from impacted stakeholders.
- Drive creativity, innovation, and brainstorming, resulting in better solutions.
Becoming a facilitative leader will make you more successful because the work you lead will be more successful. Give it a try!
Leadership Lessons: An IntroductionThis is the start of something beautiful.
Most leadership literature is, frankly, useless. It’s loaded with generalities like “Great leaders need to be decisive, strong communicators, cool in a crisis, build agile teams, hire wisely, work toward their values, define markets…” Who wouldn’t agree? When I asked my friends, colleagues and professional contacts, “Has the leadership literature helped you?” their answer was “No.”
Their experiences are grittier than anything the leadership literature addresses. For example:
- Those who managed VC-based companies discovered each was a horse in the stable, employed to solve a particular problem: the executive who can build a team, the one who can grow a market, get the IP protected, or raise capital. Once they achieved their outcomes, they were fired. Each was devastated. But soon they were hired to perform that trick again for another company in the portfolio. Effectively, this type of person became a career executive for that particular problem, for that investment group.
- Executives who acquired a company realized that while they were personally excellent in sales, finance or engineering, they had to learn what it meant to be “strategic.” One had to redefine how he spent his time, what to do, in order to be strategic; another found herself managing a partner who disagreed on how company money should be spent; a third dealt with the anxiety of being personally accountable for mountainous debt; another exec grappled with the sense that, now that he was committed, he couldn’t just quit.
- Leaders who operated within a traditional company had other challenges. One had to create a dynamic personal brand; another had to find a balance between leading and being authentically himself; one felt she had to sometimes choose between being liked with being respected; another had to figure out how to lead while the previous CEO was still with the company, on the board as a co-CEO.
Despite the wide variety of situations, we identified common threads during our conversations.
- The job is filled with worry and stunning levels of stress, even when it’s fun.
- You have to maintain energy and “mojo” and not just focus on problems.
- The nature of your business has its nuances, which affect how you lead.
- Managing time – and those who demand your time – is a critical skill.
The stories from these authentic and accomplished people are superior to anything I’ve gleaned in school, and it’s time to pay it forward. Mary Stewart & I are putting them together as book and, as the work takes shape, I’ll be sharing elements of our interviews in a blog. Stay tuned!